Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler, Elena Fiore, Piero Di Iorio, Enzo Vitale, Robert Herlitzka, Lucio Amelio, Ermelinda De Felice, Bianca D’Origlia, Francesca Marciani, Mario Conti, Barbara Valmorin, Emilio Salvatori, Aristide Caporali, Pasquale Vitiello
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An Italian mobster finds himself trapped in a German concentration facility after a disquieting series of events led him into military service and then into the hands of German soldiers. The title Seven Beauties refers to lead character Pasqualino Frafusso’s (Giancarlo Giannini) nickname in the film. As he describes it himself, he has not the handsome countenance, but still manages to be attractive to women. And its his ability to survive and charm that keeps him moving forward toward safety even if it’s through the darkest and most dangerous times.
The film is told in two separate stories, on in the present and one told in flashback. Both move forward through the film. The present-tense story begins as Pasqualino, having escaped from a train in peril, is attempting to flee through the German countryside with an associate he meets in the darkness after his liberation. The film then flashes back to mobster Pasqualino and his altercation with his older sister who is being turned into a whore by the man she loves. When he kills her lover and attempts to get away with it, he is caught by the police, confesses but pleads insanity and is put into an asylum. From there, his only way out is to become a soldier for Italy. Back in the present, shortly after stealing bread, cheese and wine from a wealthy German homeowner, Pasqualino and his friend are caught by German soldiers and pushed into a concentration camp where they are treated poorly and provided with little impetus to live but even less help to survive. Yet Pasqualino must survive. It’s in his nature and how he manages to save his own neck is the film’s most disturbing element.
One of the most interesting things about the film is the structure of the parallel time periods. The present-tense segments are short at the beginning and grow in length until they dominate the latter half of the film. In reverse, the flashbacks monopolize the first half of the film and then diminish in length through the end. And the final scene, designed like the flashbacks, but purportedly taking place in the present, almost seems too idyllic and hopeful, suggesting that perhaps what we’re witnessing is a flashforward of desire and not an embodiment of reality. However, we are allowed to assume that it is the resolution, because it will allow us to feel satisfied and content that our protagonist has survived even if he has not.
Giancarlo Giannini is overzealous and bombastic, which somewhat fits his character. Despite feeling clownish and over-exaggerated, he plays the part quite well. I haven’t seen many of his performances, but this is certainly the best of the ones I’ve so far seen. Ermelinda De Felice as his mother, Fernando Rey as the fellow prisoner and anarchist, Piero Di Iorio as his soldier comrade, and Francesca Marciani as his love are all good, but the best supporting performance comes from Shirley Stoler as the stoic German Commandant whom he attempts to seduce in order to save his own neck, but who ends up providing the film’s key social comment, exploring her country’s only failure to create a master race when compared to the undying spirit of Pasqualino. And although Pasqualino is Italian and the film seems heavily tilted towards representing the emotional and survival strength of the Italian people, its easy to see that Pasqualino also represents human kind. A desire for self preservation can often drive our civilization to break out and succeed instead of being ground under the bootheels of our oppressors.
The Academy has had a long fascination with Holocaust films, even ones of questionable quality, so it’s no surprise that Lina Wertmuller rode her somewhat unconventional Italian saga into the record books to become the first woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Not that we should discount her achievement, for Seven Beauties succeeds mostly under her eye for composition and story. The film moves quickly without feeling rushed and seldom lets the audience breathe without giving them something new to observe.
There are two elements of the film that either kept me distracted or grated on my nerves. The first is the endless opening credits scene with a terrible song performed intentionally badly. While the lyrics are modestly interesting and play into the film’s themes nicely, the awfulness of the singing and the repetitive “Oh yeah” refrain quickly infuriated me. And when that style was repeated over the film’s closing, it reminded me of how much I hated it, despite having almost forgotten it. The second element that was distracting and, I don’t know if this was the DVD transfer or not, was the inability of the spoken dialogue to match the lip movements of the actors. Although I spent much of my time reading the subtitles, it was frequently clear that there was no aural connection between the actors and the soundtrack. On top of that, attempting to speed read a two hour film is a bit frustrating. Several scenes had interminable dialogue that seldom slowed and by the time you were grateful it had given you a breather, a new scene began. Yet, in spite of that, the dialogue is so crucially important to the film that I would be hard-pressed to find somewhere to cut it.
Seven Beauties is very much a product of the 1970s. Made in a period of cinematic expressionism and experimentation, the film helps define not only the kind of American output we had become accustomed to, but also the worldwide spike in quality that expanding freedoms of speech provided made for a wonderful era. It’s a movie that feels like part of the period, but manages to retain much of its social importance in a modern cinematic environment.
December 13, 2010