• Director: Lina Wertmüller
  • Writer: Lina Wertmüller
  • Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler, Elena Fiore, Piero Di Iorio, Enzo Vitale, Lucio Amelio, Ermelinda De Felica, Bianca D’Origlia, Francesca Marciano, and Mario Conti
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#17), 4 Oscar nominations (Best Director – Lina Wertmüller, Best Actor- Giancarlo Giannini, Best Original Screenplay, Best Foreign Language Film)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library apps), stream with subscription on AMC Plus or The Criterion Channel, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Given that most Americans today have probably not seen any of her films, and in any case she never quite broke through into the very top tier of international directors, Lina Wertmüller is almost entirely known today in the US for her great achievement of becoming the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. She achieved this honor in 1976 for her film Pasqualino Settebelleze, known in English as Seven Beauties. The release and international success of this film represented the culmination of a run that now constitutes Wertmüller’s best known work, including Swept Away (the original, not the critically-reviled remake starring Madonna), The Seduction of Mimi, and Love and Anarchy. Unfortunately, there would not be another woman so nominated until Jane Campion in 1993 for The Piano.

Wertmüller was born to a family of Swiss descent in Italy (hence her non-Italian-sounding name), and had a wild childhood during which she was supposedly thrown out of no less than 15 different Catholic schools. She eventually graduated from performing arts school and spent several years touring Italy with “an avant garde puppet group” before deciding to pursue work in the movies. She was introduced through a friend of a friend to Federico Fellini, who served as her mentor (more on this later), and she soon directed her first feature, 1963’s The Basilisks. After the success of Pasqualino Settebelleze, she was signed to a contract by Warner Bros. and made her only English-language movie, A Night Full of Rain, but this was seen as a failure and her contract was cancelled. Wertmüller is known for what Wikipedia refers to as her “whimsically prolix” titles, which were usually greatly shortened in translation. She is entered in the Guinness Book of World Records under “Longest Movie Title” for Un Fatto di Sangue nel Comune di Siculiana Fra due Uomini per Causa di una Vedova. Si Sospettano Moventi Politici. Amore-Morte-Shimmy. Lugano Belle. Tarantelle. Tarallucci e Vino, or as it is known in English, Blood Feud. She continued making movies into the 2000s, but never returned to the level of international prominence she enjoyed in the 1970s (her final 2004 film’s title translates as Too Much Romance… Time for Stuffed Peppers). Wertmüller passed away last week at her home in Rome at the age of 93.

Moreso than the majority of the movies we cover on here, I did not even really know the basic premise of Pasqualino Settebellezze going on. Based on the title I thought it might be, you know, about a bunch of women. So I was pretty surprised when the elevator pitch turned out to basically be “what if Fellini directed a movie about a very dumb hatchet murderer who ends up in the Holocaust?” That description is, perhaps, not giving the movie enough credit. There is a lot going on here, such that I can read Roger Ebert’s rave review at the time and a more recent review from an online critic who called it “wildly misguided” and gave it one star, and see where both of them are coming from. 

This may be a bit of a non-sequitur, but go with me: there have been a lot of recent debates in movie circles (especially around Licorice Pizza, of all things) in which some basically argue that we shouldn’t make art that people are going to misinterpret in ways that that may end up harming other people, regardless of the actual intent of the artist. Taken to the extreme, this results in people saying that Squid Game needs more scenes where someone directly says “capitalism is bad” to avoid misinterpretation (yes, I saw someone seriously attempt this take this week). But on the margins maybe there is something to this argument. There’s a scene in this movie where the “hero” (I use quote marks) rapes a female patient in a mental hospital. In that negative review I mentioned, the reviewer discusses this scene with abhorrence, stating that it’s “played for comedy.” Having watched the thing, I disagree. I think the movie knows how terrible this all is, and any feeling of comedy comes from how oblivious the man is to how terrible a human he is. He can do this and still come out the other end believing that he doesn’t deserve bad things that happen to him. But on the other hand, strangely considering how, well, Italian this movie is (if this movie were a person, it would be unable to talk if you tied its hands behind its back, if you know what I’m saying), its cards are played very close to the vest in terms of telling us how to react to what it’s showing us. I can completely understand how someone would watch that scene and think “this is completely amoral and offensive, I hate this movie,” and they would be right based on their interpretation. And honestly as long as their next sentence isn’t, “And therefore it should be outlawed and no one should be allowed to watch it,” their opinion is just as valid as mine.

The story of this movie resists summarization, partly because it’s told out of order. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini, chewing every piece of the scenery he can get his hands on, but not in a bad way) is the only brother in a family with seven sisters in 1930s Naples. These sisters are all supposed to be ugly (they are called the “Seven Beauties,” as in the title, as a mean joke), but as far as I can tell only one of them (Elena Fiore) really is. Pasqualino discovers she is working as a prostitute and therefore decides he has to kill her pimp (Mario Conti) as a matter of honor (one gets the sense that this is not some stricture placed on him by society, he is just an idiot who doesn’t understand how “honor” works). He botches the job, and in an attempt to escape detection chops the guy’s body into pieces with a hatchet, puts them in suitcases, and sends them to different destinations on trains. This both results in Pasqualino becoming known as “the Monster of Naples” and does not work, because everyone knows who did it anyway (we smash cut from him looking relieved at the train station to his sister running into their house, screaming “you killed him!,” which I definitely made me laugh). 

With the help of a vaguely sleazy lawyer (Lucio Amello) he successfully pleads insanity and is sent to a mental hospital. While he there World War II starts and he realizes that they will let him out if he joins the army, so he does, but at the first sign of fighting he runs away. The Nazis capture him and send him to a concentration camp run by a grotesque, unsmiling female commandant (Shirley Stoler), Pasqualino, falsely believing himself to have some special power with the ladies, comes up with a plan to seduce the commandant to save himself. She sees through him completely, but uses him for sex anyway (in what Ebert would later describe as “the least erotic sex scene in the history of the movies”) and makes him the “kapo” of his particular barracks, but only if he agrees to select six random men for killing. This he eventually does, evincing grief and disdain but not moreso than, say, at watching one of his sisters with another man. Then the war ends and he is sent home where his family welcomes him with open arms, the end.

While this description may sound unrelentingly dark, that is not actually the tone of the movie. Honestly, I think that’s probably the biggest thing that can throw viewers about this movie. It feels like it’s not treating all of this with the respect it deserves. I doubt that Wertmüller would have much time for this viewpoint. It feels very much like a Fellini film, except Fellini would never make a movie about these specific things in a million years. The thing is, Fellini movies can be dark, too, but they’re mostly dark in a more personal way, rather than in a “axe-murderer in a concentration camp” kind of way.

None of this is really getting at whether I enjoyed this movie, or maybe a better way to say it would be to say if I thought it was interesting. And the reason I have not written about is I have absolutely no idea. Giannini gives a really interesting central performance, and it is the sort of movie where I could sit here for a long time discussing the stylistic choices. But at the same time, the central conceit is really that the central hero is so bad at life in general that he becomes a villain. And moreso for me than the many distasteful things actually depicted, a dumb guy causing terrible problems for everyone who’s not him is not my idea of a good time.

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