Machismo faces the Holocaust: My Blu-ray review of Seven Beauties

Lina Wertmüller’s 1975 masterpiece, Seven Beauties, is a Holocaust film (with no recognizably Jewish characters), an examination of Italian machismo, and a witheringly sad and disturbing drama. And at times, it becomes a very funny slapstick comedy.

Giancarlo Giannini stars as Pasqualino, a charming but somewhat dense egomaniac. He lives in Naples with his mother and seven unmarried sisters (the seven beauties of the title), all of whom work in the family mattress company. Pasqualino doesn’t work. His job, in his eyes, is to defend the family honor by keeping his sisters chaste.

We learn all of these things through the first of several flashbacks. When we first meet Pasqualino, all that is in the past. It’s World War II, and he’s just deserted from the Italian army. He’s going to discover something much more important than honor: survival.

The German army captures Pasqualino and his comrade in desertion (Piero Di Iorio), and send the two to a concentration camp. When Pasqualino discovers that the commandant is an overweight woman – ugly in mind and body (Shirley Stoler) – he sets out to seduce her as a survival tactic.

If that sounds farfetched, don’t worry about it. The concentration camp scenes were never intended to be realistic. The camp appears to be completely inside an old, large, cavernous building. It’s a death camp of the imagination.

As we learn from the flashbacks, the civilian Pasqualino got by on ego, physical attraction, a strong but ridiculous sense of honor, deep selfishness, and his own, innate stupidity. He groomed and dressed sharp. He talked big. His outsized sense of honor lead him to murder a man. The aftermath of the murder, with his idiotic attempts to hide the body and then dodge the police, are the funniest scenes in the film.

The great Fernando Rey turns up as an anarchist in the concentration camp, and something of a voice of reason. Pasqualino’s fellow deserter plays a similar role, as a moral voice in the wilderness.

Wertmüller received Best Director nominations from both the Motion Picture Academy and the Director’s Guild for Seven Beauties. She was the first woman ever to receive directing nominations from either organization. The 1970s saw a major push for a more egalitarian and feminist society, and a
brilliant female auteur meant a lot. But Wertmüller proved complicated as a feminist icon. The only thing really feminist about her films were the fact that she made them.

Seven Beauties was a controversial film when it was released. But it was, and is, a great one.

How It Looks

Seven Beauties is a film of contrasts. In the flashbacks, we get the beautiful sunlight of the Naples exteriors, and a pallet of reds in the interiors. There’s a misty fog in German territory where the deserters hide and search for food. It’s gray and ugly in the concentration camp.

Kino Lorber’s 1080p transfer renders everything perfectly. The intense colors and fine details capture both the beauty and the squalor of the film.

How It Sounds

The Blu-ray box tells us that the audio is in “2.0 stereo.” That struck me as odd. Seven Beauties was released with only a mono mix. After careful examination, I can safely state that the sound is actually 2.0 mono (two identical tracks, creating effective mono). In other words, the disc has it right; the box has it wrong.

These two tracks are lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. This is probably the best the movie has sounded since Wertmüller signed off on the mix.

There are no alternative soundtracks. The optional English subtitles translate only the Italian dialog. The German dialog is left for us to guess. I assume Wertmüller didn’t want the audience to understand the Nazis.

And the Extras

There’s not a huge selection of supplements here, but most of what’s here is pretty good.

The box contains a printed pamphlet with the following articles:

  • The Legacy of Seven Beauties by Allison Anders: Aside from letting us know that Anders really, really loves this film, it doesn’t provide much insight.
  • Survive at All Costs by Claudia Consolati, Ph.D: This excellent essay covers the film’s themes, and the feminist controversies around Wertmüller’s films. Worth reading.

On the disc:

  • Excerpt from Behind the White Glasses: 16 minutes from a feature-length documentary on Wertmüller. It’s made up mostly of interview excerpts from various people, including Wertmüller, Giannini, and Martin Scorsese. It’s worth watching, even if it’s occasionally slow.
  • Interview with director Amy Heckerling: 10 minutes. The director of Clueless and Fast Times at Ridgemont High talks about Wertmüller, Seven Beauties, and the Holocaust.
  • Trailers: This selection includes trailers for three Wertmüller films, a Wertmuller Repertory Film Series, and the documentary Behind the White Glasses. Oddly, no trailer for Seven Beauties. Both
    Italian and English trailers are provided for two movies.

Seven Beauties blew me away when I first saw it…probably at the Castro in 1977. I didn’t see it again until I reviewed this disc. It still blew me away.

Kino Lorber will release the Seven Beauties Blu-ray on Tuesday, September 12.