“Multiply the above [execution of seventeen prisoners of war] by scores, aye hundreds—verify it in all the forms that different circumstances, individuals, places, could afford—light it with every lurid passion…with the light of burning farms, and heaps of smutting, smoldering black embers—and in the human heart everywhere black, worse embers—and you have an inkling of this war.” –Walt Whitman, Specimen Days
Movies which deal with the Holocaust, other than in a documentary style, are often marked by controversy. Even some documentaries, such as Max Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity (1970), have engendered outrage as old wounds were forced open. Most recently, Roberto Benigni’s prize-winning Life if Beautiful was attacked in some quarters for trivializing the horrors of the death camps, and for daring to use humor in the context of genocide.
I found nothing objectionable about Benigni’s story. It, like its creator, wears its heart on its sleeve. Life is Beautiful teaches us nothing new about the Holocaust, but its message that laughter and love have a place amidst the greatest evil is not to be scorned. Benigni’s fantasy is no more “unreal” than that of the American soldier who survived years of torture in an Asian (Vietnamese? North Korean? I don’t recall) prison camp by rebuilding and recreating in his mind every detail of every room of the house where he had been born. At a time when Holocaust denial is more and more of an issue, it seems misguided to focus a lot of critical artillery on Roberto for modeling his approach more closely on Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator than on Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
That said, this review is not about Life is Beautiful. It’s about a Holocaust-related film that really outraged people: Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebelleze, 1976). Seven Beauties took some of the heaviest critical artillery ever directed at a film, along with some of the highest praise. Ms. Wertmüller was the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best director (only one other woman, Jane Campion, has been nominated since). Leading critic Pauline Kael called Seven Beauties “deeply reactionary and misogynous,” and its success “a triumph of insensitivity.” Ellen Willis in Rolling Stone excoriated Wertmüller for allowing “high-minded people to indulge their lowest-minded prejudices.” The responses might be likened to those which greeted Picasso’s Guernica when it was first put up for exhibition. Trying to analyze what it was about Seven Beauties which so disturbed him, noted Jewish scholar Bruno Bettelheim, who spent a year in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald just prior to the war’s outbreak, wrote what probably stands as the longest response to a film ever published in the New Yorker. Time has proven Guernica to be one of this century’s artistic masterpieces; I don’t know what the critical standing of Seven Beauties is today (an internet search pulls up virtually nothing on the film; since this film was made, Lina Wertmuller’s career seems to have imploded). I do know that when it first came out it taught me something I’ve never forgotten: that the human will to live can be powerful beyond comprehension, and can exact a price terrible beyond imagining.
Through the bizarre, twisted story of Pasqualino Frafuso (nicknamed “Pasqualino Seven Beauties”), a two-bit Neapolitan gigolo, accidental murderer, and death camp capo—Lina Wertmuller ends up telling the story of those Holocaust victims who didn’t physically die in the camps, but whose hearts and souls became ash.
Seven Beauties is a film without heroes. The tone is set by the opening sequence. Documentary footage from World War II rolls by, perfectly synchronized to a kind of soft-jazz soundtrack that turns exploding bombs and crashing planes into melodic counterpoints. Diana Krall does the Italian Front. Riding over top of both music and film is an anti-anthem, something Walt Whitman might have written had he seen what the Twentieth Century had to offer in the way of warfare. I Sing the Body Defective:
“….The ones who should have been shot in the cradle
Pow! Oh, yeah
The ones who say, Follow me to success!
But kill me if I fail, so to speak. Oh, yeah
The ones who vote for the right
Because they’re fed up with strikes. Oh, yeah
The ones who never get involved in politics. Oh, yeah
The ones who believe Christ
Is Santa Claus as a young man. Oh, yeah.
The ones who love their country
The ones who sleep soundly
Even with cancer. Oh, yeah
The ones who are always standing at the bar
The ones who started early, haven’t arrived
And don’t know they’re not going to. Oh, yeah
The ones who say, Everything is wrong here
The ones who say, Now let’s all have a good laugh
There’s a lot more, but you get the drift. What I can’t convey to you here is the deadpan delivery. Reverence towards authority is not one of Lina Wertmüller’s strong suites. As a kid, she was thrown out of 15 Catholic schools.
Irony is effective, but it’s also limiting. In Seven Beauties Wertmüller was able to show that she also understands the line between irony and tragedy, and how to get us across it. Her vehicle is Pasqualino. Definitely not a hero. Giancarlo Giannini (Italy’s Michael Caine?), as Pasqualino, makes one of the grandest entrances in cinema history, but it’s all downhill from there. By the end of the film, his crimes will include manslaughter, rape, desertion, and collaboration with the enemy. Amazingly, he’s not a villain either. With apologies to John Bunyan, Seven Beauty is Putz’s Progress instead of Pilgrim’s Progress. The road doesn’t end in the Celestial City; it ends in Auschwitz. Like Bunyan’s character, Wertmüller’s Pasqualino is Everyman, just not the Everyman we wish to be. He’s vain, shallow, sexist, easily duped, cowardly, and desperate to experience more of life than it looks like he’s going to be around for.
He gets away with nothing. For the unplanned killing of a pimp who threatens one of his sister’s very dubious honor, Pasqualino gets 10 years in an insane asylum. For assaulting a female patient in a mental ward, he loses a slack job as an orderly, is brutalized, electroshocked, and released to join the men being shipped off to the Stalingrad slaughterhouse. For desertion, he ends up with the Jewish and political prisoners in a hybrid Auschwitz/Buchenwald. For collaboration with the Nazis….he gets to stay alive, go home, and marry his young sweetheart.
Oops, I forgot.
That was after he’d prostituted himself to the mammoth sadistic female SS commandant of the camp (modeled on Buchenwald’s Ilse Koch).
And after he’d randomly chosen Auschwitz prisoners for Nazi firing squads.
And watched a friend commit suicide in a vat of excrement.
And shot his closest friend in the head.
Before the war, as Pasqualino Seven Beauties, he’d probably dreamed of a home, a pretty wife, and lots of children. His dream comes true.
Pasqualino is not a villain. He is not a caricature. In the end, although his heart is dead, he carries an almost Christ-like burden of sin. He has been the perfect tool and the ultimate victim of the genocidal hatemongers who devised the Final Solution, the same hatemongers who would now write the Holocaust out of the history books and who have resurfaced in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, central Africa, and on the too-easy trashways of the internet.
There are many powerful Holocaust stories on film. I would place Seven Beauties on any such list. Lina Wertmuller has shown us the other victims—the ones who lived, and still live, with the guilt of what they once may have done to survive to reach another life beyond the war’s crucible of hatred and fear.
Dreams built on black, worse embers.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I take back one thing I said in my original review: Pasqualino is a villain. What was I thinking?
While the shock factor of watching Seven Beauties for the first time is gone, Wertmüller’s film still strikes me as a powerful. Aside from Bruno Bettelheim’s massive take-down that spanned 20 pages in the New Yorker, and which I’ll deal with shortly, I think much of the harsher criticism leveled at the film missed the point. Some critics saw the film through a picaresque lens; they were outraged that the director should try to overlay picaresque black humor onto the Holocaust. But a picaresque hero is a lovable rogue who suffers through a series of random misadventures that make him a victim of everything that’s rotten and corrupt in a society. There’s nothing lovable about Pasqualino Frafuso—he’s a misogynistic pig, a sweatshop boss, a murderer, a rapist, and a man utterly without honor. He’s a victim only at the very end of his story, when confronted with the Nazi engine of death & dehumanization that reduces his own petty mafioso posturings to less than nothing. Unlike with a true picaro, there’s really nothing random about what happens to him; it’s all pretty much cause and effect. Not content to simply live off the sweat of his mother & sisters, his vanity and sycophantic, ignorant machismo put him in bed with the local crime boss and set him up for murder. His stupidity gets him caught and sent to an asylum. In the asylum, he sets himself up for brutalization & electroshock by choosing rape over a slack job in the women’s ward and a likely chance at early release or escape. Having turned an asylum sinecure into a living hell, there’s no turning down the offer of a trip to the Russian front. It’s inevitable that Pasqualino will take the first chance to desert; inevitable that he’s too dumb not to get caught again; and inevitable that he will do anything to save his own skin in the ultimate nightmare of the concentration camp. The only thing not inevitable was his survival. That was sheer fluke.
By the time Pasqualino returns home after the Germans have been driven out of Italy, his personality has been flayed down to its hardest core of brutal self-interest. There’s nothing left of the devil-may-care gigolo we first saw strutting down his hometown streets. Following Thomas Hobbes’ dictum, life with this man is likely to be nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.
Giancarlo Giannini’s portrayal of Pasqualino is brilliant, incarnating his character as gigolo, petty criminal, collaborator, human worm, and soul-blasted hardcase. Shirley Stoler, as the camp commandant is genuinely terrifying, a monument to evil. Some critics complained that a woman could never have held such a position in an actual concentration camp. Is that a criticism of the film, or a nothing more than a misdirect? The dramatic purpose of the commandant in the film is to strip Pasqualino of every last illusion he might have about himself, of every last shred of human dignity. Mission accomplished.
Pauline Kael, in her review of Seven Beauties, says that “Wertmüler presents all this in a goofy, ebullient mood.” She concludes with the statement that “The box-office success of the picture represents a triumph of insensitivity.” We obviously didn’t see the same picture back then, and I’m not seeing anything goofy and ebullient now. Kael did, however, nail part of Pasqualino’s essential character: “Pasqualino is everyone’s dupe—a man who has swallowed all the lies that society hands out. He believes what the Mafia tells him, what Mussolini tells him, what anybody in authority tells him. As Giannini plays him, he’s a Chaplinesque Fascist—the Italian Everyman as a pathetic worm. He’s the man who never fights back—the one who wheedles and whimpers and crawls through. He’s the contemptible survivor.”
Writing in The New York Times, novelist Jerzy Kosinski called Seven Beauties “a cartoon trying to be a tragedy.” He called Wertmüller’s treatement of Pasqualino “simpatico,” claiming she “has not created a real character; all she has done was to design an abstraction.” He goes on to say that “Wertmüller gives bits and pieces of personality rather than a full character” and that she succeeds in “communicating no sense of historical or emotional reality.” As with Kael, Kosinski’s criticism seems based more on the film he wanted to see, rather than the one in front of his eyes. You’ve read my description of Pasqualino above; here’s Kozinski’s take: “what I suspect most viewers come to feel for him is a blending of pity and admiration.” So much for giving the audience any credit for critical thinking. Kozinski then doubles down: “Wertmüller’s error is not only in trying to pass off a shell as a viable tragic character, in manipulating us into expending emotion on a vacuum. She turns Pasqualino into a ventriloguist’s dummy worthy only of a few easy laughs, instead of a true human attention. Such an attitude betrays more than a little contempt on her part, an elitist disdain that runs throughout a film dealing with the lower classes….’Seven Beauties’ is about a caricature who remains a caricature, a poor fool who finally can be dismissed without much thought.”
Which leads me to Bettelheim’s 20-page review. He didn’t think Seven Beauties was a great film, but he sure as heck gave it much thought. I agree with him on two main points. The first is that someone watching the film might think that it was Pasqualino’s collaboration in the camp, his will to live at any cost, that was the reason for his survival. As a concentration camp survivor himself, Bettelheim insists that collaboration did no such thing. Pasqualino’s survival was a fluke resulting from the liberation of the camp by the Americans. Bettleheim insists that one thing truly necessary for survival was a moral center; lack of one was a death sentence. The Nazis were as contemptuous of their collaborators as they were of everyone else. They were more likely to give grudging respect to resistance than to servility, though they spared no one.
I also agree with Bettelheim that the ending of Wertmüller’s film dishonors the memory of the American and Canadian soldiers who liberated Italy. The climb up the Italian peninsula was a long, bloody one. Thousands of Allied soldiers gave their lives to free Italy. Going by what the audience sees in Seven Beauties, the only thing accomplished by that sacrifice was to turn all Italian women into whores to service foreign soldiers. The implication seems to be that Italy after the liberation was no better, perhaps even worse off, than it had been under the Fascists. Contrast this with the pictures we’ve had of the post-war reaction to the Allied armies in the Netherlands and Belgium. Wertmüler’s focus on politics and sex through a satirical lens does leave her with some gaping blind spots. Seven Beauties’ “non-liberation” is one of them.
Bettelheim and I part ways when he suggests that Seven Beauties may be a camouflaged “justification for accepting the world that produced concentration camps; it is a self-justification for those who readily accepted that world under these conditions and profited from it. But it is also a self-justification for those who today do not wish to consider the problems that that world posed, and instead settle for the easy solution of a completely empty survivorship; it is a self-justification for those who try to evade the predicaments of the world of the present, of which concentration camps in their Russian form are still very much a part, and who do not wish to struggle with the difficult issue of finding alternatives to such a world.” Such a concern is a legitimate one; I just don’t see it reflected in the film. Nothing in Seven Beauties discourages us from looking at genocide in our own time, or looking deeper at its roots in the past.
Before I read Bruno Bettelheim’s review, I had half-expected him to be venting his outrage at Wertmüller’s artistic & moral failings in an extended, accusatory tirade. I was very much surprised to see that, despite his qualms about the film, he was committed to exploring his reactions to it in a manner far more rational and far less cynical than anyone else I’d come across who had damned it. For that reason, I’d like to include some excerpts below. The complete article will be found in the August 3, 1976 issue of the New Yorker. My choices have nothing to do with whether or not I agree with Bettelheim’s perspectives:
“If the film is to be taken for mere entertainment, I must state my disgust that the abomination of genocide and the tortures and degradations of the concentration camps are used as a special, uniquely macabre titillation to enhance its effectiveness. But I believe that Lina Wertmüler, the director, had more in mind, even though at certain moments her story offered for sophisticated death-house comedy may have carried her away. On the basis of this film as well as her others, I believe she is serious about her art and about her views of life, politics, human beings, and the relation between sex and politics.”
“…I believe that consciously Wertmüller rejects Fascism, machismo, and the world of the concentration camps but that unconsciously she is fascinated by their power, brutality, amorality—their rape of man. In ‘Seven Beauties,’ the horror of the concentration camp—and all it stands for—is very much a part of this fascination. Consciously Wertmüller wishes to believe in the goodness of man, symbolized by the anarchist Pedro, the unpolitical Francesco, and the Socialist whom we encounter on his way to spend twenty-eight years in prison for believing in the freedom and dignity of man, but unconsciously she ridicules all three, for their inefficiency. Goodness is weak, and fails; only evil triumphs….Nothing could be more dangerous than if disappointment with the obvious shortcomings of the free world and life in it should lead to an unconscious fascination with the world of totalitarianism—a fascination that could easily change into a conscious acceptance.”
“…what is crucial about this film is not Wertmüller’s intentions in making it…but that it justifies evil by implanting a smug conviction that nothing could have made any difference and, by implication, that nothing would make any difference today.”
“…in this film the senseless banality of evil is so forcibly impressed on us, and is so inextricably interwoven with the comic, that evil loses nearly all its impact. While the horrors of war, Fascism, and the concentration camp are clearly and overtly presented, covertly they are much more effectively denied, because what we watch is a farce played in a charnel house, and, furthermore, because survival despite evil and survival through doing evil seem to be in the end all important, regardless of the form that either the evil or the survival takes.”
“…we are well aware that the good often fail, are taken advantage of, perish. But in this film we are made to feel that human dignity is a sham, because when we encounter its assertion in the concentration camp we are first much taken by it, but then are given to understand that it is senseless. This is not because those who act with dignity are destroyed or destroy themselves, but because their destruction happens in a ridiculous way.”
“…at [the film’s] end her hero, the survivor, remains an empty shell. Pasqualino is not a person whose experiences have added to his depth; understanding, compassion, the ability to feel guilty, all of which were lacking in him before, continue to be lacking in him, despite world-shaking experiences that one feels should have changed him completely. It is this depiction of the survivor that robs survivorship of all meaning. It makes seeing the film an experience that degrades.”
“The current of significant truth in the truism that survival is based on staying alive is that in the concentration camp staying alive required a powerful determination. Once one lost it—gave in to the omnipresent despair and let it dominate the wish to live—one was doomed.”
“The facts of the concentration camp are exactly the opposite of what…’Seven Beauties’ depicts. Those who had the best chance for survival in the concentration camps—minimal as it was—were like Pedro and Francesco: they tried as much as feasible to continue to live by what Professor Des Pres calls the compulsion of culture, and, despite the omnipresent crude claims of the body in a situation of utter physical exhaustion and starvation, nevertheless tried to exercise some small moral restraint over the body’s cruder demands. Those who, like Pasqualino, made common cause with the enemy, the camp commander, thus sacrificing the lives of others to gain advantages for themselves, were not likely to remain alive. The prisoners, to survive, had to help one another….In reality, nearly all prisoners made common cause against the S.S. most of the time. Many times, prisoners supported one another in small ways that, given the desperate conditions under which they lived, took on large dimensions.”
“The completely misleading distortion in ‘Seven Beauties’…is the pretense that what the survivors did made their survival possible. For the fictional Pasqualino as much as for the real prisoner Professor Des Pres discusses in his writings it was the Allied victory (or, in some instances, its imminence) that permitted survival. Until the Nazi government and war machinery were thrown into nearly complete disarray by Allied bombings and by defeat in the field (notably after Stalingrad) not more than a dozen or so of the many millions of concentration camp prisoners managed to survive by their own efforts—that is, to escape from the camps and get away with it before the Allied forces triumphed. All others, including me, survived because the S.S. chose to set them free, and for no other reason.”
And what you’ve read above is just a sampling from the first seven pages of what has to be one of the most remarkable reviews of a single film anyone has ever written. This is required reading those interested in grappling with moral issues in the context of film and history.
There’s something else that is remarkable when we look at the career of Lina Wertmüller. After the amazing success of her films in the 70s–Love & Anarchy, The Seduction of Mimi, Seven Beauties, Swept Away—after winning a best director award at Cannes in 1972, and becoming the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing, Wertmüller disappeared from North American cinemas, never to return. Her first English film, A Night Full of Rain (1978), had little critical or commercial success. Since the late 70s, she worked exclusively in her native Italy. The films she has made there, when she wasn’t working in theatre, never made it across the Atlantic. Valerio Ruiz’s fine 2015 documentary on Wertmüller, Behind the White Glasses, does nothing to explain this mysterious fall from international grace. How is it that a director of such undeniable talent, with such a unique focus on politics & sex, could have chosen such a low profile for the last 40 years? Her biography on Imdb is three sentences long. David Thompson, in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film dismisses her work as “undisciplined sprawl,” faults her for “her fussy, picaresque allegories with so little grasp of style and so little love of people,” and adds that “The lyricism is garish, the pleas for tolerance are cold-blooded. There is neither pain nor joy, despite the insistence that those things count above all.” As another nail on the coffin he quotes Ellen White from Rolling Stone: “Wertmüller’s basic appeal is a clever double-dealing that allows high-minded people to indulge their lowest-minded prejudices. She is…a woman hater who pretends to be a feminist. She pities the benighted masses and calls it radicalism., evades responsibility for what she says and calls it comedy.”
Yet Wertmüller hasn’t been forgotten. She has made over 20 films in several styles since Seven Beauties. In 2009 she was honored with a Career Golden Globe in Italy. In 2019 she received an Academy Honorary Award for her career, and the same year was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As I write this in 2020, a half dozen of her films are available as a package on iTunes, along with Ruiz’s documentary. Wertmüller and her husband, art designer Enrico Job, were the ultimate cinema power couple—she directing and writing her own screenplays, her husband handling production design, art direction, and even costuming. Along with her obvious gifts as a director, one thing that struck me as I watched or re-watched several Wertmüller films over the last month was the quality of the soundtracks. Piero Piccioni was the composer on several of her 70s films. He has 200 credits on Imdb. Other composers Wertmüler called in were Nino Rota and Enzo Jannaci. The former needs no introduction; the latter worked on only about a dozen films over a 20-year period. I’m not sure who wrote the lyrics for the “Oh yeah!” spoken word piece that plays over the opening collage of documentary war footage in Seven Beautes, but it reminded me of waking up at 5 in the morning to the voice of Leonard Cohen singing “Everybody Knows” on CBC morning radio. Courtesy of an tref.com website, here is the complete text for “Oh yeah!”
The ones who don’t enjoy themselves even when they laugh.
The ones who worship the corporate image not knowing that they work for someone else.
The ones who should have been shot in the cradle.
Pow! Oh, yeah.
The ones who say follow me to success but kill me if I fail, so to speak.
The ones who say we Italians are the greatest he-men on earth.
The ones who are from Rome.
The ones who say that’s for me.
The ones who say, you know what I mean.
The ones who vote for the right because they’re fed up with strikes.
The ones who vote white in order not to get dirty.
The ones who never get involved with politics.
The ones who say, be calm. Calm.
The ones who still support the king.
The ones who say, yes, Sir.
The ones who make love standing in their boots and imagine they’re in a luxurious bed.
The ones who believe Christ is Santa Claus as young man.
The ones who say: Oh, what the hell.
The ones who were there.
The ones who believe in everything… even in God.
The ones who listen to the national anthem.
The ones who love their country.
The ones who keep going, just to see how it will end.
The ones who are in garbage up to here.
The ones who sleep soundly, even with cancer.
The ones who even now don’t believe the world is round.
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
The ones who’re afraid of flying.
The ones who’ve never had a fatal accident.
The ones who’ve had one.
The ones who at a certain point in their lives create a secret weapon, Christ.
The ones who are always standing at the bar.
The ones who are always in Switzerland.
The ones who started early, haven’t arrived and don’t know they’re not going to.
The ones who lose wars by the skin of their teeth.
The ones who say, everything is wrong here.
The ones who say, now let’s all have a good laugh.