Turning the tables

Above: Shirley Stoler as the Nazi commandant in Seven Beauties (1975), the film that led Lina Wertmüller to become the first woman nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.  As I discovered over a year ago when I first saw Swept Away (1975), Wertmüller’s films are fascinating in their slipperiness: just when you think you’ve figured out her position, she makes a sharp turn.  They are finely attuned to the ways in which gender and power can undergo sudden shifts, reversals, and transformations, making them difficult but ultimately rewarding for those who don’t require that art be reducible to a party line. 

I don’t necessarily love Wertmüller’s films but I respect their mutability, their shock value, and their refusal to make easy points.  Their humor is nearly always driven by her playing with various comic types, and in Seven Beauties
she deals with the figure of the rake, as portrayed by her favorite leading man Giancarlo Giannini.  Giannini’s Pasqualino is a suave, handsome Neapolitan scoundrel who continually finds himself escaping one disaster only by inadvertently wandering into another, as in an eighteenth-century picaresque novel.  (His adventures are usually motivated by sex, food, or the desire to escape some form of punishment or social responsibility.)  The film follows Pasqualino as he attempts to weasel out of a murder conviction, a stint in a mental institution, and, finally, the concentration camp where he has become a prisoner (he sets about using his seductive wiles on the female commandant).  As in Swept Away, Wertmüller is ambivalent about her “hero,” a roustabout who casually steals, lies, rapes, and voices a preference for Fascism, but who is often rendered with great humor and sympathy—as someone hapless and even lovable.  Things get even more complicated in the last third of the film, as Pasqualino suffers a series of sexual humiliations and, owing to a stroke of tragic irony, is forced to betray his fellow prisoners in order to save himself. 

Is this Wertmüller punishing Pasqualino for his crimes?  Possibly, but I rather think she is forcing a terrible knowledge onto him, in essence awakening him to the brutal sacrifices that he has previously succeeded in avoiding, and which nearly everyone around him has been forced to make, as opposed to simply taking revenge on him.  (It’s especially fitting that he is made to prostitute himself after castigating his sisters for turning to prostitution earlier in the film.)  Less sadistic or schematic than simply inflicting on him what he has inflicted onto others, Wertmüller opens Pasqualino’s eyes to the world through which he has been blindly moving in a way that is both clear-eyed and humane.  This is not simply a gendered cautionary tale in which a despicable cad finally gets his comeuppance.  It is a deeply felt portrait of lost innocence.

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