In wartime Europe, two haggard army deserters attempt to navigate in the darkness through a disorienting forest after escaping from a military train bound for Stalingrad only to witness a mass civilian execution by German soldiers in an open field. Retreating into the woods, Francesco (Piero Di Iorio) expresses anger and regret over his acquiescence to the wave of military aggression ushered by Mussolini and the Fascists that resulted in such senseless deaths. Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini), in turn, reveals that he has committed murder before the war and attempts to rationalize his actions – recalling the events that brought him to the battlefront – as he sought to save his sister, Concettina’s (Elena Fiore) reputation after she is driven into prostitution by her insincere and disreputable lover, Totonno (Mario Conti) with empty promises of marriage. Alternating between recollections of his life before the war as a self-absorbed, but honor-bound gangster, and present-day circumstances as a desperate and unscrupulous concentration camp prisoner-of-war, Pasqualino’s life emerges as a morally reprehensible culmination of impulsive bravado, irresponsible alliances, and instinctual survival.
Seven Beauties is a bold, irreverent, and densely layered satire on a national culture of machismo, self-absorption, and justified human cruelty that fostered a climate of militarism and enabling complicity, resulting in the tragedy of World War II. By presenting Pasqualino’s civilian and enlisted plight as a consequence of the incongruent interaction between vanity and cowardice, Lina Wertmüller presents an incisive correlation between masculine aggression and virility: the angled shot of Don Raffaele (Enzo Vitale) and Pasqualino’s circuitous discussion of creative ways to dispose of a corpse underneath a large-scale sculpture of a male lower torso; Pasqualino’s sexual assault of an institutionalized patient that led to his conscription; his absurd attempts to seduce a stern and physically imposing German officer (Shirley Stoler) in order to curry favor. The film concludes with a quintessential Wertmüller shot of Pasqualino’s repeated image from a three-sided, compartmented set of mirrors (similar to Salomè’s room in Love and Anarchy): a figurative reflection of the irredeemable price of human survival – and a searing self-assessment of a nation’s tragic legacy and culpability – under a repressive, dehumanized, and brutal regime.
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