Doodad Kind of Town

Reelin’ in the Years: "Seven Beauties"
November 7, 2007, 11:16 pm
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited

Sometimes, going back to take another look at a movie you loved in your youth tells you more about how you have changed than whether the film is any good. Or maybe, it’s just the times that have changed.

In the fall of 1977, I was a new college freshman, anxious for exposure to all things intellectual. Italian film director Lina Wertmuller made an appearance on campus for a screening of her new film, “Seven Beauties,” a dark comedy, set partly in a German concentration camp, starring Giancarlo Gianinni.

I attended the screening, of course, and listened to Wertmuller answer questions from the audience through an interpreter. I do not remember anything she said, but I do remember loving her movie. I thought “Seven Beauties” was profound and heartbreaking, and was shattered by Gianinni’s performance. The movie lived on in my memory for 30 years before I would see it again. Of course, memory can be tricky. The details of the film fell away from my consciousness, but the emotional impact stayed with me.

Understandably, I was very excited to get a copy of “Seven Beauties” from Netflix last month, eager to relive my experience of falling in love with a great movie.

I was in for a huge disappointment.
In 2007, I found “Seven Beauties” grotesque and tasteless. Gianinni’s performance moved me not at all.

There is an infamous scene in this film where Gianinni, as a concentration camp inmate, seduces the female camp commandant in order to save his own hide. She is hugely fat, aggressively ugly, cold-eyed, and sadistic. Gianinni – weak from near-starvation, hardly able to move, but gamely flirting and playing the lothario – finally manages to consummate the act, though it nearly kills him.

In 1997, I thought this scene was brutal, but brilliant. I thought it was a really brave depiction of the lengths humans go to in order to survive – and funny, too, but in a very dark way.
In 2007, I wasn’t able to see it that way. What I kept thinking was “Aren’t the actual facts of the Holocaust horrible enough? Why make shit up? What are you trying to prove?” And I couldn’t stop thinking about the actress playing the commandant, an American woman named Shirley Stoler. What a soul-killing part this must have been. How did she feel about this character? What did it feel like to be directed – by another woman, for that matter – to be so hideous? To be not just grossly unfeminine, but completely inhumane?
But, then, all the women in “Seven Beauties” are grotesque. Gianinni has seven sisters back in Italy – we see a lot of them in early scenes. They’re all screaming harpies with way too much makeup, and every last one of them is a prostitute. I swear I’ve read that Wertmuller is a feminist, but there’s not a shred of feminist sensibility to be found here. Or humanity either. Not only are the female characters are all stupid, loud and unappealing (save for one wide-eyed innocent, but she ends up a whore in the end, too), Gianinni’s character is a foolish and despicable lout whose opportunistic wooing of the commandant leads to his complete moral disintegration.
What seemed profound to me at 17 seems more like puerile showing off now. Throughout “Seven Beauties,” I felt sickened by what I perceived as Wertmuller’s glee in debasing and humiliating her characters. “Look how ugly and awful people are!” I could almost hear her saying. “How foolish. How morally corrupt.” Well, OK. People are stupid sometimes; people are evil sometimes, too. I get that. I’m sure living through World War II in Europe was worse than I can ever imagine. But what is gained by shocking an audience just for the sake of shocking them? Wertmuller’s world view as expressed in “Seven Beauties” is bleak, nihilistic and utterly without compassion. Worse, it never -not for one blessed frame – feels real or true, but rather like an exaggerated and amplified version of the very worst the real world has to offer. Thirty years ago, I thought this outrageousness was a sign of brilliance.

So what ‘s changed since 1977? My worldview, for starters. I’ve developed faith and optimism that I didn’t have at 17; I respond to works of art that offer some thread of hope, however slender, amid the bleakness and despair. There isn’t one crumb of hope in “Seven Beauties.” Watching it now it the post -“Schindler’s List” era, I know a film can be made about the Holocaust that depicts both the evil and the generosity of which human beings are capable, and that’s the film I’d rather see. The world is no more “all bad” than it is “all good.”
(A surreal final note – I Googled Shirely Stoler just to see what else she’d done. The actress, who died in 1999, had a varied resume, with film credits ranging from “The Deer Hunter” to cheap exploitation flicks with titles like “Frankenhooker.” But the most bizarre credit of all: she went on to play Mrs. Steve on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”)

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