Satire is hard. Whatever Lina Wertmüller is attempting to do in SEVEN BEAUTIES, which is certainly ambitious and stamped all over with irreverent and scorching personality, seems pretty close to satire, at least tonally, at least at the beginning. However, successful satire requires a buy-in: the audience needs a reason to keep watching; either the satire must be consistently sharp or involve characters whose clashes with the satirical world feel important. Eventually, however, Wertmüller's tenuous commitment to satire gives way to outright disgust, with both her characters and the world at large. SEVEN BEAUTIES isn't a satire, it's a rant, and not a very funny nor provocative rant, at that.
Giancarlo Giannini stars as Pasquale, a self-styled Napolese dandy with no integrity of any note. He's initially quite similar to the role played by Marcello Mastroianni in this list's earlier film, Divorce Italian Style. But Pasquale is even worse. He is just as emptily vain and confused about his role in society as is Mastroianni's Fefe, but he also lacks (even misguided) ideals. In Wertmüller's satirical take on Italian notions of manhood (possibly with shades of class-based anti-southern prejudice), Pasquale is the complete worthless package, a hollow impotent good-for-nothing cancer of macho self-delusion, and all-too-eager to champion the worst of human evils, fascism. To these ends, he commits murder, terrorizes women, fakes a mental illness, deserts the Army, and winds up in a Nazi concentration camp where he faces the wrenching spoils of his complicity in the rotting whole of human depravity.
If I had watched only the opening sequence and final credits of Seven Beauties, and filled in the rest on my own, this might be a completely different review. Wertmüller begins the film with a blast of in-your-face sarcasm that is bracing and confrontational and woundingly funny; and the way that Enzo Jannacci's score — one of the movie's strongest assets — punctuates the final moment with jackal-like vocalization, is perfect… sadly, almost everything in between is mean and miserable in the least interesting ways.
As a fan of movies about anti-heroes, and someone who gets excited by tough-to-reconcile cognitive dissonance, Wertmüller's brand of satire is too removed and accusatory for me. It's easy to see her looking down from above on her own movie with derision, and this is most directly expressed through Giannini's Muppet-like performance. He is a cartoon of personal corruption, thoroughly despicable, and Wertmüller never lets you forget that he's a cheap caricature. It's hard to think of a decent movie in which the filmmaker's contempt for their lead character is so uncomplicated. After picking up on what a loser Pasquale is within the first 10 minutes, watching Wertmüller lead him through the paces of his meaningless descent is relentlessly dull. Further, one gets the sense that Wertmüller's disgust extends to all of humanity, as her movie oozes misanthropy. She favors the grotesque in people, and although her broad background casting could be referred to as Fellini-esque, there's no warmth for the loud ugliness of "the common person." In Wertmüller's world, everyone is some form of monster — especially the women — and she makes a point of introducing a token innocent only to later punctuate the movie with that character's corruption. There isn't a moment of hope or joy or longing in Seven Beauties. It really is, as Pasquale calls it, "A rotten comedy, a lousy farce called living;" and there's nothing enlightening about enduring Wertmüller's haughty bird's eye view of it.
In addition to the music, Seven Beauties' other best asset is the cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, a frequent collaborator of both Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Leone. Some of the early noir-influenced shots are visually quite remarkable, and throughout there's an enervating mix of naturalism and carefully staged tableaux. It's interesting that Delli Colli shot Pasolini's infamous Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, released the very same year, a movie which to shattering effect puts the viewer in the position of both abuser and abused as it reveals the depths of depravity licensed by glib authoritarianism. In comparison to that challenging film, which aches with sorrow, the glib and dismissive Seven Beauties fails at every step. It costs Wertmüller nothing to piss on her one-dimensional characters and drag them through horrors; there's even a sense early on that she is merely exploiting the Holocaust as a means to show off her artistic virtuosity. It's as gross as SALÒ in that way, but not in any intentional context. It also, unfortunately, brings to mind the final film shot by Delli Colli, Roberto Benigni's repugnant 1997 accident of smug misjudgment Life is Beautiful, in the way that both films confuse constructed buffoonery with real tragedy; while Seven Beauties has no time for the sickly sentimentality of the later film, it's just as simplistic and cheap an effort at self-aggrandizement at the expense of common decency and universal humanity.
At the most basic level, Seven Beauties is a mere disappointment, as it indicates that Wertmüller is capable of crafting a technically pleasing film containing inspired bursts of energy, and she possesses a distinctive and scabrous authorial wit; at the most profound level, however, Seven Beauties is utterly bereft of empathy to the point that one wonders if, given her final condemnation of mankind's utter moral perfidy and her facile dismissal of the complexity of the human spirit, she isn't herself a little bit more sympathetic to the practices of fascism than she'd like to admit.