Welcome to "Reel Women," a new column highlighting important women in the world of cinema, from on-screen characters to real-life filmmakers.
This Sunday marks the 90th Academy Awards and yet the number of women nominated for Best Director can be counted on one hand—and the number of women who've won can be counted on just one finger (Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker). Greta Gerwig, nominated for Lady Bird this year, marks the fifth woman to compete in the category. While Gerwig’s film has an easy-to-root-for feminist perspective and an endearing, realistic teenage heroine (Saoirse Ronan), it’s a much different story for Lina Wertmüller, who became the first woman nominated for Best Director in 1977.
The Italian filmmaker isn’t your feminist answer to Fellini (her predecessor and mentor)—in fact, she was even called a "woman hater" by many a female critic for her contentious representation of women. Wertmüller rarely chose "female" topics for her work, and in fact, the women in many of her films were prostitutes, as are all seven women of Seven Beauties, Wertmüller's film nominated in four categories at the '77 Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Giancarlo Giannini), Best Original Screenplay (for Wertmüller), and Best Director.
Seven Beauties is difficult to digest, as it follows a fascist chauvinist pig, Pasqualino (played by Wertmüller’s muse Gaincarlo Giannini), as he haphazardly commits murder, then gets sent to an insane asylum, the Italian army, and eventually a concentration camp. The film is set in grotesque, yellowing interiors, even in Pasqualino’s better days—and the concentration camp (set designed by Wertmüller’s husband, Enrico Job) is effectively portrayed as a soulless space of desolation and hopelessness. Depictions of sex in the film are deprived of any pleasure—at one point, out of loneliness and desperation, Pasqualino rapes a woman tied to a hospital bed, and later, he seduces an unsightly female Nazi commandant to save his own skin. In his review, Roger Ebert called it "easily the least erotic sex scene ever filmed." After enduring nearly two hours of cinematic torture, Wertmüller’s film feels more like a sickening dare—how far can she go before it is entirely indigestible?
Wertmüller has often been described as a masculine filmmaker—a misogynistic one, even—but that is perhaps too simplistic of an analysis, as if we are to assume that she identifies with her male protagonists. Regarding the criticism around Swept Away, another one of her films blasted for being "anti-feminist" (for its depiction of a subservient, abused, "love slave" type woman), Wertmüller told Jezebel: "I’ve never understood feminists who criticized Swept Away but when you make a film, people are free to see what they want and can express every feeling the movie opens in their mind and hearts. From my point of view, there’s not a message against women’s freedom. It’s the opposite to me. My leading female character is a free woman, she makes choices following her own will."
Pasqualino is indeed a misogynist, who acts brashly and calls women "pigs," but he exists for brutal political commentary. Here Wertmüller mostly eschews conversations about gender politics, but confronts the naïveté of Italians during the rise of fascism. This is clear from the very beginning of the film, which opens with a parody song that ironically praises those complacent with Italy’s fascism with a rock and roll "oh yeah" ending each verse.
Trouble arises for the film’s protagonist when he discovers his oldest sister working at a brothel and—despite her pleading—murders her pimp. Wertmüller has a tragicomic style of directing, and even in a scene as horrendous as one involving dismemberment, she makes sure there are uncomfortably comedic gags, like Pasqualino bumping his head on a bedpost. It’s borderline slapstick, but you wouldn’t want to laugh. Caught and tried for murder, Pasqualino, newly dubbed "the butcher of Naples," drifts farther and farther away from the easy street he used to live on. World War II is no longer a distant threat looming in the background—it’s the central cause of Pasqualino’s suffering.
If Pasqualino’s actions are too despicable for the screen, they are certainly not without consequences. Immediately following the rape scene, Pasqualino is seen hosed down, beat up, tied up, then treated with electroshock therapy. Once he emotionally manipulates the Nazi commandant, he is freed, but not without a catch—he must choose six prisoners in his barrack to be executed. One of them he is forced to shoot himself. Tragedy follows Pasqualino to the very end, when he survives the hellish concentration camp and returns home—only to learn that because he was sent away, all seven of his sisters had to become prostitutes in order to sustain themselves.
Yet, in Wertmüller fashion, she positions Pasqualino as somewhat sympathetic while he remains the butt of her cruel cultural commentary. His final words are "I am alive," but it's clear he's just a shell of a person.