Pasqualino (Giancarlo Giannini) is known as Seven Beauties, which, according to him, is because of the effect he has on women: he may not be attractive, but the ladies like him nevertheless. Pasqualino is a deserter from the Italian army during World War II, and escaping through the German countryside he meets another fugitive, also Italian. They witness Nazi soldiers executing a group of prisoners and fear that they will be next if caught; Pasqualino hates the killing, but recalls a time before the war when he took a life himself, when he lived in Naples as a small time crook, living off the hard work of his mother and seven sisters.
Lina Wertmlüler scripted this bizarre, once controversial comedy drama that was deliberately provocative in its images of concentration camps and broad humour. It garnered a string of awards, and even saw Wertmuller as the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for direction, but looking at it today, it seems not so much to employ bad taste to make its points, but self loathing and a withering view of ordinary Italians during the war, represented by Pasqualino, a man whose self respect comes from belief in the fascists, a self respect which is eroded by the acts he commits in war to stay alive.
Not wishing to fight any more, Pasqualino goes on the run, but he and his new friend are captured and sent to a concentration camp. This prison is a hell on Earth, coloured in shades of grey: grey walls, grey dust and grey uniforms. There is an apocalyptic sense to these intense scenes, a feeling that things will never get any better, that this is the end, which is what the prisoners believe. Yet Pasqualino decides he will survive, and devises a plan to seduce the female warden (Shirley Stoler), an obese, granite-faced Nazi officer who is sending his fellow inmates to their deaths on a daily basis.
Although there is much that is presented as comedy, it isn't really all that funny. Sure, the odd bits with Pasqualino making eyes at the warden raise a chuckle for their sheer inappropriate nature, but there's such a jumble of depressing images that most of it falls flat, especially when it seems the point is to disgust you. For example, when the anti-hero kills the gangster who has humiliated him and sent his sister into prostitution (and not even a particularly attractive sister, either - the title is ironic), the corpse farts incessantly as he tries to dispose of it. Wertmüller seems more comfortable to revel in the grottiness of humanity than consider anything even slightly uplifting.
Still, war is hell, so Pasqualino's degradation in the name of survival is more convincing than anything you'll find in Life is Beautiful. He is tried for the murder, and sent to a mental hospital, and there, despite (or because of) Giannini's overriding efforts to present him as a loveable rogue, we are sickened when he rapes a patient who has been tied down. Time and time again we are given reason to despise Pasqualino, and by the end he's despising his own actions. The film's most famous scene sees Pasqualino seduce the warden, kissing her fleshy body all over in a desperate attempt to arouse her, but he has lowered himself even further when she accepts his advances and he complies with the Nazis to save his skin.
Now he will have none of the respect he once craved, his sense of personal honour betrayed, but should he have died on his knees instead? The socialist he met in a railway station before heading off to the hospital pointed out the worsening conditions under fascism, but Pasqualino's self-interest blinded him to this. Fair enough, the protagonist was irretrievably wrong, as were millions of others, but there's something uneasy about the gloating way Wertmüller beats the arrogance out of her main character, and something sickly about the whole enterprise. Maybe a less caricatured approach would have had a more sobering result; instead, you're left questioning the motives of the film makers as well as the easy target of Nazism. By the end, however, they seem to agree that none of it was particularly funny after all. Music by Enzo Jannacci.