Seven Beauties and the Beast: Bettelheim, Wertmüller, and the Uses of Enchantment

Article excerpt

The 1982 film version of Sophie's Choice completed a cycle of mainstream novels, films, stage plays and TV dramas which in the sixties and seventies had increasingly appropriated the Holocaust for artistic purposes. No film in this cycle has commanded more attention and respect that Lina Wertmuller's Seven Beauties (1976), and no scholar has been more provocative in assessing its virtues-and defects-than Bruno Bettelheim. Although Wertmuller's stature as a filmmaker has diminished considerably in recent years, Seven Beauties remains a classic of the Holocaust genre. It is frequently revived at art houses, and Bettelheim's essay on the film, "Surviving," first published in 1976, has become standard reading in the humanities curriculum, along with his book on fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment, published the same year.

"It is every Italian director's dream to be loved in America," Wertmuller said on her first trip to this country in 1975.' Seven Beauties, her fourth American release, was declared "a masterpiece" by the exacting-and frequently eccentric-John Simon, and lavishly praised by American critics generally. In reaction to its acclaim, Bettelheim filled fifty columns of The New Yorker with misgivings about its moral and political implications and objections to Wertmuller's perversion of fact in her treatment of concentration camp life.1 A survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Bettelheim was offended by the concentration camp setting for what Time had suitably called a "death-house-comedy."4 The success of Seven Beauties indicated to him the inability of the present generation to comprehend traumatic events suffered by their elders. For all the tribute Bettelheim pays Wertmuller's artistry, the skill with which she neutralizes horror with macabre comedy, he cannot accept the use of a concentration camp setting which falsifies and degrades experiences he and others survived during the War. He would remain silent on the subject of Seven Beauties , he tells us, were it not for the fact that the comedy of survival the film presents is a travesty of true survival. He rejects the idea that crude claims of the body alone can sustain the will to survive and holds himself, along with other concentration camp survivors, an embarrassing witness to the truth that without a sense of meaning in life there can be no survival. Accepting Hannah Arendt's thesis on the banality of evil in her book on the Eichmann trial. Bettelheim advises us to be on guard against that very banality: we must not allow it to desensitize us to the fact of evil and its consequences. In his view, Pasqualino, the protagonist of Seven Beauties, is banality personified.

"The trouble with Eichmann," Arendt wrote, "was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal."* Pasqualino is banal in this sense, to be sure, but he is no Eichmann. Nowhere in Seven Beauties is he devoid of moral conscience. He is not a bureaucrat for whom genocide is all in a day's work. Throughout his criminal career, he is an honor-bound, conscience-stricken stumbleburn who agonizes over his crimes and pays for them in descending circles of hell until, having learned the price of political apathy, he is equivocally reborn at the end of the film.

At the height of his beauty, groomed to kill with full moustache and slicked-back hair, Pasqualino Settebellezze as played by Giancarlo Giannini is a Chaplinesque Valentino blithely approaching an obstacle course which will take him from sunny Naples to a foggy chamber of horrors called Appleplatz. As he strolls the streets of Naples, all the young women moon over him, but the only one to whom he gives serious attention is an organ grinder waif named Carolina. Reduced to tears by her heckling audience, Carolina is consoled by Pasquilino. "If someone is disrespectful," he tells her, "you tell them you're engaged to me. …