World War II Through a Comedic Lens

When Lina Wertmüller, with Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975), and Roberto Benigni, with La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997), chose to look back at the era of World War II, its beginnings, its horrors, and its aftermath, they would do so, daringly, in comedic fashion. Through the lens of the comedy, these two filmmakers broached a topic almost sacred in its sobriety, and presented issues relating to the holocaust, primarily, and did so in a tone hitherto only just hinted at. Wertmüller’s was a dark comedy of savage humor and vulgarity, Benigni’s was one of light, heartfelt emotion; both would result in films that were not just good, but ones that more than succeeded at what they were respectively setting out to do. Though with a similar time period and occurrence serving as a backdrop, the films Seven Beauties and Life is Beautiful deal quite differently, in terms of narration, thematics, and aesthetics, with the issues at hand.

From the outset, the picture beginning with images of violent intensity, juxtaposed audibly with Enzo Jannacci’s bizarre, humorous, and strangely surreal “Quelli che” (“Oh yeah”), it becomes clear that Seven Beauties is not going to be a typical film about the events of World War II. The fighting as such will be of little concern for Wertmüller. She, instead, would look at the absurdities of the happenings and the inner, more subtextural, conflicts during the period. This is highlighted in this opening sequence alone, where images of Hitler, soldiers, warfare and more are repeated, cut rhythmically to the music, and comically jumbled, making them all appear at the most funny, at the least peculiar. Wertmüller here takes such iconic images of the war and, in placing them out of their initial contexts, creates an abstract poem of allegory and allusion, of ridiculousness coupled with violence and humor. Yes, from this opening, we know this is not going to be just a “war movie,” nor will it be a typical, certainly not a neorealist, approach to the time, place, and the event of World War II. This montage goes on for more than three minutes before we find ourselves in the story proper, not quite sure at this point if what we just saw and heard had anything to do with the diagetic world of the film, or it was some sort of Brechtian technique to take us out of the story before we ever get in it. What we do know, however, is that Wertmüller is going to take us on one hell of a ride.

The song continues, but Wertmüller then changes film stock to color and we follow a single individual. This is signaling that we are now in the plot of the film and that this person is a character, not just stock footage. This main personality, we learn, is Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini), and he will be, for better or worse, our “hero.” And his introductory heroic deed to open the film? We find out that he is a deserter who stole bandages from a dead man and used them to fake an injury so as to more easily escape. The heroics of Don Pietro Pellegrini are long gone in a film like this. It’s now every man for himself, with disregard to political or national commitments or convictions. These, Wertmüller establishes right way, are to be the unpleasant truths of war, the part you don’t see in Hollywood films to be sure. The images are dark, dank, and unpleasant. As they walk through a downpour, the two characters, Pasqualino and his fellow deserter, discuss how much they hate Germany, why they don’t want to kill anyone, and then they ultimately arrive at a hillside where they see a group of men and women disrobed and shot down by the Germans. This, it would now seem, is to be a somber and serious look at war—but what a sudden shift in tone! As quick as she sets us straight, however, Wertmüller gives us dialogue in which the friend notes that they may as well be accomplices to the Germans for not stepping out and spitting in their faces, instead they run away. But, Pasqualino contests, “They’d have come after us and we’d be shot. Useless suicide.” Less than heroic, to be sure, brutally honest, cowardly, self-serving: the character development in this film will be as complex and distinctive as the story and the film itself. This is further brought to our attention by a break in the continuity narrative with a flashback, the first shots of which being that of a scantily clad, and rather obese, woman performing a song and dance routine. Brilliantly, this has all been in the first 10 minutes.

Conversely, look at how Benigni begins his tale. This film will be, so we are told via voice-over, “a simple tale, but not an easy one to tell … like a fable.” Intentions here are clear, as clear as they are at the start of Seven Beauties, and like through the abrasiveness of Wertmüller’s opening, Benigni’s more romanticist notions also make its tone known from the off. Two Italians, one of whom is Guido Orefice, played by Benigni, are cruising down the open road, through brightly-lit scenic beauty. The style is simple, with no cinematic flourishes or exaggerations. When drama unfolds (their car looses its breaks) it’s almost incidental, even as they barrel down a steep embankment, crashing through the forest and a crowd of people. Benigni’s tonal establishment makes it obvious that a lightness and good humor will prevail here (in the beginning anyway). While the car is getting fixed, Guido as a character develops, and he turns out to be, as portrayed so marvelously by the director of the film, the total antithesis of Pasqualino. Guido is funny, charming, happy, and pleasant. As much as we may not be sure about Wertmüller’s initial characterizations—what kind of people are these deserters, what are they up to, where do they stand—with Guido we have utmost liking and acceptance immediately. He, and the start of Life if Beautiful, are as clear to read and understand as the azure skies above its opening locations; Pasqualino, and Wertmüller’s creation, are as multifarious and shady as the first environments of that particular picture. But, and this is key, they are both right away funny, though unquestionably in dissimilar ways.

As Wertmüller’s film progresses, continuing to utilize the flashback unfolding, itself a self-conscious stylistic and narrative device that more sharply associates and contrasts one scene from the one that precedes or follows it, we see how Pasqualino arrived at his current state. And at the same time, we follow him as he heads into his future, a future that will find he, and Wertmüller’s critical discourse, developing and intensifying. Benigni’s tale, on the other hand, though with one significant and story-quickening temporal ellipsis, moves forward at a steady, logical and continuous pace, clearly placing it more in the tradition of classic Hollywood storytelling. While Wertmüller’s storytelling devices are fashioned in such a way as to have the spectator question and become cognizant of the methods of narration, Benigni’s is one that seeks, and accomplishes, an emersion of emotional involvement.

The general shape of the narratives in these two films not only stresses the differences in filmmakers but in the stories they are telling. Benigni’s is a life-affirming tale of a father’s sacrifice, and defiance against the most dire of circumstances. Wertmüller’s, on the other hand, is an almost allegorical tale (a scathingly black one) that gains most of its impact in the more metaphoric and abstract analogies and statements, all through images, characters, and lives that are perhaps less than appealing. Other than with slight hints of the tenuous times to come (a horse painted with anti-Semitic remarks, comments on race inequality), Life is Beautiful takes nearly a full hour of screen time before it begins to truly delve into aspects of a darker side of life, the holocaust specifically, or World War II in general. Instead, we see the bumbling, romantic, and charismatic Guido finding himself a job as a waiter, surrounded by high class, and trying to woo the object of his affection, schoolteacher Dora (Nicoletta Braschi). Through a series of comical, and by no means serious, misadventures, he succeeds in finding his way into Dora’s, and the audiences’, heart. They have a child, they goof around, and all is, for the time being, good.

Now, in contrast, look at the initial moments of narrative establishment in Seven Beauties. Reading chronologically, that is, what leads up to Pasqualino’s life in the concentration camp, not the actual order in which scene are presented in the film, while they too may not focus explicitly in the events preceding up to the horrors of World War II, they nevertheless encompass an atmosphere of seamy sex and carnal violence. We see Pasqualino to be a chauvinistic man, a dirty man, an obscene man deep within the more dubious aspects of human life. He’s vain and domineering and oversees a family of equally questionable, and unattractive, sisters. He loves the ladies (to his mind he is a Casanova-esque womanizer), but there is no sense of Guido’s type of charm here, on the part of the characters, nor on the part of the audience. By the first hour or so of this picture, we see that Pasqualino loses one of his sisters to prostitution (he can’t abide, apparently having some sense of familiar pride), and he vows to, and succeeds in, killing her pimp/fiancé, and, after taking the body, chopping it to pieces, and stuffing it in suitcases for disposal, he gets arrested. This is not the fluffiness and magnetism as seen in Life is Beautiful, but they are all elements that play a crucial role in the lager, grand scheme of Wertmüller’s picture. It’s only in a non-flashback sequence about midway through the first hour that we see what sort of shape the film is ultimately going to take. Inside the camp, without any gloss over its depravity and danger, the at-this-point apolitical Pasqualino is forced to confront the threat he now faces. “How did the world ever get like this?” he asks.

How the two characters in the two films face the adversity and trials of the camps is where we get an interesting divergence, each with their equal amount of poignancy, interest, and, if one can use the word, amusement. Guido, notably in the camp with his son and his wife (who is with the other women separated from the men), is forced for his child’s sake to approach the dread in a, to say the least, unique fashion. So as not to scare the boy more than he already is, Guido creates an elaborate and hilarious in its manifestation story of the camp being essentially one big game, with everyone vying for points in order to be the winner. Brilliantly, and purposefully, misinterpreting the words of a German guard, Guido announces the “rules” of this game and his plan of making, to the best of his ability, the whole experience possible for him, but mostly his son, to endure. Never taking off his comedic mask, Guido, despite the hardships, the terror, and the anxiety, keeps things as fun and as entertaining as possible for his boy. As Peter Bondanella notes, “[H]e turns the often dirty and shameful events in the camps where people did anything possible to survive into a fabulous world play, inhabited by at least one benign clown.” (449) Even before the finale of the picture, these moments of playfulness and deception for the benefit of his son pull at the heartstrings to an exceptional degree.

On the other hand, when Pasqualino finds himself thrust into these most unpleasant of circumstances, he chooses not the high road, but sinks lower and lower into an emotion and dignity abyss, wallowing in self-pity. In other words, he “…touches rock bottom in his obsession with survival, and he is forced to earn his survival with a feat of sexual prowess, the seduction of the commandant…” and “Since our hero has been reduced by life in the camp to a physical wreck, the [commandant] first makes Pasqualino eat a bowl of food, then forces him to quiver at her feet.” (Bondanella, 363) This is in sharp contrast to the way in which Guido keeps with remarkable consistency his personality of humor and love. Believing that his place in the camp was a matter of bad luck, Pasqualino’s declaration to escape is proceeded by his decision (derived by another flashback in which his mother once assured him that in every woman, even an evil one, some decency exists) that his best method for flight, especially given his, he believes, exceptional ability to woo the opposite sex, is to appeal romantically to the large and in charge commandant, played by Shirley Stoler. No matter the death and degradation that surrounds, Pasqualino is now intent on finding his way out through his appealing, romantically, to this authoritarian woman, a daring, bizarre, funny, and disturbing premise. All of this would lead to, in Roger Ebert’s words, “easily the least erotic sex scene ever filmed.”

Despite their extremely different methods of perseverance and coping, the two films do share an interesting similarity in terms of what is actually being said about the conditions of a concentration camp, and to a larger extent the ideas of racial cleansing and mass executions. There can be little doubt that, through Guido’s humor and Pasqualino’s attempt at seduction, both regardless of their situation, Benigni and Wertmüller are commenting on the absurdity of the aforementioned dubious features of World War II. They are notions so dreadful and unimaginable in their horror that both filmmakers approach them so as to place their absurdity in a way that is heightened by the preposterousness of how the two protagonists handle them. This notion is especially alluded to in Seven Beauties when one looks at the parallels between the mental institution and the camp: the rows of “inmates,” the anonymity, the uniforms, the tortures, the despair, the appalling conditions, the women in charge, and the levels of deprivation committed by Pasqualino (the rape in the asylum and the murder in the camp). In the face of such absurdity, one must be absurd. Which location, in this film, is the craziest after all?

There is the sense that neither picture is, of course, meant to be taken literally. No doubt Guido would never have lasted as long as he does in a real concentration camp, and everything about Pasqualino’s actions seems exceedingly exaggerated and ridiculous. But realism in treatment does not appear to be of primary concern for either filmmaker, much to the chagrin of their respective detractors. Both approaches to storytelling here are distinct from a chronicle of sorts on the holocaust. Believable or not, these two films are more about telling engaging and fascinating stories than with detailing how the abhorrence of the historical happenings actually went down.

While sex may be at the fore in the latter part of Seven Beauties, it is basically nonexistent in Life is Beautiful. And other than in sections near the end, or by allusion and dialogue, the same could almost be said about violence. Neither is heavily featured in Benigni’s picture; again, this is not only aside from the primary purpose and tone of the film, but the director also takes the stance that it is generally accepted through popular understanding and knowledge that most know what went on in camps such as these. The hint and undercurrent of potential and existing violence will suffice, until, that is, it becomes essential to the concluding of the plot.

With Seven Beauties, however, violence, and the concept of violence, gets a far more contemplative treatment. Out in the populace, Pasqualino’s killing of the pimp is viewed by some as heroic, and he himself revels in the idea of being “The Monster of Naples.” There is a respect, a lightness, and some bizarre level of admiration attributed to his murderous behavior. His “honor-killing” of sorts has a degree of acceptability. Violence, in this fashion, can be with its reasons. But, when one looks at the violence inflicted by the Germans at the camp (and elsewhere) one is instantly appalled, as are we when Pasqualino must ultimately murder a fellow captive. All instances are murder(s), but in their contexts Wertmüller calls attention to their complexities. Does a “legitimate” reason justify the deed? Why do the characters, and we as spectators, react and interpret so differently the two actions? Citing Jerzy Kosinski, Millicent Marcus notes that, “Wertmüller wins our sympathies for a despicable protagonist by making him a cartoon character, and since we have laughed at Pasqualino all along, this tempers our reaction to the monstrosity of his final deeds.” (Marcus, Italian Film, 316)

It’s not an explicit treatise on the nature of violence, but certainly in comparison to Life is Beautiful Seven Beauties does approach these issues in a more dialectical manner, and it is in the balance between comic and tragic moods and this “only apparent levity” that “offended some critics, who believed it implied Wertmüller’s equation of petty crime and mass murder.” (Bondanella, 363) The killing of a man, even a pimp, is no petty crime, and this, in my view, is the only act of comparison, not, by any means, an equal one. But, it does try, as R.T. Witcombe writes, to “link the Fascism of the streets of pre-war Italy with the atrocities committed in a Nazi camp...” (250) Marcus also calls attention to the structure of Wertmüller’s film insofar as the way it lends itself to such drawn comparisons. It “plays on the violent contrast between the prewar life of the protagonist and his current plight in the camp, constantly [shifting] from present to past as a way of foregrounding the ironic relationship between … Pasqualino’s two conditions.” (Marcus, After Fellini, 283)

Aesthetically, Benigni and Wertmüller also present the two films in two immensely differing approaches. Matching its general tone and ideal, Life is Beautiful is composed (and this is in no way a fault) in a straightforward visual style. Framings are clear, open, and balanced. Benigni emphasizes only what need be, only when necessary. He utilizes a consistently smooth and inconspicuous maneuver of the camera, and close-ups are used at their most effective when they are purely for the purposes of emotional manipulation. Lighting is bright (even the camp bunkers are lit extensively) and most of the scenery, definitely at the beginning but even near the end, is clean and accessible. Like the way in which much of the violence is left to the mind's eye of the audience, the locales, interiors and exteriors, often leave no real trace of unpleasantness. Despite some allusions to Italian films of the neorealist period (can anyone ever steal a bike in an Italian picture and not recall De Sica?), Life is Beautiful yields no similar treatment of the environment or the mood of those war years.

Conversely, with Seven Beauties, only adding to the ugliness and unseemliness of the actions and characters in the film, Wertmüller presents the film in such a manner as to accentuate the grime, the dirt, the claustrophobia, and the pervading unpleasantness. A hand-held camera adds to the sense of uncontrollability, of being at the mercy of the situation with no restraint. Her lighting choices leave many scenes, before (the murky wilderness) and during the time at the camp, situated in, if not always darkness, at least an almost repellent overuse of artificial and distorted illumination (the green during the infamous lovemaking scene is a good example). The living conditions, again before and at the camp, are also unkempt; they are dirty, crowded and seem to ooze sweat, tears, blood and a palpable feeling of discomfort. Close-ups in Seven Beauties are not just for emotional purposes (though they do work psychologically); instead they serve to emphasize frequently the unpleasantries of the picture: scared faces, ugly faces, angry faces, evil faces, and the final close-up of Pasqualino’s “haggard face” which “convincingly suggests that some values are more vital to human existence than survival.” (Bondanella, 365) As unassuming as Benigni’s direction is, Wertmüller, reserving her right for experimentation in the “art film,” directs with several instances of self-consciousness, calling clear attention (as in the credit sequence) to the more provoking discourses the film presents.

Brilliant, involving, and quite satisfying in their own ways, Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful present the modern world’s most infamous tragedy in unique lights, in unique examinations, through the unique generic fashion of the comedy. The characters and stories are markedly different, but they are both engaging and generate strong reactions. That neither can easily, nor immediately, be dismissed is a testament to their individual power, and at the heart of both pictures is, and this is certainly rare in a holocaust film (which neither movie really is), humor. Savage or touching, the wit in both pictures reveals the potential for further exploration into this most terrible of historical atrocities, and it also points towards an aspect of the cinema that allows for such unthinkable approaches to, indeed, become not only thinkable, but filmable.

Works Cited
Ebert, Roger. Seven Beauties. Original review, April 16, 1976. 604160301/1023
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Continuum: New York, 2004.
Marcus, Millicent. After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 2002.
Marcus, Millicent. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1986.
Witcombe, R.T. The New Italian Cinema. Oxford University Press: New York, 1982.

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