Lina Wertmüller’s meditation on sex, slavery and economics
When it came over from Italy to America in 1974, Swept Away
marked a turning point in Lina Wertmüller’s popularity, from the limited-run art house hits Love and Anarchy
(1973) and All Screwed Up
(1974), to the pinnacle of Seven Beauties
(1975), a box office favorite nominated for four Academy Awards. (She was the first woman to be nominated for Best Director.) She graced the cover of Newsweek
, gave interviews far and wide, and made overnight sensations of her stars Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini…all of which vanished in a puff of smoke once adult concerns were erased from the screen near the end of that culturally erratic decade.
Sometime in 2005, a film blog offered a list of the best women filmmakers of ‘all time,’ where Wertmüller was mysteriously absent. I assume that one had to have lived the moment to appreciate the power she once held, as well as to mourn the rather rapid fall from grace with later, barely-released pictures like A Night Full of Rain
(1978) and Blood Feud
(1978). Indeed, most of what she’s done since the ‘80s has had a hard time just making it to screens outside of Europe. When I submitted her name to the blog’s comments, the feedback revealed that only a couple of the readers were familiar with her work at all, and the pictures that they knew of were Seven Beauties
and Ciao, Professore!
, a relatively obscure comedy from 1992.
Originally distributed in the States by Cinema V, a dubbed version of Swept Away
once made inroads throughout suburbia, while the major cities had it in Italian with subtitles, under the full, weighty title Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August
. Although heavy with dialog, its indiscreet examination of class conflict and brazen sexual domination were enough to lure the masses undoubtedly anticipating freewheeling Euro-erotic thrills. Add the exotic island locale in the sunny Mediterranean with two tanned, attractive leads frolicking on the beach, and the picture appears as a premeditated surrender to commercialism, with knee-jerk politics as bait for the director’s supporters.
Seen today, the original Italian version digitally restored and remastered on DVD from Koch Lorber—retaining all of the beautiful pastel colors of paradise that I vividly remember from years ago—the contrasting drama often feels forced and without a hint of subtlety. Yet the themes that it harps on—the clash of Catholicism and Communism in Italy, the gulf separating the poor from the rich, the liberals from conservatives—seem especially relevant now in America as the political right has effectively polarized its people by economics, class and an unyielding, chip-on-the-shoulder variation on Christianity.
Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini
If Wertmüller is unable to make her way to current blog lists of women directors, then it may be necessary to outline the film’s plot. The wealthy and eternally argumentative northern Italian Raffaella (Melato) is vacationing on a yacht manned by a handful of low-income Sicilians. Among them, Gennarino (Giannini) is a communist who’s stung by Raffaella’s steady stream of insults. As she demands to go to an island cove in rough waters at dusk, Gennarino takes her in a small lifeboat. But the motor conks out, they begin to drift, and after a few days find themselves alone on a desert isle.
As she hasn’t stopped complaining through the entire ordeal (and blames the misadventure on Gennarino’s incompetence), he reaches the end of his tether, tells her to ‘fuck off’ and fend for herself. As he dives for lobsters for dinner, she’s helpless in the rough and unable to forage for food. Raffaella offers to pay for the lobster, but Gennarino tells her it’s not for sale. If she wants to eat, she must work. As time passes and she gradually and grudgingly acquiesces, they realize that they’re eventually going to have sex. But if she wants that, he demands that she fall in love with him first.
Sniping witticisms turn to profanity and curses; derogatory hand and finger gestures become slaps, punches and kicks. Wertmüller’s films often point to the shift and distortion of old world traditions, usually in the midst of war: Love and Anarchy, Seven Beauties
, and The Nymph
(1996) are set either in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. Swept Away
takes place some thirty years after World War II, its characters the idle rich and working poor presumably born shortly before or during the war. In the ‘now’ of 1974, they’re in their thirties and forties with Raffaella and Gennarino driven by the anger fueled by years of unrest, people with radically opposing views of social injustice.
The class conflict between the north, the south and Sicily is Wertmüller’s battleground, where the roots, values and snobbery of an inherently proud culture have slipped. Her characters are trapped in different forms of slavery, connected by class concerns and the power of the dollar: he to serving the affluent, she to being served. They’re physically and symbolically adrift somewhere in the Mediterranean, detached from their accepted positions in life, left to examine who and what they are, playacting the type of people who Wertmüller imagines they’d prefer to be. For Raffaella, something of an epiphany occurs on the island; for Gennarino, a cold, sobering reality happens shortly after.
When it first came out, the film was simultaneously lauded and criticized for what many perceived to be brutal misogyny, but the roles Melato and Giannini play have less to do with sex than caricature. Raffaella’s bitchy feline and Gennarino’s simian grunt are political cartoons encapsulating the caste charade performed globally every day by the haves and have-nots. When she invites Gennarino to sodomize her, Raffaela (and Wertmüller) slyly offers the proletariat equal time, a chance to get even for centuries of metaphoric ass fucking. That Gennarino is initially baffled by the proposal signifies how blindsided the working class has become while toiling in the shadow of the bourgeoisie.
After thirty-plus years, does Swept Away
hold up? The film is constructed at such a fever pitch, with characters who are essentially timeless, that its numerous flaws become secondary. Wertmüller used four cinematographers, among them Ennio Guarnieri (who previously worked with Pasolini and De Sica), as well as the undervalued musical composer Piero Piccioni, and crafted a look, feel and flavor that exists solely within these frames. One cannot deny the presence of superficial aspects, nor, on the other hand, the film’s bravura. With the paradox set in Paradise Lost, Swept Away
continues to command the senses, even if the mind is occasionally tempted to move on to other, seemingly more important, things.
The original soundtrack by Piero Piccioni (A zip file, 41119 KB, with the tracks arranged as they were on the vinyl pressing distributed in the United States by Peters International Records in 1975. The missing numbers in the zip file indicate redundant and excised bonus tracks provided on the out-of-print CD issued by King in 2001.)
Copyright © 2006 by Ray Young