Me Judge Brett Cullum. You Lina.
A man, a woman, and a power flip.
Lina Wertmuller is not exactly exposing herself as a feminist with her 1974 sex farce Swept Away. It features a rape fantasy of a plot so offensive only a female director could get away with it—something Guy Ritchie (Snatch) woefully forgot when he cast Madonna (Evita) in the lead role of his misguided remake. There's something about this movie so Italian that one could never hope to translate it in to another culture. Two opposites go at each other's throats: a rich privileged socialite and a poor working man. They get stranded on an island and have to deal with a sudden reversal of power, where the servant becomes the master and the man shows his true colors. But what makes the film so damn interesting is that the more violent and macho the man becomes, the more the female can not resist him. And then in a stunning climax, reality once again invades their lives. It's a fascinating character study that combines all of the elements that made Wertmuller such a sensation during the mid '70s, when men and women were firmly squaring off against each other in the sexual revolution and the equal rights movement. Yet the celebrated director refuses to take sides. Iin the end she merely exposes human nature for what it is—a schizophrenic blend of sexual instincts and higher level thinking creating delicious hypocrisy.
Facts of the Case
The setup is simple, even if the sociopolitical ramifications are complex. In the gorgeous Mediterranean we come across a spectacular yacht making its way on a pleasure cruise. On board is a wealthy socialite named Raffaella (Mariangela Melato, The Cat) who is a spoiled prima donna from Northern Italy who believes in the natural selection of capitalism. She is terribly cruel and nasty to the Sicilian, working stiff sailor (Giancarlo Giannini, Seven Beauties) who is forced to wait on her. But destiny deals them both a strange hand when Raffaella demands to be taken out on a dinghy despite the concerns of the sailor. They are stranded at sea by a motor that craps out, and subsequently end up on a deserted island. Suddenly the blue collar Gennarino has the upper hand, as he knows better how to survive out in the wild. He takes the opportunity to put Raffaella in her place severely, demanding that she become submissive to him in every possible way. We think she will uphold her indignant protests, but then something strange happens. She likes being dominated, and she grows to enjoy the rough treatment and subjugation under her macho master. But easy arrangements soon give way to the complex issue of what will happen when our castaways find themselves rescued.
Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away is easily her most accessible film. Previously the best version of it was found in The Lina Wertmuller Box Set, which was a pricey, six-disc affair. Wisely Koch Lorber has decided to release this single disc version so people can give the movie a try without owning an entire catalog of her '70s films. The nice, bright, anamorphic widescreen transfer has pleasing color fidelity. Most of the film is blue and sunny, so color fidelity is imperative and is well executed in this transfer. The back cover might lead you to believe there is only one Italian surround mix, but there are three audio options. One is the original Italian mono, another is the track brought up to stereo, and finally a full surround mix. All three of them sound about the same to my ears with very few directional effects used in the more robust mixes. Go with the original mono unless you feel compelled to fill the room with Italian delivered at lightning speed. Thank goodness there is no English dub (although it would have been witty to bring Madonna in for a recording session).
Swept Away has tons of fast talking. I felt like I was watching an Italian version of His Girl Friday at some points, and quite often it settled into the verbal banter of classic Hollywood screwball comedies. Everybody acts larger than life. I suspect only the Italians could get away with passionately discussing politics in such a silly over-the-top manner, so it's unique in that respect. There is nothing subtle or subdued about the performances from the two leads. The heavy stylization may turn you off initially, but give it a shot. Wertmuller wants to keep things loud and brassy, so that when quiet moments happen they have impact and resonance. For all the wall to wall conversation that happens in the film, the actors excel in what they say with their eyes and their bodies. In the world of Swept Away talking is but mere posturing, a way to kill time and fill gaps. But watch closely the eyes and body language, or you'll miss the character's journey. The nicest thing about the story is all the subtext that is going on around you.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Even though the film has a screwball comedy feel to it, Swept Away goes to dark places of male and female identity. It's hard to watch Gennarino's alpha male antics, especially when he strikes Raffaella. Even more horrifying is when she accepts it, and comes to like it in some masochistic way. Then there are the brutal sex scenes where he forces himself on her. Lina Wertmuller never shies away from sex in her films, but this is a bit much. I didn't mind in Seven Beauties when the sex got violent, but that was a woman taking it out on a man. Here it's more primal, and frankly more discomforting. In this day and age it's hard to watch, and I imagine even thirty years ago it was difficult. I've heard that women fantasize over what they call "bodice rippers," novels where the man takes charge in a physical way. That's good as fantasy, but bad when it is presented as an act of sociopolitical violence. Luckily both stars are sexy enough to soften the blows; the stylized acting allows us to distance their couplings into fantasy.
There are no extras on the disc. The stand alone edition of Seven Beauties includes an interview with Wertmuller, but Swept Away is afforded nothing. It's nice to have the film presented in a rich transfer with tons of audio options, but I feel a little cheated. Where are the actors? Where are people who worked on the film? Where's my well researched commentary by a film historian (or perhaps Guy Ritchie, who is an obvious fan)? A movie that makes such strong statements about gender and class demands a context; something to quiet my discomfort over what I have just seen, and let me know if Wertmuller had specific intentions by showing me the alpha male taking on the super woman.
The story pits two very strong personalities against each other. You have the macho alpha male and the predatory privileged woman. One is a communist from Sicily, the other is a capitalist from the northern part of Italy. About the only way to correlate the two in understandable American classes would be to take a ghetto day laborer from Compton, and pair him with a Beverly Hills heiress. But even that division doesn't quite accurately describe the divide between our two leads in Swept Away. The experience on the island seems to break them down to their core, essential, primal selves. In the character of Gennarino, I have no doubt he is broken. Yet in Raffaella I wonder. As a woman she remains much more complex even when survival instincts kick in. We're never truly sure what she means, and how much of her breakdown is an act. She seems to be controlled on the surface by the man, but is she the one that really has all the power? She will find a way to survive and adapt, even thrive under any circumstances. That's where Wertmuller does show a feminist streak, even when she allows the heroine to capitulate to the man. She does it because in the end she knows how to turn the situation to her advantage. Gennarino wonders if it's real, even to the bitter end. Raffaella is the only one who truly knows the score.
Definitely a black comedy classic and a sexual farce not afraid of its mean streak, Swept Away is a fascinating film. It'll make you question gender and class in such a way as to draw a conclusion that perhaps both are inescapable from birth and birthright. It will horrify and amuse you in equal amounts. In the end, Lina would probably appreciate both reactions to her film. Her muse has always been the actor Giancarlo Giannini, and one wonders if she used Mariangela Melato as her surrogate for her own fantasy: One where he becomes convinced he has all the power, but in the end the actor would have to beg for the love of the director.
Guilty of being a savage, sexy comedy that packs a brutal punch to the gut. Consider the full Italian title: Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
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