Above: Giancarlo Giannini, Lina Wertmüller and Mariangela Melato
The first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award (Seven Beauties in 1975), Wertmüller was once an inescapable presence in the American media. The Seduction of Mimi (1972—her seventh picture), Love and Anarchy (1973), and All Screwed Up (1974), all made in Italy, were true sleeper hits in the United States, and simple enough to capture the attention of those middlebrow viewers bored or wary of the art house triumvirate of Fellini, Bergman and Truffaut. (This was back when a tolerance existed in the mainstream for foreign films, and the pictures played to sizeable audiences outside of major cities, albeit in dubbed versions.) Working from knee-jerk reaction rather than intellect, Wertmüller attacked sexual roles, religious dogma and political issues, confident that heat would eclipse the superficiality of her one-sided debates. In the process, she transformed leading man Giancarlo Giannini into the hunk du jour, and made a habit of tagging her pictures with longwinded titles, such as The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain (1978) and Summer Night, with Greek Profile, Almond Eyes and Scent of Basil (1986).
Her fall from grace was swift. After Seven Beauties, the balloon popped and the mainstream redirected its sights to the fluffier concerns of Star Wars, Wookies and prepubescent hyperactivity. Heavily advertised for its opening weekend (but limited to urban areas), A Night Full of Rain attracted more negative reviews than paying customers. A victim of the publicity machine, Wertmüller was only as good as her last hit. Today she couldn’t get arrested in America, and nearly everything she’s made since 1990 has been restricted to the screens of Europe.
I was generally unmoved by her work when it was in fashion. Once all the rage, Seven Beauties seemed unfocused and insincere to these eyes in 1975; today I find it virtually unwatchable. But Wertmüller holds a special place for what amounts to a (not-so) guilty pleasure, Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (1974), better known as Swept Away…, or Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, the first of those mile-wide titles.
Proposed as an examination of the economic and cultural rift separating southern from northern Italy (and, presumably, the proletariat from the bourgeoisie), its politics are artless and as rowdy as a barroom argument. Casting a low-income Communist deckhand (Giannini) alone on a desert isle with his employer’s pampered, shrewish wife (Mariangela Melato), Wertmüller reverses the roles of master and slave once the rich one can’t fend for herself. The film sides with the worker to the degree of sharing in his simpleton ideal, wherein slaps, punches, kicking and hair pulling possess the power to change interior attitudes and values.
Bulldozing through the early ‘70s women’s movement, Swept Away persecutes easy targets (moneyed and opinionated girlie-girls) as its well-heeled (and slightly butch) writer/director makes long-distance alliances with the working class. While such a case of liberal charity sounds less than endearing, the film may be imagined (perhaps after a few drinks) as a demented romantic fantasy—which, ironically, may have been what the director had in mind from the start. Bored with Wertmüller’s grandstanding, this is what I took from it in 1974, when my lack of sophistication allowed for an unfettered appreciation of the film’s idealistic and cosmetic attributes. Its color, music and location photography are uniquely atmospheric. (We can only hope that any future attempts to “restore” it for DVD won’t result in neutralizing or hardening its deliberate, soft-focus pastel hues.) And as a predictable, straight, horny young guy, I fell for Melato’s tan, blonde thirtysomething yenta. And Wertmüller had me: maybe—not all that deep down inside—I felt that Melato’s Rafaella was getting what she so richly deserved.
Music by Piero Piccioni
1. Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto (3:52)
2. Spirale d’Amore (2:48)
3. Vertigo (3:49)
4. Significa Amore (2:05)
5. Distesa Estate (2:27)
6. Andante Improvviso (4:22)
7. Las Encantadas (1:55)
8. Turquoise (2:07)
9. L’Isola Misteriosa (2:15)
10. Insolita Luce Azzurra (3:55)