For this Valentine’s Day, Lucas over at 100 Films has initiated The Lovesick Blog-A-Thon. Unfortunately caught in the middle of several other commitments, I was unable to compose anything new for this event. In an effort to stay in the spirit, I offer the following “rerun” of a Flickhead review posted last year: Originally distributed in the United States by Cinema V, a dubbed version of Lina Wertmüller’s 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 (1974). 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.
The wealthy and eternally argumentative northern Italian Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) is vacationing on a yacht manned by a handful of low-income Sicilians. Among them, Gennarino (Giancarlo 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 (1973), Seven Beauties (1975), 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.
Melato and Giannini
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. Available from Amazon
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.