It’s about time I started the filmography of Lina Wertmüller, one of Italy’s finest female directors, the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for directing, and a fabulous exponent in the tradition of Commedia all’italiana – the bitter-sweet comedies from an era one could broadly call the second golden age of Italian cinema where social/political satire is infused into a tragicomic plot to drive home a message.
“Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’Agosto” [Eng. Title: Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, aka Swept Away] is the third in a set of films from the period that saw Ms. Wertmüller collaborate with Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, each film dealing with the clash of capitalist and communist ideals in the changing political landscape of Italy of the time (the other two being “Film d’amore e d’anarchia” and “Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore”). All three are different films, but it is this one that won worldwide acclaim and even went on to be considered as a landmark in cinema. All three films are brilliant in their own unique way, even if we can retrospectively see the final one as a natural progression for themes explored in the earlier two films. One may also notice that Ms. Wertmüller has a quirky way of naming her films – most of her early films have unusually long titles. Wertmüller is famous for often fusing (triumphantly) two of her favourite subjects – sex with politics (and occasionally religion) to tell a story, and in the process has often prompted debate by pushing the envelope and justifying it by forcing us to look at it from different angles.
Raffaella Lanzetti, her rich industrialist hubby and friends from the north hire a yacht for a vacation in the Mediterranean. Apart from their sunbathing rituals and swimming, their topic of conversation often veers towards politics and how their class have to put up with the incompetent left-wing peasants in getting Italy to work. Overhearing their conversations and frothing at his mouth is deck hand Gennarino, an ardent communist. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the bitchy Raffaella who revels in taunting him further on every occasion, be it the ‘overcooked’ pasta or reheated coffee.
One day after having overslept, Raffaella insists on being taken to a nearby beach for a swim despite warnings from the crew. Gennarino’s objections are overruled and asked to take her on a dinghy, which develops engine trouble half way. After a night at sea, they eventually drift towards a deserted island.
Once there, Raffaella continues to pass orders to Gennarino, insulting him whenever she could. After one insult too many, he snaps, trades back some choice insults and splits off on his own. The power equation changes when Raffaella realises she needs him to survive in the island, and offers to compromise. But Gennarino is brought up ‘the old way’, one where women are subservient to men and waited upon. He demands the same from Raffaella, often smacking her around. After the initial culture shock and some vain resistance, Raffaella relents and even ends up washing his underpants. Gennarino’s treatment of Raffaella begins to border on the misogynistic when he starts treating her as a slave – on one occasion even demanding her to take off her clothes. He nearly rapes her after catching up with a defiant Raffaella, but stops short by telling her that he would never impregnate a woman unless she offers herself willingly ‘filled of passion’. That day nevertheless arrives, when Raffaella falls in love with his primal nature, and completely surrenders herself.
They begin to live a romantic dream, until one day a rescue boat arrives near their island. Despite Raffaella asking Gennarino not to send them any signal, he does, out of his own machismo, and also to test how much she loves him. But once they are rescued, it becomes plainly obvious that Raffaella, despite her genuine feelings for Gennarino is never going to forego her worldly comforts for a life in the wilderness…
About the film:
While much has been written about the film, many criticising the open depiction of violence against women, one must point out that the couple’s relationship should be seen not at face value, but allegorically against a backdrop of the clash between left and right wing politics (whole governments changed every few months during this period), and the north-south divide in a country more starker than others – some of the words used by northerners to insult a southerner include ‘Turk’, ‘Abyssinian’, even ‘Negro’. What also shocks some is that for a comedy, it reinforces stereotypes by making them too convincing, with accusations that Wertmüller has pandered to a predominantly male fantasy. Which couldn’t be further from the truth, because she critiques both the protagonists in equal measure, even more so man’s inability to adapt fast enough to a changing world. She is equally critical of the blind faith in communist ideologies among its followers – one mustn’t separate the sexual tensions from the politics contained within the film. Performance wise, Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato scorch the screen in scenes that have by now become legend, even if Giannini is outrageously over the top in some scenes. Technically, the stunning cinematography by Ennio Guarnieri and team capture Sardinia at its sunniest best (even if it was apparently cold during many days of the shoot), and the editing is coherent and smooth despite using a multitude of short takes. And eroticism being of the mind, you’ll know why this will also make an excellent ‘date’ film. This gem of a film is therefore Highly Recommended Viewing..!
About the DVD:
I recommend the above DVD for those who can follow Italian, because it contains a fascinating set of interviews from Lina Wertmüller and Mariangela Melato. They talk about the making of the film, the concept, the famous on-screen ‘chemistry’ between Ms. Melato and Giannini, and Wertmüller’s desire to even make a sequel to this film! They jointly criticise Guy Ritchie and Madonna’s more recent remake of the same, and cite possible reasons for it not being so successful. It is also a pleasure to see how Ms. Melato has aged gracefully over the years whilst retaining all her charm and sharp wit.