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Swept Away

cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Eros Pagni, Riccardo Salvino, and Aldo Puglisi
director: Lina Wertmüller
114 minutes (18) 1974
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Arrow / Fremantle DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
SPOILER ALERT!
Swept Away (aka: Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare di agosto / 'Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August') is a film that poses particular problems for a modern audience. It's a tale of comeuppance, laced heavily with political argument. One of sexual domination and submission and, ultimately, something of a tender love story too. Add into the mix the fact that it is directed by a woman, and contains one of the most controversial rape, or near rape, scenes in mainstream cinema of the time, and you have one of the more striking films to emerge from Italy in the 1970s.

Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti (Mariangelo Melato) is a rich bitch who, with a circle of rich friends, is enjoying a break on a luxury yacht along with two male servants, one of whom is Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini). During the opening scenes we hear a lot of political argument on board, usually from the cynical and self-justificatory viewpoint of Raffaella, whose blonde looks drive Gennarino to distraction, almost as much as do her fascist opinions. As a stark representation of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the treatment of one by the other, she constantly finds reasons to berate her servant.

Gennarino, we learn, is a big wheel when with his usual comrades: "an activist... almost top dog in his neck of the world." But to her disgust in her world he either serves stale coffee or overcooks spaghetti, and he needs to change his smelly shirt. This while she holds forth on the faults of 'sloppy southerners', and he glowers back at her from out under his shaggy locks, even petulantly refusing to share in the marijuana his colleague has stolen from one of the cabins. Raffaella's nitpicking and reprimands go on and on, even when eventually they end up in a rubber dinghy on an impromptu visit to the coast - whereupon the engine packs up and they are left to shift for themselves. Finally they make shore on a deserted island and now, with the advantage of his practicality and strength, Gennario initiates a reversal of power roles, both political and sexual...

Politics aside, on board the view quietly held by the two servants is that "a man must keep his dignity, above all else." Sure enough, it is the insult to his pride that enrages Gennarino, more so than the slights on his beloved communist party. Interestingly, in Pasqualino Settebellezze (aka: Seven Beauties, 1975), Wertmüller's film made just after this one and with the same male lead, the director was to continue the exploration of this theme, but in reverse. There, and again to survive, a leading character has to forget his dignity and similar overweening pride before a powerful woman (a concentration camp commandant). Today Swept Away remains the more controversial of the two films, principally because the passing of two decades has made the willing subjugation of a woman, especially in a sadomasochistic setting, less and less acceptable - although in the right hands it can still provide striking cinema, witness Ki-duk Kim's recent Nabbeun namja (aka: Bad Guy, 2001), but even that couched matters in extended fantasy. Add to that the fact that Wertm�ller is a leftist and female to boot, it remains very difficult to shrug off her work as unintelligent or casually exploitative.

Once ashore on their unnamed island, as Gennarino rebels against her arrogance, Rafaella discovers that changed circumstances make her money and all previous airs and graces useless. Previously our sympathy has been almost entirely been with the servant, but with this shift in politics things get more interesting. Gennarino plays the underdog to the woman he calls an 'industrial bitch' no longer - a process accompanied by an amusing and (for those learning colloquial Italian, anyway) educational stream of invective between the couple as they fall out and temporarily separate. In a short while, of course she realises she can't survive without the help of her previous employee. It's he who prepares and cooks the food, claims the small hut there for his own, while she is reduced to washing his underwear - the first in a line of indignities that she gradually comes to accept as the natural way of things. At first Gennarino simply wants a bit of his own back having been driven too far. Then it develops into something more permanent. In a key scene he refuses to stay with her until she kisses his hand then, lust aroused, he makes his play but abruptly stops short of consummating his passion - until she gives herself to him emotionally as well as physically. Like the Party, he demands total commitment demonstrated.

How seriously can we take Wertmüller's scenario? Critics of the film tend to be too straight-faced for their own good, while they rarely deny the effectiveness of the piece. One clue is the presentation of Gennarino. On board the yacht he retains our sympathy but through degrees of comedy: his humorous peering out at the topless sunbathers from below decks for instance, or petulance when presented with the rich man's reefers; his shaggy appearance, or the quality of his singing (described by Raffaella, without hint of sarcasm, as 'mellifluous'). Significantly he is working in relative comfort, with no direct depiction of the downtrodden masses anywhere, apart from that suggested by the nagging on board. This is a figure far from the noble worker-heroes found in Soviet cinema, for instance, empowered by their politics. Instead once away from the yacht he will gain superiority by use of his exaggerated masculinity, while at the end the 'real' Gennarino (as he deems it) is actually far less sophisticated than his political awareness suggests. Raffaella's character contains more than it's fair share of parody too, arguably satirising rather than expressing the views of a particular group, her diatribes against others too shallow to be convincing. In fact the whole neat, class conflict aboard is often expressed in exchanges so jabbering and bitchy that it becomes unexpectedly amusing, the yacht containing such 'debates' being as much a vessel for extreme fantasy as is the island.

Earlier Raffaella has made a joke about liberals "still shipping yellow shoes to Russia." It's apt, then, that she and the obstreperous servant should drift off in a yellow dinghy, and that its a yellow bag she lugs around upon landfall. Once ashore it's soon clear that Raffaella - and the audience - have been 'swept away' in more than one sense; geographically perhaps, but also politically, with positions of social power reversed by circumstance. But controversially she also "feels full of primordial sensations, like I have been swept off my feet."

As Gennarino establishes his rule over his former employer, insisting she grow to love and worship him in the process - or face exclusion and hunger, she responds favourably to this treatment and eventually falls at his feet as the greatest subsidiary to his comfort. But now comes the interesting twist. Wertm�ller's script begins with the depiction of class war, continues with sexual power play, and ends with the union of two hearts. As their time on the island concludes the stranded man and woman do indeed grow genuinely fond of each other (unlike some viewers I don't think Raffaella's affection for her 'master' is feigned to secure survival and it is she, not he, who fears returning) until the inevitable rescue brings them back to the real world.

The final scenes are touching, intimate and ashore to reality - in direct contrast to those which begin the narrative containing alienated characters afloat in a cold world. Outside of the island Gennarino has a wife and children and Raffaella has a husband and a helicopter. Whether or not Gennarino's fear of revealing himself as an emotional softy is ultimately justified, however, I leave to those watching the DVD to discover.

Wertmüller's film is a product distinctly of the 1970s, testified by its frequently cheesy soundtrack, an occasionally campy depiction of yacht life, as well as the sexual politics it headlines. But modern viewers will find it holds up well, as the central issues remain pertinent and as thought provoking. Photographed well and with two excellent leads, Swept Away asks the audience to decide exactly where they stand, not so much in politics or sexual empowerment but in witnessing an unexpected trust and love between two human beings.

Ultimately, what redeems a film veering towards the uncomfortable is not so much the tartness of Wertm�ller's observations, but the moving presentation of a man and woman who, no matter what their class bias, can still find genuine emotional engagement in a fractious world.

It's a shame that the DVD offers no special features other than scene access and subtitles, as one would love to hear Wertm�ller's own view of this project (and also of the dismal remake starring Madonna, which appeared a year or so back). But this is still a welcome and important release.
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