-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
copyright © 2001 - 2005 VideoVista
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
reviewed by Richard Bowden
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
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
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
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.