Swept Away (Italy, 1974)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Swept Away, or Swept Away... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August, as it is more properly known, was made during the most fertile period of director Lina Wertmuller's career. Wertmuller, whose entrée into filmmaking came via working as Federico Fellini's assistant, would go on to be the first female nominated for the Best Director award (for 1976's Seven Beauties, her follow-up to Swept Away). During its initial release, Swept Away was controversial for its bold depiction of gender relations. Today, as we ride the crest of political correctness, the film's approach and content have become anathema. Even the fact that the movie was written and directed by a woman has not allowed Swept Away to completely avoid the "misogynist" misnomer.

For those who aren't paying careful attention, Swept Away can be difficult to watch. Those who view this film casually may easily mistake it for a male fantasy (although the presence of subtitles will likely keep such viewers away). The reality, however, is that Wertmuller is exhibiting the courage to show things that other filmmakers shy away from. She uses controversial material as a means to pose questions, and, by piquing our ire, gets us involved in the film. At times funny, at times tragic, and at other times touching, Swept Away is a near-perfect mixture of comedy and drama. And the watchability quotient isn't hurt by the fact that lead actor Giancarlo Giannini and lead actress Mariangela Melato spend most of the film in bathing suits - or less.

The plot is reasonably straightforward. Swept Away is more concerned with issues and the shifting balance of power in relationships than it is about pursuing a complex narrative. The film begins aboard a private yacht in the Mediterranean. Raffaella (Melato), the snobbish and arrogant wife of a rich man, spends most of the day lounging around or playing cards. She is relentlessly critical of Gennarino (Gianni), one of the deckhands. In her eyes, he can do no right. Even his pasta isn't al dente enough for her. One day, she decides that she wants to go swimming off the shore of an island and orders Gennarino to take her there. Along the way, the motor on the dinghy dies, and the two end up stranded out in the water, far away from the boat and the island. Eventually, they sight land, but, instead of this being their destination, it's an uninhabited island. They are marooned. Food and shelter are the first orders of business. Gennarino has no trouble obtaining both, but Raffaella, unused to doing anything for herself, is helpless. In order to secure Gennarino's aid, she must perform menial chores for him. When she fails at something, he hits her (not a playful tap, but a hard slap) and she must endure the blows without complaint. It's not long before their battle of the sexes turns into a dance of sexual attraction. Isolated from any other human contact, Raffaella and Gennarino develop a powerful attraction for one another. But the lingering question remains: could their attachment survive the seemingly inevitable return to civilization that looms in their future?

For those in search of a little romance, Swept Away can be seen as a love story, albeit an unconventional one. Its approach will disturb some - that a woman can fall in love with a man who abuses her, both physically and emotionally. However, those who criticize the film on this level are ignoring two important points. First, Raffaella actually starts the abuse with her constant berating of and lording over Gennarino on the yacht. Secondly, this "romance" is not taking place in anything resembling a civilized situation - by virtue of their circumstances, the characters have been thrown back into a setting that mimics prehistoric times, when survival (of the individual and of the species) dictated coupling. Gennarino's physical dominance of Raffaella is, in a strange way, the manner in which he proves to her that he is strong enough to be her mate.

Swept Away is about shifting power balances. In the "real" world, where the boundaries of economic influence and social power define the class structure, Gennarino is trapped on a plateau several rungs beneath Raffaella. He can complain about her domineering tactics, but he can't do anything. He is essentially impotent. Once on the island, however, the dynamic changes. There, with all other humans removed, money is meaningless. Food is critical, worth more than millions and millions of lira. Gennarino knows how to obtain it; Raffaella does not. Hence, she must subjugate herself to survive. At first, she is resentful of this, but, in time, she relishes the submissive position. This is the same game that corporate executives sometimes play when they visit dominatrixes. Surrender, for someone used to being in control, can be a blissful relief.

Then come the questions about Gennarino and Raffaella's return to civilization. She is opposed to it; he is not. She recognizes that, once they have regained society, their relationship will crumble. They will re-assume their previous positions. He, however, in an act of typical male insecurity (and, one might argue, stupidity), needs proof that Raffaella's feelings for him transcend everything else. Hence, when the opportunity arises, he wants to leave the island and have her reject everything to be with him. It isn't going to happen. Once money again becomes a factor, the power balance shifts back to Raffaella, and, although she may genuinely love Gennarino, she will not throw away everything to be with him. He is no longer the dominant male in her life. Civilization has emasculated him.

Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini are perfect for these roles. Both actors display impressive range in parts that are physically and emotionally demanding. They deftly handle the transitions from comedy to drama, allowing us to laugh or cry as the circumstances warrant. And, as the script transitions the balance of power from Raffaella to Gennarino to Raffaella, Melato and Giannini aid our shift in sympathy as it moves from one character to the other. We start out despising Raffaella, then grow to sympathize with her, before we finally dislike her again (although, in the end, we understand why she has made the choice she has). Likewise, our bond with Gennarino moves from amused empathy to active dislike to sadness.

Although there is a great deal of seriousness in the issues addressed by Swept Away, the film is at times bitingly funny. Those who must classify every film often have difficulty with this one, unable to decide whether it more appropriately belongs with the dramas or the comedies. Swept Away offers a no-holds barred depiction of the war of the sexes. Of course, this is a common theme for movies (especially romantic comedies), but few offer such an unsparing look at the naked divisions that impair communications between men and women. Raffaella and Gennarino aren't just sniping at each other in the interest of developing sexual tension. They are airing deeply-felt issues and convictions. They speak and act with passion, and, when they finally connect on a romantic/sexual level, it has great meaning.

Two relatively recent films have strayed into Swept Away's territory. The first is the anemic romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights, the Harrison Ford/Anne Heche outing which borrows from The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, and Swept Away, and makes all of those movies look infinitely superior by comparison. It is instructive to watch Six Days, Seven Nights because it shows how this kind of story might be done when constricted by political correctness and the need to enhance the cuteness factor of the romance. Moving beyond Six Days, Seven Nights, there are also similarities between Swept Away and Cast Away. Aside from the obvious stranded-on-a-deserted-island aspect, both films illustrate how difficult it can be to return to civilization after developing a life and routine away from it.

For those who have come to expect all motion pictures to develop in safe, expected ways, Swept Away offers an opportunity to experience something different. The movie is not realistic, but the strong element of fantasy doesn't limit its ability to captivate and intrigue. That's because the characters and their relationship rise to the top and arrest our attention from beginning to end. This gem of a film surprised audiences when it came out, and it has lost none of its power or relevance since then.

Swept Away (Italy, 1974)

Director: Lina Wertmuller
Cast: Mariangela Melato, Giancarlo Giannini
Screenplay: Lina Wertmuller
Cinematography: Giulio Battiferri, Giuseppe Fornari, Stefano Ricciotti
Music: Piero Piccioni
U.S. Distributor: Cinema 5 Distributing
Ranked #91 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Violence, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Italian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1