The beautiful waters of the Mediterranean Sea. A sunny day. A gentle breeze. And the bizarre shrieking voice of a spoilt brat of an Italian woman that completely ruins the moment… and sets the scene for the experience of the remainder of this film perfectly. For while there seems to be much going on on the surface, in the end it suffers for having a confused vision of what it is trying to say.
Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti (Mariangela Melato) is a completely objectionable woman – wife of an Italian industrialist, she has an opinion on everything and won’t hear an alternate view. She also happens to be exceedingly beautiful, and not afraid to flaunt it to the crew of the rented yacht she and her dilettante friends are sailing upon. She particularly dislikes Gennarino Carunchio (Giancarlo Giannini), the ‘Southerner’ crew member who happens to be a member of the local Communist Party and has some fairly strong views himself. Days are spent taunting him both verbally and visually, until one day Mrs Lanzetti demands he ferry her by inflatable boat to a swimming spot nearby, and refuses to heed his warnings that it is getting dark and there is a strong current. Stranded in the middle of the sea, they make an odd couple, but their survival may depend on each other.
This simple premise is soon overwhelmed by the extraordinary behaviour of Gennarino, who upon realising they are free from the power of money and worldly status, attempts to extract revenge for all the insults and setbacks he has ever received. Washed up on a deserted island, it is now he who has the power – he is able to find food and shelter and the inept Mrs Lanzetti, who has never before done anything for herself, is not. The reversal of their positions is not enough, however, as Gennarino demands total submission.
The brutality of Mrs Lanzetti’s behaviour in the opening sequences is more than matched by that of Gennarino’s once he is freed from the shackles of servitude. He is physically, verbally and eventually sexually abusive, in a way rarely seen on film. I was particularly uncomfortable at several times, even more so as I found myself in an audience that found much of their behaviour amusing enough to laugh at. Was I missing something? Was this film being deeply ironic, and I was just not catching on?
Sadly, it seems that although there is much being offered here by way of subtext – political commentary on class and socialism, gender equality, and the changing roles of men and women in 1970’s society – there is just too much being said to allow a coherent point to be made. Wertmüller herself seems to have a clear view in her own mind where she stands politically, as she has defined an idyll and then demonstrated that those who work are of more value than those who reap the rewards. She seems more of the ‘red’ persuasion than not. It is the confusing stance on women’s rights that has had many viewers over the years not understanding this film. The first woman director ever to be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award – in 1977 for Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze) – and yet one of her earlier films seems to condone domestic violence, and in some aspects even glorify it.
This is technically a well-made film, with excellent performances from Giannini and, in particular, Melato, who effortlessly moves from abuser to abused, from hatred to love. The scenery is spectacular. The music, however, is disconcertingly intrusive at times, ruining several key sequences with unwanted distraction.
Swept Away is not an easy film to watch, and sadly it also fails to achieve a coherent message. Perhaps had it stuck to one issue, it would not have become so confused, and it could have been a great film – instead it is only solid.Rating: