“Oh, Madonna! This nightmare is finally over. God, do I want some coffee. Fresh, of course.”
— Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti
More than 40 years after the fact, Lina Wertmüller is still an audacious filmmaker. Not only does she incorporate sociopolitical commentary, satire, and crazy sex into her work, but her ’70s films are inherently interesting because they push buttons. She’s the first female nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, and there’s a reason for that: she’s a radical with more balls than just about anyone else working, even today.
Case in point: Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August [Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto] — or simply Swept Away for short — is not a standard comedy. The plot is simple: an insufferable rich bitch, Raffaella (Mariangela Melato), is vacationing in the Mediterranean with her millionare husband (Riccardo Salvino) and their friends on a yacht. Raffaella is thoughtless and demanding, and she relentlessly berates rugged deckhand Gennarino Carunchio (Giancarlo Giannini) because the coffee isn’t fresh, the fish doesn’t taste right, and the pasta isn’t al dente enough.
She insists that Gennarino take her swimming. The two end up stranded in the water, far from the yacht. They eventually spot land, which turns out to be a small uninhabited island. Gennarino, a fisher, has no trouble finding food or shelter. Raffaella isn’t used to doing things herself, and soon finds that she is dependent on Gennarino. He isn’t exactly gracious about his new upper hand. It isn’t long before their relationship takes a sexual turn.
Wertmüller, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed, plays on traditional notions of sex roles. By today’s standards, Swept Away is probably too violent to come off as funny. The many scenes where Gennarino slaps and physically pummels Raffaella are bad enough, but when he rapes her on the beach? It’s disturbing. How is that funny? That’s the point — at first, anyway.
Swept Away isn’t really about sex: it’s about power. Here, the power dynamic shifts once Raffaella and Gennarino are out of the “civilized” world and lost in the wild, where economics and social status no longer define one’s place. Like all of her early films, Wertmüller has a lot to say about class structure; here, she also has a lot to say about male/female relationships. She’s controversial, but her approach works really well. It helps that Melato and Giannini, who starred in earlier films together, have a believable chemistry — and they spend a bit of time here wearing very little.
Swept Away is not a typical film. I call it a comedy, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any category. It’s sharp, subversive, and still pretty potent.
With Isa Danieli, Aldo Puglisi, Anna Melita, Giuseppe Durini, Lucrezia De Domizio, Luis Suárez, Vittorio Fanfoni, Lorenzo Piani, Eros Pagni
Production: Medusa Distribuzione
Distribution: Medusa Distribuzione (Italy), Cinema 5 Distributing (USA)
(iTunes rental) B+