Movies We Like
When I was 13, I was asked to play a peculiar game in class. At the request of our teacher, my peers and I were asked to draw four squares on a piece of paper. Inside each square we were to write the name of a loved one. We were then given a hypothetical scenario to consider: imagine being swept away to an island after a plane carrying you and your loved ones crashes - but you can only take one person with you. Everyone chose a parent or sibling. In retrospect, I suppose the point of the game was to make us realize that the person we chose could not meet all our needs in life. We could not propagate with this person, or grow to understand certain aspects of the human condition. The wise choice, we were told, would have been to look deeper into our futures and save the last square for a future partner. The whole thing confused and terrified us for weeks.
Lena Wertmüller’s Swept Away puts an endearing, comedic and political spin on such a scenario. A small group of wealthy adults are vacationing on a private sail boat far at sea. At their service is a modest company of poor Sicilian men. The rich are mostly comprised of married couples of no particular importance, but the most outspoken and vivacious of them all is Raffaella (Mariangela Melato). Raffaella loves to start political arguments or complain about the service, food and the state of Italy in the same breath. When not doing that, she’s gambling below decks or immodestly sunbathing. All to the outraged disbelief of Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a proud servant with whom she seems to enjoy fleshing out an example of everything wrong with socialism and communism. The two practically hate each other, for Gennarino is a defensive member of the Party she so fiendishly puts down. She is also, to his standards, morally bankrupt--and his machismo spirit is rapidly downtrodden when at odds against the “liberated” female.
Alas, she wants to go out to sea just before dusk after sleeping the day away and therefore missing the charter of the rest of group to visit nearby caves. Gennarino, for good reason, advises against it but is forced to take her out on a small inflatable motor-boat. As luck would have it, it malfunctions leaving them stranded. By morning its up and running but their stubborn unwillingness to work together leads them off-course to a deserted island.
There, things take a naturally drastic turn. Part “taming of the shrew” and part sadomachistic farce, the film develops as a boisterous battle of the sexes while simultaneously fleshing out a class war. For now that Raffaella must rely on Gennarino to survive, he is given a much-fantasized opportunity to put her in her place. And while this is to the dismay of most feminists, I’d simply say that opinions run high when gender is involved so why not take a closer look instead of being quick to judge?
Wertmüller was an assistant to Federico Fellini (8 ½, La Dolce Vita) before venturing on her own. Her work, including The Seduction of Mimi and Love & Anarchy, has consistently been regarded as anti-feminist, though overtly political. When in Rome do as the Romans do, goes the saying. Sure enough, the connoisseurs of Italian filmmakers that left audiences in a state of inner-conflict were being made around the same time as Swept Away: Bertolucci with The Conformist in ‘70 and Liliana Cavana with The Night Porter in ‘74, which features a sadomasochistic relationship between a Jewish woman and a Nazi official and was deemed by Mira Liehm in a ‘70s issue of Film Quarterly “morally ambiguous and politically dangerous.”
I’d jump on the bandwagon of Wertmüller’s supposed self-hatred and damning of women by way of detachment and male-favoritism if it weren’t for the fact that Swept Away is a comedy. One in which both the woman and the man are more-or-less made to look ridiculous by way of exaggerating their flaws and disillusioned stances on class and gender. They fight in the sand, literally, until there’s nothing left. No class, no gender--only an understanding of sorts. The film’s ending acts as a holdfast in a sea of confusion that makes me question the female laureates and theorist who mock the film. Neither character retains power or glory, nor are being made to look superior in any definite terms.
True, Wertmüller maintained a sympathetic viewpoint to her male characters and portrayed women who were traditional, for lack of a better word. To damn her for this would be like damning directors in the ‘50s who ever featured a black maid or porter in their work when in fact those roles were in real life occupied by blacks. Female directors are held on a strange pedestal of expected righteousness by feminist theorists. Their films, by the nature of their sex, are expected to empower women. In my opinion, no artist should have such a responsibility placed on their work - for we as viewers can and will take a narrative to mean whatever we wish and can come to those conclusions on our own. I’m interested in seeing a culture that is not mine, and this culture and the gender and class issues of the time were portrayed quite adequately here.
If you are looking for an example of a strong, funny and quite enjoyable film by a female director - that doesn’t hold your hand through a moral journey or have a bias to women - then Swept Away is one heck of a place to start.