Mediterranean Farce, Feminist Fiasco
Swept Away...(by an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August) directed by Lina Wertmuller at the Exeter St. Theater, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10
ITALIAN DIRECTOR Lina Wertmuller's latest film has produced a paradoxical spectacle. Wertmuller, director of Love and Anarchy and The Seduction of Mimi, is a self-proclaimed socialist and "75 percent feminist". By all accounts she is also the most accomplished and exciting contemporary woman filmmaker. Yet Swept Away has been thoroughly damned as sexist by feminist critics, while apolitical middle class hordes line up around the block on New York's East Side to see the film hailed by Vincent Canby as the greatest romantic comedy of the seventies, a chic version of The Way We Were.
On first glance, Swept Away seems to bear a sexist message. Its protagonists are conventional sexual stereotypes. Raffaella (played by Mariangela Melata) is a rich capitalist bitch vacationing on a chartered yacht, most in her element when berating the deckhand who brings her iced coffee for the offensive odor of his sweaty shirt; Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini) is the long-suffering deckhand, devoted equally to the Communist Party and to machismo. The plot is equally classic: shipwrecked together on a beautiful mediterranean isle, the two characters reverse roles entirely. Proletarian Gennarino humiliates bourgeois Rafaella sadistically, avenging class oppression and affronts to his masculinity simultaneously. But once Raffaella submits willingly, the "natural" position of man as master and woman as slave takes over and they fall deeply in love.
IT IS NOT Wertmuller's intention to rehearse this sexist drama uncritically. Not only do her published statements contradict this reading, but her second film, The Seduction of Mimi, is such a riotous and trenchant lampoon of Italian machismo as to make it inconceivable that Wertmuller deliberately endorses such a relationship here.
But more importantly, Swept Away itself has clear comic overtones. Raffaela is too bitchy, too hysterically ludicrous, not to be a conscious caricature; the island, whose tropical climate never changes, is so lush and idyllic that Gennarino has only to reach into the water to produce a giant lobster. Surely whatever happens here cannot be a direct statement about the real world.
On a sympathetic reading of the film, Wertmuller has selected a conventional fantasy and stereotypic characters to parody the pervasively destructive effects of the link between sexual and social roles in Italian life. Even on a desert island the lovers must reproduce the warped roles of their society; the only type of relationship they can have is master to slave, since Gennarino's anger and Raffaella's masochism are so deeply rooted in their characters. If this were truly the thrust of the film, Swept Away would be a compelling feminist film effectively connecting sex and politics.
But such a sympathetic reading runs aground on the love story which comprises the second half of the film. Once Raffaella accepts subjugation, in a cathartic scene where she kisses Gennarino's feet after he has symbolically thrust a stake through a skinned rabbit, the comedy is dissipated. Using the graceful closeups which distinguish her style, Wertmuller evokes the intensity and eroticism of a great love affair so subtly and effectively as to make Last Tango in Paris seem like a mouthwash commercial. The subjective gaze of the camera and the expressive interaction of the actors combine to compel the audience to identify strongly with the characters, men with Gennarino and women with Raffaella. In fact, the emotional force of the relationship juxtaposed with the tranquil natural beauty of the island is so powerful that even viewers who come into the film with feminist sympathies find themselves responding avidly to the brutal sexuality they reject intellectually.
THE CHARACTERS SAY what the film implies--what happens on the island is the "natural" state of men and women. The overwhelming emotional implication of the film is that true happiness can be found, however transiently, in a relationship of domination and submission. Nothing Wertmuller does in the film undercuts this impression; ultimately, she loses her critical distance from her material and is carried away by the logic of the relationship. Though she set out to satirize sexual stereotypes, Wertmuller ends up reaffirming them.
Wertmuller's failure to overcome the sexist stereotypes she depicts cannot be excused as incidental, as a flawed execution of good intentions that can be minimized in interpreting the film. Her inability to carry out the comic project she creates for herself in the first half of film shows that the fantasy situation is more compelling to her than any understanding of the dilemmas of traditional sexual roles.
Wertmuller's fundamental lack of sympathy with feminist ideas parallels her conception of the relation between politics and love. In each of her films, Wertmuller shows men whose political ideas are contradicted by their emotional and sexual behavior: in Love and Anarchy Giancarlo Giannini fails to shoot Mussolini because he falls in love; in the Seduction of Mimi his machismo belies his communism and ultimately forces him to collaborate with the Mafia; in Swept Away he forsakes his peasant wife and children for the socialite Raffaella. Though Wertmuller sees herself as a political filmmaker, the emotional message of her films is that political ideas and action are irrelevant to people's lives. She offers as an alternative only a romantic pessimism embodied in passionate, irrational love of the most traditional sort.
Wertmuller's difficulties in seeing beyond the problems she depicts are characteristic of commercial films about sex and politics, whether made in Italy or Hollywood. She is able to present graphically the damage hierarchical social relations wreck on people's characters, producing class hatred, frustration, and sado-masochism. But she can see no way out and so idealizes the very destructive relationships she seeks to overcome.
Similarly, Hollywood films during the Depression present the conflicts that wracked American society but ultimately reaffirm the American Dream. Films such as De Sica's A Brief Vacation and Scorcese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore pose the issues of women's oppression but resolve them romantically. The key to such films' failure to transcend the problems they raise lies in their use of the stereotyped plots and characters of romantic comedy and tragedy. The logic of these genres leads either to a happy ending brought about by Fortune or an unhappy ending brought about by Fate; in either case the basic situation is left unchanged and the possibility of meaningful human action is denied.
THE POPULARITY OF Swept Away rests partially on its use of this romantic form, which mirrors people's fantasies. But its appeal lies more in Wertmuller's extraordinary ability to realize this fantasy through her camera and her actors, inextricably involving the audience with her characters. Wertmuller has said that she makes political films to reach a mass audience, by which she presumably means the working class. If Swept Away does reach a mass audience, as its current success suggests it may, no working class viewer will recognize its political intentions. He will only see a great love story reaffirming sexist roles, and in so doing he will not misread Wertmuller's true feelings.