“I feel swept by destiny into a strange, beautiful dream.” —Swept Away
The first part of this essay explored director Lina Wertmüller’s first two, important collaborations with the actor Giancarlo Giannini: The Seduction of Mimi (1972) and Love and Anarchy (1974), which established a number of recurring themes: left-wing politics, sexual transgression, the failure of machismo, an emphasis on pathetic, outcast protagonists, and a fascination with romantic relationships that fall outside the bounds of conventional Italian marriage. Wertmüller and Giannini’s two follow up films represent a continuation of these themes that would push them to their ultimate limits with Swept Away (1974), the story of an unlikely sadomasochistic affair that develops between a wealthy woman and a sailor-for-hire when they are stranded on an island, and Seven Beauties (1975), Wertmüller’s magnum opus about her “Man in Disorder” character type lost in the chaos of Nazi-occupied Europe during WWII. Considered two of her masterpieces, Swept Away and Seven Beauties are not for the faint of heart and include scenes of sexual violence and grotesque humor, underscoring Wertmüller’s use of sexual transgression as an effective, often jarring political tool.
While Seven Beauties is generally regarded as the apex of Wertmüller’s career, I personally find Swept Away to be the centerpiece of her ‘70s films with Giannini: it is the ultimate expression of the sadomasochistic relationship as political allegory. Raffaella (the sublime Mariangela Melato) is vacationing on her yacht and loudly voices her opinion about everything from food to politics and complains frequently about the service, inspiring rage in one of her servants in particular, the sailor Gennarino (Giannini). When she demands that he take her out, alone, for a quick trip to the shore of a remote island, she refuses to listen to his objections that the trip isn’t a good idea and possibly isn’t safe. Perhaps predictably, they become stranded on the remote beach, which is where their power dynamic takes an abrupt shift. Removed from the yacht and visual reminders of Raffaella’s wealth and social class, Gennarino refuses to take her abuse: he also refuses her food, shelter, and companionship. Eventually wearing down her will power and dominating her sexually with an act of rape, they begin a passionate romantic relationship that is unmistakably sadomasochistic.
Like many of her films, Swept Away was marked by critical horror over Wertmüller’s depictions of women and sexuality on screen. In Film in Society, Joan Mellen captures the sort of feminist outrage that accompanied Swept Away:
Wertmüller, then, was no better than the slew of male directors portraying women as either call girls or hapless domestics. That a talented woman director should continue to perpetuate old demeaning stereotypes was not to be forgiven. […] Viewing Swept Away literally, the feminists were especially incensed as Mariangela Melato thrilled before the abuse heaped upon her by Giancarlo Giannini. Wertmüller was called a male chauvinist for portrayed a woman in masochistic enslavement to a man…”
While I think this misinterpretation of Swept Away couldn’t be further from the truth, it betrays the director’s talent to disorient and offend: the blurred lines between sexual and political symbolism were clearly too much for many critics at the time, and in particular many feminist writers and cultural commentators. Wertmüller herself described Raffaella as a “symbol of bourgeois enlightenment” and she is one of several similarly challenging roles that Melato took up for the director—she was often cast opposite Giannini for an electrifying effect, though the chemistry between the two is perhaps at its best here. She is the living embodiment of the conflation of sexual domination with political domination and Mellen writes that Wertmüller “recognizes that the situation of woman is intimately bound up with the social world she inhabits.” As Giannini often represents this idea of “Man in Disorder,” as discussed in the first part of this essay, Melato’s characters refuse a rosy view of the heroine. Her characters are intelligent, defiant, and passionate, but there is simply no removing them from the reality of their roles in Italian society—and more broadly, in the capitalistic Western world.
In Mira Liehm’s important Passion and Defiance: Italian Film from 1942 to the Present, the Italian cinema scholar writes, “The film’s strong point is its explicitness, through which Wertmüller captures the relationship between a man and a woman, a servant and his master, who find themselves on a deserted island and gradually reverse their roles: the woman, a high-society lady, becomes a slave to her own servant, relishing her total submissiveness and eventually falling in love with her ‘master.’” Her aim, ultimately, is total degradation and she begs for sex, for sodomy. In a strange parallel to the central couple of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974), where they are allowed to explore the depths of their passion for each other—which includes acts of humiliation and violence—in complete freedom, only because they remove themselves (or are removed, in the case of Swept Away) from society. While The Night Porter’s lovers resign themselves to suicide-by-vengeful-former-Nazi, Raffaella and Gennarino reluctantly return, because they are found by rescuers, but are unable to situate their relationship as it was on the island within the real world.
John P. Lovell’s Insights from Film into Violence and Oppression asserts, “This film not only presents a critique of capitalism and socialist strategies of revolt but also presents a complex analysis of gendered power relationships and a subtle exploration of white skin privilege and cultural constructions of race. The viewer is asked to analyze the locus of power each character. Raffaella appears to have no power without her economic and social class status.” While Gennarino’s obsession with dominance and power—because he previously had none—is pivotal to their relationship, the film is really focused on Raffaella’s power: both perceived power and actual power.
It is abundant by the end of the film that she never really has any and her enthusiastic masochism represents her at her most liberated. The film’s tragedy—and the source of what Wertmüller seems to perceive as true misogyny within the world—is revealed when she has to return to civilization and return to the role playing demanded by class, race, and gender. Utterly unlike Seven Beauties or the films to come before, Swept Away dispenses with the grotesque sexual comedy at which of Wertmüller was so adept. The sex scenes between Giannini and Melato in Swept Away, even the numerous scenes of violence, are deeply erotic and represent some of the few glimpses of genuine romance in Wertmüller’s work. Of course, neither love nor the liberating powers of sexual transgression are enough to overcome the fundamental cynicism of the world.
With its WWII setting, Seven Beauties bears something in common with films like The Night Porter or Pasolini’s Salo (1975), which explore the political ramifications of fascism, while also reinterpreting it as a form of (or at least related to) sexual transgression—what Susan Sontag would essentially describe as the fetishization of fascism. Set during the war, Seven Beauties follows the all-around despicable criminal and lothario Pasqualino (Giannini). After a pimp attempts convinces Pasqualino’s sister to prostitute herself, Pasqualino murders the man and is caught dismembering and trying to dispose of the corpse. He’s sent to an asylum, but—after a series of unpleasant misadventures—escapes into the welcoming bosom of the army. Also finding that not quite to his taste, he deserts, only to be arrested and sent to a German concentration camp where he learns just how far he will go to ensure his own survival. Many such WWII-themed films from the ‘60s and ‘70s were about testing these limits of survival, particularly in the sense that the body became a site of political allegory. Directors like Wertmüller, Pasolini, Cavani, and Fassbinder explored the boundaries of sexual exploitation, privations, and appetites as refracted through the lens of war.
Though it is generally regarded as Wertmüller’s masterpiece, the film resulted in almost instant critical hysteria. In Man in Disorder: The Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s, Grace Russo Bullaro writes that the director was accused of “pro-Nazi sentiment, unforgivable vulgarity and misogyny.” In the seminal Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, Annette Insdorf references Pauline Kael’s scathing review, which asserts that Wertmüller “turns suffering into vaudeville not as part of a Brechtian technique, but, rather, as an expression of a roller-coaster temperament. The suffering is reduced to fun house games.” Holocaust survivor, psychologist, and author Bruno Bettelheim viciously attacked the film in The New Yorker, citing its amorality as the chief cause for his concern. Though sexual violence and genocide are depicted onscreen, it is the lack of moral absolutes that so appalled Bettelheim and other critics, and he specifically wrote that he thought the director was fascinated by the “power, brutality, amorality” of concentration camps and the Holocaust.
Like other Holocaust-focused narratives, either in films like The Night Porter or memoirs by survivors such as Primo Levi, there is the repeated theme that one must be willing to sacrifice one’s morals—arguably even one’s humanity—to survive such extreme evil. Grace Russo Bullaro argues that the film’s true arc is not an exploration of Pasqualino’s depraved appetites as he sinks further into horror, but that his character is inherently ignorant, even naive, and gradually becomes aware of full extent of humanity’s depths as the film progresses. She writes,
Like an innocent child who all of a sudden is thrust into the adult world of forced knowledge and responsibility, once in the concentration camp Pasqualino has to come to grips with the fact that human beings are capable of great evil. Equally, he must grasp that it is entirely possible to become the victim of such coldly calculated perversion and destruction. Of course it is ironic that he himself, a rapist and murderer, should be asking the question.”
His narcissism, seeming inability to love, and distinct lack of moral fiber makes him something of an anti hero on a underworld descent. Bullaro suggests that Wertmüller is intentionally evoking Dante’s Inferno: “Also like Dante, Pasqualino finds himself in a dark wood both literally and figuratively at the start of Seven Beauties.” But unlike Dante’s journey of growth born of infernal horrors, Pasqualino seems perversely unchanged. Bullaro asks, “Does Pasqualino Frafusa experience moral growth as a result of the horrendous events he witnesses and in which he participates? Does he change in the course of the film?” I believe Wertmüller is suggesting that the concentration camp system is a kind of contemporary hell from which there is no redemption or rehabilitation meant to steer away from the grotesque sentimentalism and emotional pornography of mainstream Holocaust films like the deplorable Schindler’s List (1993). Instead, it provides us with a challenge to imagine such a world and what compromises we would be willing to make to survive. Insdorf describes the film as “a world drained of color” and writes that “Seven Beauties refuses the complacency of a fixed moral structure. It doesn’t tell us what to think; it doesn’t offer answers.”
For me, the film’s most impressive triumph is that through the sense of humor Wertmüller developed in her films earlier in the decade—in collaboration with Giannini’s very physical performances—laughter itself takes on a transgressive, liberating function. The director’s choice of comedy and irreverence shocks more profoundly than her depictions of sexuality or violence, leaving behind a deeply uncomfortable masterpiece. Incredibly, Seven Beauties was nominated for multiple Academy Awards and with this film, Wertmüller was the first woman to be nominated for Best Director. Both Seven Beauties and Swept Away, then, are overdue for quality Blu-ray releases, though luckily Kino Lorber have provided just that with their recent theatrical (and partial Blu-ray) run of seven of Wertmüller’s films.
To me, these two releases are the jewel of the collection and include a number of worthy special features. Swept Away is a great place to start for any Wertmüller novices, as it includes essays from director Allison Anders (Four Rooms) and Grace Russo Bullaro (author of Man in Disorder: The Cinema of Lina Wertmüller in the 1970s, who I quoted above), as well as an interview from director Amy Heckerling, and an audio commentary from Valerio Ruiz. Ruiz directed Behind the White Glasses, a recent documentary on Wertmüller, which accompanied her films’ theatrical run earlier this year, and segments from this documentary are included on both the Blu-rays of Swept Away and Seven Beauties. The Seven Beauties Blu-ray also includes an additional essay from Allison Anders and another from historian Claudia Consolati, and another interview with Amy Heckerling. Though I would love to have seen a second commentary track on the Seven Beauties disc and some lengthy interviews with Wertmüller, both discs are important additions to any cinephile’s collection and I have to applaud Kino for their inclusion of so many female voices among the special features; whether it is out of anger or admiration, many women are obviously drawn to the director’s work. And while I can’t completely agree with Henry Miller, who is quoted on the back of Swept Away, when he says that Wertmüller is “a better director than any man,” but he certainly isn’t far from the mark and her aptitude for cinematic transgression, whether comedic or sexual, is rarely exceeded.