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“Swept Away”
Medusa Distribuzione, 1974
Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato
Director: Lina Wertmuller

The plot: Raffaella (Melato), an immensely wealthy woman, is yachting with friends in the Mediterranean Sea. There, she delivers a non-stop monologue of snobbery, entitlement, cruelty, and the politics of capitalism. Her attitudes, wealth, and beauty infuriate one of the crew, Gennarino (Giannini), an avowed and passionate communist. When she and Gennarino become stranded on a deserted island, her capitalist beliefs and his communist convictions clash, but during their struggle to survive, their social roles are reversed.

Why it’s good: Marcello Mastroianni may have had the looks and subtlety of a Roman Cary Grant, but Giancarlo Giannini took the acting honors in 1970s Italian cinema. His scruffy grooming, baleful eyes, and hang-dog expression could do wonders with rapid-fire Italian dialogue or romantic seductions; he was also possessed of the Latin fire found in men of the Mediterranean climes. He tears into his role here as an ardent Gramsci Marxist (not uncommon in post-war Italy) with the conviction of an actor who knows his material. Mariangela Melato is beautiful and sexy, yes, but has that scary prettiness found in pampered and powerful women. Her performance and her character are both an equal match for Giannini. Raffaella is the queen of the yacht, humiliating Gennarino and every thing he stands for. Once they are stranded on the island, she is utterly helpless and can only watch the crude workingman build shelters and fires and catch and cook lobsters. Gennarino is a ghastly sexist, and when Raffaella reacts with rage to his dictates, he becomes physically, verbally and psychologically abusive until this shrew is “tamed.” Wertmuller’s script is brilliant, as is her realization of it on the screen. The Mediterranean Sea has only looked this gorgeous in Mazursky’s “Tempest” in 1982.

Should I watch it? With only a handful of earlier films to her credit, Wertmuller emerged as a major European filmmaker among powerhouse peers like Fellini, Pasolini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, and Makavejev. She was the first woman ever nominated for a best director Oscar, and she carved out a very singular niche — sex and politics in post-war Italy — that was uniquely hers. Three terrific films, “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Love and Anarchy,” “Swept Away,” and her masterpiece, “Seven Beauties,” appeared each year from 1972 to 1975, each written and directed by the maestra. Roger Ebert wrote that, “‘Swept Away’ resists the director’s most determined efforts to make it a fable about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and persists in being about a man and a woman. On that level, it’s a great success.” Vincent Canby called the film “the most successful fusion of Miss Wertmuller’s two favorite themes, sex and politics, which are here so thoroughly and so successfully tangled that they become a single subject, like two people in love.” Not everyone was so delighted. Many cried foul, citing Gennarino’s degradation and rape of Raffaella: Anthony Kaufman called it “possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” Wertmuller, an ardent feminist and firebrand, happily took on all critics. This terrific film was remade into a 2002 turkey starring Madonna and Adriano Giannini (Giancarlo’s son), and directed by Madonna’s then-husband Guy Ritchie. The Koch-Lorber DVD boasts a beautifully remastered transfer.