Roman Candles – A Film Review of Swept Away

Original Publication – Newsweek, October 6, 1975.

He’s a cross between Rudolph Valentino and Steve McQueen. She’s loaded with offbeat glamour and pizzazz. Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato are the Italian cinema’s new dynamic duo, and their names on a movie marquee guarantee big box-office success from Milan to Sicily. Now, in SWEPT AWAY, Italian director-writer Lina Wertmuller’s latest film, which opened in New York two weeks ago, they have captivated both critics and the public with the sort of comic flair and screen chemistry that haven’t been seen since the young Marcello Mastroianni was pitching pasta and woo at Sophia Loren.

            Just as the late Vittorio De Sica ignited dramatic sparks between Mastroianni and Loren in films like “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” Lina Wertmuller has generated her own brand of high voltage with Giannini and Melato, both 33. Part of the fun of watching them interact on screen is that Wertmuller eschews conventional boy-meets-girl material for her two superstars. She is more concerned with how sex and politics intertwine, and she has invented for them a kind of witty, slapdash Marxist comedy that owes as much to Groucho as to Karl.

            Giannini and Melato were promising young theater actors whom Wertmuller had worked with as a playwright and stage director when she teamed them over the protests of producers in their first international hit, “The Seduction of Mimi,” in 1971. He played a pomaded Sicilian metalworker forced to the north of Italy to find work; she played a dedicated Marxist virgin. In “Love and Anarchy,” their next success, Giannini was a country bumpkin bent on assassinating Mussolini. He appealed for aid to Melato, a glamorous Harlow-haired whore with anarchist sympathies. “I was older and acted maternally toward him,” says Melato. “It was a new way of putting people together.”

            “Swept Away,” which was written especially for them by Wertmuller, has become one of the biggest moneymaking films in Italy and won Melato Italy’s most prestigious acting award. In the film, Melato, a blond rich bitch from Milan, is sailing around the Mediterranean on a chartered yacht. Giannini is a dark Sicilian deck-hand fervently committed to Marx and machismo. Naturally, they clash. She objects to how he cooks spaghetti, the coffee he serves and to his smelly T shirts. He does a slow burn until they happen to be marooned on an uninhabited island together—and then lets her have it.

            At that point, the film begins in earnest as a political and sexual farce. He becomes a clever cave man and she is at his mercy. “You are a pig and a whore and, what’s worse, a Social Democrat!” he says. “You miserable subproletarian Abyssinian,” she counters. Overcome by helplessness, she becomes his slave, then his mistress, and finally falls madly in love with him. But even in the heat of passion, politics are not forgotten. “Tell me,” Giannini asks, about to ravish her, “how do you rich people make love?”

            Bravado: In its most simplistic terms, the plot is outrageous and an insult to feminists. But beneath the easy reading, Wertmuller is giving us food for thought about the kind of society that breeds messed-up characters like these and about the difficulty of escaping from self-made roles, even in paradise.

            As the plot unravels improbably, Melato and Giannini manage to be sexy, intelligent and funny, carrying scene after scene alone on the island with high-energy bravado. At unexpected moments, they’re even touching and noble. Melato is apparently so oblivious to her own physical attributes that she threatens to wear the audience out with the sheer intensity of her acting. “When cameramen ask me what side of my face is best, I answer, ‘How do I know?’” she says. “The minute I start worrying about that, it won’t be fun any more. I like to throw myself into what I’m doing.”

            Giannini, on the other hand, is the complete technician—with feelings. During the shooting of a film, he instantly asks for a mirror to check his facial expressions. He is so good with his eyes that one flick of a lid can change the whole mood of his character. I think of myself as having a marionette inside my head,” says Giannini. “I pull the string and he is my character.”

            Melato and Giannini really don’t know why they click so well together in movies. “I think it was very important to have our first screen experiences together,” says Melato, “to have helped each other and to have learned together. I think we’re singular because neither Giancarlo nor I are really the physical types to be real movie stars in the traditional sense.”

            “There are two kinds of actors,” says Wertmuller, “those who want to remain themselves and those who want to change. Mariangela and Giancarlo like to transform themselves from role to role. They are modern. They work from their character, not their beauty. We are no longer in a time of beauty.”

            Escape: Off-camera, Giannini and Melato rarely see each other. Giannini lives quietly in Rome with his family. His one concession to stardom is driving a chartreuse Porsche. Melato, on the other hand, has never married and until last year liked to escape from her demanding career by hitchhiking to Paris without money—then, when recognized on the “autopista,” deny that she was La Melato. “They unfortunately always recognized my voice,” she says.

            What Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato share is a passion for the craft and a capacity for hard work. During the shooting of “Swept Away,” which was filmed mostly off the west coast of Sardinia, Melato broke her foot, had eighteen stitches put in, and didn’t lose an hour of work. Giannini broke his knee and didn’t stop working either. “I’ve been luck to have been able to work with Giannini,” says Melato. “He reads the same way I do. We cry for real, we fight for real—and we sweat.” It pays off.  

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