“Swept Away By An Unusual Destiny In The Blue Sea Of August”
Lina Wertmüller, 1974 - Guy Ritchie's Swept Away 2001
By Laura Meucci
In a Steven Daly interview in “Vanity Fair,” Guy Ritchie and Madonna clearly state they do not intend to reproduce the heavy violence, sex, class and political conflict of the original 1974 Wertmüller Italian classic. Yet, after watching Ritchie’s remake, it’s hard not to notice how little the new "Swept Away" has in common with Wertmüller's original. Remakes are usually poor creative choices; there is always a higher burden of expectation and comparison with an original masterpiece that hardly ever turns out to be as good as the original creation. However, audience-pleasing seems not to be Ritchie’s goal – the remake of “Swept Away” opened in only 200 theaters nationwide. Ritchie’s remake results in an unconvincing, puritanical version of the original love-story. One can hardly believe that this is the same director of “Snatch,” as the decision to strip the plot of violence and its scathing language likewise seem to be out of character for both Ritchie and Madonna (who are no strangers to controversy).
In Daly’s article, Ritchie states that a contemporary audience “would not stomach the racial insults and violence of the original. You can kill as many people as you like, but don’t slap a bird.” Instead, he anesthetizes his remake from racial slurs and violence, replacing controversy with more acceptable PC versions that will not offend American and Anglo-Saxon audiences. With all the talk and expectations (or lack thereof) of Madonna’s performance, it is clear that while Melato and Giannini, Sr. are the unsurpassed protagonists of the original film, here, LANGUAGE is the ultimate star.
Yes, language, and not just Italian language, but regional Italian dialects through whose cadence politics, ideology, culture and sexuality are unraveled. The decision to strip the scathing language substructure from the remake is a catastrophic adaptation choice that ultimately dooms Ritchie’s film.
In defense of Ritchie and Madonna, the original film’s subtitles are a poor rendition of the Italian dialogue and the message of the original Italian script cannot be fully understood by non-Italian-speaking audiences. Because of this language barrier, Ritchie and Madonna misunderstand some very important scenes and misinterpret Wertmüller's film as being “more about sex and lust, and the characters desiring each other physically.” Madonna and Ritchie are hardly prudes, nor is the failure of the remake due to Madonna’s performance, or Ritchie’s lack of talent. In fact, apart from the translation barriers, the film direction, cinematography and script are quite good.
Language is the central element that supports the original film; Wertmüller chooses the film’s characters and their dialects carefully. First, there is Mariangela Melato, a blonde, blue-eyed northern Italian, representative of rich, capitalist, ‘white’ Italy. She speaks Milanese-Italian with a French r inflection, typical of Northern Italian pride. Giancarlo Giannini, Sr., a dark-skinned, scruffy, uncouth, uneducated Southern Italian, speaks with a thick Sicilian accent and is representative of the lowest Italian social class – a poor and southern ‘black’ Italy. The yacht guest, who constantly argues with Melato about politics, speaks ‘romanesco,’ an uncouth Italian dialect of the lower working classes in Rome. Although he is articulate and opinionated, and appears to be a white-Italian, his accent and communist views betray his working class, southern origins. To complete this potpourri of Italian socio-ethnic types, Giannini’s work colleague is a Neapolitan, whose wit, energy and make-the-best-of-it philosophy embody the Neapolitan ‘veracita`’ (no-nonsense attitude).
The settings of the film are the first sign of Wertmüller’s pun and caustic sense of humor: she takes a Milanese, a Sicilian, a Roman and a Neapolitan (representative of irreconcilable Italian types) and sets them on a yacht (each performing chores appropriate with their social status) in the middle of the Mediterranean. A perfect recipe for disaster, Wertmüller pushes the envelope even further when she decides to strand the two most opposite and irreconcilable Italian stereotypes on a deserted island: Melato and Giancarlo Giannini, Sr.
Melato’s constant verbal abuse and Giannini, Sr.’s physical violence are initially the only means of communication between the rich, capitalist “white-Italian” and the poor, Sicilian, “black-Italian” fisherman. Melato and Giannini, Sr. are unable to interact linguistically because they can barely understand each other. Their incommunicability is a complex mixture of vocabulary and value-system incompatibility, not one of regional accents. Giannini, Sr. uses violence as language, as a defensive/aggressive reaction against his educational and socio-cultural shortcomings, of which Melato makes him painfully and constantly aware. Throughout the film, Giannini, Sr. insists that Melato address him as Mr. Carunchio or as Master. He needs retribution for the humiliations he suffered as an underdog in Italian society, and takes his revenge by profusely slapping Melato (whenever he is at a loss for words which is constantly), who embodies all the evils that perpetrate his misery and humiliation. In the so-called ‘rape-scene,’ the apex of Giannini’s rage occurs when he enumerates the reasons he hits her – above all, that Italian rich capitalist have made the poor afraid of living. The rape never physically occurs, only psychologically through racial slurs, and derisive and denigrating remarks (i.e. nigger, spartacus etc.). In the ‘rape scene,’ Giannini, Sr. explains to Melato that he is in total control now and that she must fall deeply in love with him before they consummate sex, which she eventually does. In the adversity of their living conditions, she begins to cooperate with him and they bond on a very raw, primordial level. Starved for human affection, a humbled and more human Melato prostrates herself at Giannini’s feet and their love affair begins.
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