Even in the international arthouse scene of the '70s when relaxed censorship seemed like any limits at all were history, it took something special to stand out from the pack and court enough controversy to become a sensation. In 1974, two Italian female filmmakers managed to provoke, dazzle, and outrage audiences around the world with a pair of unlikely, outrageous love stories still capable of hitting a raw nerve with many viewers, Liliana Cavani's perverse Nazi-themed The Night Porter and Lina Wertmüller's study of political and social dominance, Swept Away. In both cases critics wrote themselves into knots trying to reconcile these films with what many assumed would have been a feminist outlook, an approach that ignored the rich, complicated themes weaving through the actual films.
In the case of Swept Away, Wertmüller finds a perfect showcase for the ongoing debate over capitalism versus communism that had been boiling in films by directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci. Here it's a character study personified by rich, entitled trophy wife Raffaella (Melato, never better) and the browbeaten, slovenly sailor Gennarino (Giannini), who's subject to her commands on a sunny boat trip through the Mediterranean. Her impetuous decision to go out on a dingy results in both of them being set adrift for days until they end up on a small island, where her money and social standing have absolutely no value. Instead his ability to rebuild the necessities of survival give him the upper hand, and despite her protestations, Raffaella ends up not only adapting to the situation but finding herself attracted to her island companion. Both are married, but unhappily so, which results in an emotional tangle that neither quite knows how to resolve.
Beautifully performed by the two leads and breathtaking lensing by no less than four cinematographers (including the great Ennio Guarini), Swept Away is a potent film on both a sensual and an intellectual level. As usual for the director, the original title is long and florid -- in this case, Travolti da un insolito destino nell'azzurro mare d'agosto, or Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. And blue you'll get here in spades with rich nautical scenery and vivid skies galore as the two actors enact their power struggle of the heart in a number of vivid set pieces. Of course, the film doesn't shy away from the volatile nature of its story and deliberately tweaks political correctness (long before the term even came into vogue) by having Giannini slap Melato at a key moment and engage in sexual behavior that's presumably non-consensual, though the exact nature of Melato's willingness throughout the story is something viewers have been debating for decades. Ultimately it isn't really a Wertmüller statement about the role of women in society as it's a portrait of clashing ideologies, with the inherently selfish nature of Western materialism put to the test for an ending that still leaves some room open for interpretation. Not to be overlooked is the intoxicating score by Piero Piccioni, who comes up with one of his most haunting main themes along with a pleasant array of sunny easy listening rhythms. (Good luck finding a reasonably priced soundtrack though!) It's also a film that's proven to be influential in some unexpected ways, inspiring everything from the Goldie Hawn comedy Overboard to a very poorly received 2002 remake by Guy Ritchie starring Madonna and Giannini's son, Adriano.
Circulated theatrically and on television in both English-dubbed and Italian-language subtitled versions, Swept Away has been regularly available on home video almost nonstop since the VHS era including an RCA/Columbia videotape (which was seemingly obligatory in every Blockbuster Video well into the '90s) as well as a laserdisc. Koch Lorber brought the film to DVD in 2005, looking okay but decidedly less vivid and clear than its theatrical incarnation in its widescreen presentation (in original Italian mono with subtitles, or disposable stereo or 5.1 remixes). A second disc features a ton of trailers for her films and a very long (77m40s), career-spanning interview.
Dramatically more satisfying is the 2017 revisit under the banner of Kino Lorber is the remastered Blu-ray and DVD reissue, which looks extremely vibrant and detailed in motion with those hypnotic colors finally back in full force. The DTS-HD MA Italian mono track is also crystal clear and makes the most of that pitch perfect score, with the typical post-recorded dialogue still sounding about the same as it always has. Valerio Ruiz, writer-director of the Wertmüller documentary Behind the White Glasses, turns up for an excellent, very in-depth audio commentary here focusing mainly on the production itself including the locales and the director's methods and history with the actors, while a clip from the documentary itself (10 mins.) is also included. Interestingly, director Amy Heckerling (Clueless) also pops up for her own appraisal of the film (8m45s), in which she explains her own take on what the director's getting at and explores an interesting reading of the notorious slapping scene. The English and Italian theatrical trailers are also included, while the insert booklet includes new liner notes essays by Allison Anders and Grace Russo Bullaro with further readings of the filmmaker's political stance and the volatile nature of this film's combination of sex and politics.