The division of people, due to social class and political belief, is clearly a main theme in Lina Wertmuller’s film Swept Away. The film portrayed class and gender conflict brutally, honestly, and graphically, but not without validity. The fact that a woman directed it just adds another level of realism as well as a different perspective.
The division between Raphaella, the northern capitalist for whom the system has paid off, and Gennarino, the dedicated, southern Communist, is apparent from the beginning. Though the film is centered on these two individuals, it’s emphasis lies in what these individuals represent. Simply put, Rafaella represents the upper class; rich, educated, and powerful within her society. Gennarino is a representation of the working class; poor, uneducated, powerless in a society ruled by wealth. The shift in the balance of power is where these representations come into play.
Though the characters are symbols of social and political stereotypes, it is the situations in the film that really illustrate the film’s depiction of their division. Early in the film we are introduced to the society in which Raphaella and Gennarino live. A society in which, because of wealth and education, Raphaella wields more power than her counterpart. She is snobbish, inconsiderate, bossy, and a great deal more empowered than an average working class woman is. In turn, Gennarino is constantly ordered around, belittled and criticized, enforcing his disgust for his counter culture.
The turn of events caused by the shipwreck finally reverses these roles. Gennarino gains power, not through wealth but survival skills. This forces Raphaella to give up her pride in order to stay alive. Much like the poor, Raphaella has to submit in order to survive. Gennarino sees this as an opportunity to take revenge on the upper class that has been controlling his life up to this point and he takes full advantage. In the beginning he withholds food and shelter until she concedes defeat, but with the realization of absolute power he decides to keep taking it further. In retribution for the abuse he has suffered he punishes Raphaella for the evil deeds of the upper class. He orders her around and belittles her just as she did when the tables were turned, but he can only abuse her verbally for so long. His lack of education and upbringing leave him with few options, first and foremost violence but also a level of emotional abuse. The physical abuse forced Raphaella into submission and broke her spirit. The emotional abuse resulted in Raphaella’s falling in love with Gennarino, perhaps due to force or perhaps due to her need for a dominant partner.
This relationship continued mutually on the island for some time, even possible rescues were avoided. In that basic, fantasy-like setting, surrounded by nature and removed from capitalism and labels, they coexisted peacefully. They lived together as man and wife far away from the society that kept them at separate levels until Gennarino decides to put their love to the test; to return to their old society. It is back in their former world that we find out who truly fell in love, not Raphaella but Gennarino. She reverted back to her old ways and values upon her return to her old life; maybe a woman like her could never really change. In her society she is in love with power, with wealth—survival in it’s own right.
By removing the individual from it’s representation the film takes on a new and different light. It portrays a class struggle, a battle for power and respect, and a clash between old traditions and the ways of a changing world. For me, the last scene captured the point of the film perfectly. As Gennarino’s wife walks ahead of him, angry with him for having an affair, he obediently follows and carries her suitcase. This represents his return to his society as well as his return to his role in it. This time, however, the tables have turned, Gennarino’s wife assumes the power now and Gennarino is the one in submission.