Monday, October 22, 2018

Interpreting "Swept Away": Where Is the Grey by Jennie Golub

The black and white clothing in the film Swept Away is as much a character as Gennarino and Rafaella. To start, the black and white clothes are allegorical for the film is clear-cut: there is no in-between. One either is communist or capitalist, poor or rich, man or woman. The absence of the color grey in the film is substituted by a surplus of the colors black and white. Peculiarly, under this façade, Gennarino and Rafaella’s love-hate relationship is ambiguous like the color grey, as is the complexity of the characters themselves. Even the island in itself serves as a grey playground of role exploration for the characters. Despite the challenge of analyzing color symbolism due to their interpretative and ambiguous nature in Swept Away, it appears that the colors black, white, gold, and the absence of grey are all meant to provide insight into Gennarino and Rafaella’s strange duet in addition to the individual character’s respective journeys.

Just as black and white are stark contrasts to each other, so too are Gennarino and Rafaella. Poor male communist Gennarino stands at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, a blunt comparison to wealthy capitalist female Rafaella—or in the words of Gennarino, “Me, poor black trash, and you, rich white bitch.... You, the great lady, and me, a mere minion….  Everyone in his own place” (Wertmüller, 1:32:44). It is no coincidence that during this scene, both Gennarino and Rafaella are wearing black shirts with white pants. 

Generally, in western culture, the color black embodies negative qualities. Marketer and designer Jacob Olesen writes, “Black is the color of the hidden, the mysterious and the unknown. It creates a sense of mystery and keeps things to itself, hidden from the rest of the world” (par. 2). First, it is clear that their relationship suffers from severe trust issues. Gennarino is a ticking time-bomb who can abuse Rafaella either physically or verbally at a moment’s notice. In fact, toward the end of the scene mentioned earlier where Gennarino compares and contrasts himself with Rafaella, he tests her loyalty, as he often does, by declaring, “You and me are an item only because we’re here, and that’s it” (Wertmüller, 1:33:10). Gennarino announces this self-fulling prophecy to Rafaella in which she would never be caught dead in public with a filthy Southerner like himself. How did Gennarino come to such a resolute conclusion regarding their relationship? Where is his evidence? Quickly Rafaella reassures, “I might love you even more,” and as usual, Gennarino uses her declaration of love against her instead of letting it guide the relationship to a healthier state by barking, “Even more? So, you were lying when you said you loved me completely” (Wertmüller, 1:33:25). Suffering from a heavy dose of insecurity, Gennarino’s negativity goes beyond fictitious statements: he dismisses Rafaella as well. For instance, Gennarino disparages her by declaring, “If you lie... I’ll kill you” (Wertmüller, 1:33:34).  Of course, Rafaella is deeply unsettled by this threat although she does a great job masking this fear as she can never tell whether he actually means what he says. She quips back to him, “You’ll kill me?” and Gennarino confirms that he is indeed capable of turning the abuse up to a lethal point (Wertmüller, 1:33:38). This proclamation of negativity is a way for Gennarino to put down Rafaella as well as illegitimatize their “love.” In addition, shortly after they have sex, Gennarino is seen sewing a black garment that appears to be Rafaella’s (Wertmüller, 1:31:52). Although the briefness of the scene may not leave much of an impression on viewers, the moment is allegorical for Gennarino sewingor rather rebuildinghis power-to-prevent mentality. Sex is a step couples often use to become more intimate with one another; Gennarino and Rafaella’s sex leaves him with the option to join her, but sadly Gennarino chooses to reject her. It is as if the barriers of their former selves had been knocked down, allowing them the choice to embrace each other, but instead Gennarino rebuilds his barriers out of fear of the unknown. It is no wonder they are both wearing black shirts: both of their intentions are mysterious to one another. Neither of them can decipher whether they are in love or if it is just a means of survival for Rafaella and power play for Gennarino. This double meaning of intentions is further exemplified by the white pants.

Olesen reports, “In color psychology, white is the color of new beginnings—wiping the slate clean” (par. 3). Both of the characters accept their new life to an extent. Rafaella understands that, until someone rescues her and Gennarino from the island, she has to lay low and adhere to Gennarino’s brutish mentality and rules as a means of survival. Gennarino, on the other hand, accepts his newfound power that he is delighted to abuse. The new beginnings presented by the white pants are cancelled out by the mystery and secrecy of the black shirt.

Notice that not once in the movie is an article of grey clothing seen. Olesen writes, “From a color psychology perspective, the color [grey] is a compromise—it is either black or white. It is the transition between the two colors” (par. 1). Gennarino, nor Rafaella, are ever seen wearing grey because they never achieve a conventional positive or negative relationship, or as Olesen says a “compromise.” Instead the colors black and white clash into each other. If the characters ever loved each other, it was never fully. If they loved each other, then Wertmüller might indicate a newfound equality and acceptance in the relationship through the color grey. Beyond the new role reversal, the white pants could have been allegorical for a newfound love, but the secrecy of the color black rejects compromise. Being that Gennarino bears this power-to-prevent mentality, the color grey never materializes because he denies equality despite claiming to be a communist. 

The scene just discussed is followed by Gennarino asking Rafaella for her gold earring to which she obliges (Wertmüller, 1:33:56). Although the color gold has numerous redemptive values such as “success, achievement and triumph in color psychology,” (Olesen, par. 5) it can also carry negative connotations such as “disparity between rich and poor, untrustworthiness, self-righteousness or egotism” (Olesen, par. 5). Under normal circumstances, the gold earring would be symbolic of newfound equality and acceptance, but their relationship never achieves a grey equality. If the gold earring is representative of the disparity between rich and poor, then Gennarino is no longer a “communist”—if he ever really was—and is attempting to strengthen his power over her the same way she used to dominate him. Notice that Gennarino asks Rafaella for the earring; it is not as though she simply volunteers it. Somehow the gold earring makes him feel superior, as though he is demanding power from Rafaella; it is the cherry on top to appease his fragile ego. Gennarino is thirsty for power, and the gold earring serves as a material award of sorts to boost his ego. While achievement is a positive characteristic of the color gold, his egotism cancels out the redemptive values of gold just as black cancels out any positivity brought about from white. Gennarino’s acceptance of the gold earring is explicitly him retrieving wealth. In other words, the earring is as close as Gennarino will ever get to wealth or even equality. The gold earring eases Gennarino’s painful reality that outside of the island he will never achieve anywhere near the same caliber of wealth and power as Rafaella. The colors are reflective of more than just Gennarino and Rafaella’s unusual relationship, but more specifically they provide a glimpse into the individual character’s respective journeys. 

The island shakes Gennarino and Rafaella out of their rigid roles that were previously enforced by civilization and forces them to do some soul-searching. The gold earring moment abruptly transitions to Gennarino and Rafaella in pure black clothing embracing each other (Wertmüller, 1:34:23). The scene depicts a feeling of loss further emphasized through the addition of a sad whistling tune and the camera pan over the desolate sandy dunes. Olesen states, “Teens often have a psychological need to wear black clothes at the stage of their life, where they go from childhood innocence to the sophisticated adulthood. It means the end of a part of their life and the beginning of something new. It allows them to hide from the world, while they discover their own unique identity” (par. 7). While Gennarino and Rafaella are well past the age of adolescence, they are both embarking on individual soul-searching journeys as a teenager would. The characters are at a liminal stage in their development, and the island acts as an agent of change in their lives. Essentially, the reason Gennarino and Rafaella are on this soul-searching journey is because of the island. Without the island they would remain in their black and white roles. In particular, Gennarino seems to be the most visibly conflicted by his new identity. On the one hand, Gennarino wants wealth and power as seen in the gold earring scene. On the other hand, he is a devout communist as mentioned repeatedly throughout the film. The dreary desert is metaphorical for Gennarino’s confused and conflicted state of mind; the gloomy whistling and isolated desert are purposeful accents to his feelings of loneliness brought about by his inability to trust Rafaella. At the same time, he wishes their “love” was genuine and not just an aftereffect of their being stranded on the island.   

Undeniably, when Gennarino is tightly holding Rafaella as she peacefully sleeps in his arms, the way he gazes at her is loving, yet mournful and regretful (Wertmüller, 1:34:50). Gennarino’s ego denies him the ability to reveal his true feelings for Rafaella; his affection is only shown when she cannot witness it. Gennarino is unsure of how to love her. As his problematic feelings for her arise, he acquires a cruel self-defense mechanism in which he belittles her instead of embraces her. On a more dramatic note, he may be incapable of loving another at all. He has a wife who selflessly adores him, yet he degrades her for “ruining his image” the moment they are reunited (Wertmüller, 1:40:36). The absence of white clothing in the scene is to signify that the opportunity to publicly and unashamedly love Rafaella has closed. The sadness that is conveyed in the scene is to accentuate Gennarino’s reluctant acceptance of this unfortunate reality where his ego denies him the power-to-join her. Seeing Gennarino’s struggle to love reveals that the problem is not actually caused by his lover; it is a dilemma with his ego.

Gennarino never wears grey because his own state of mind is at war with itself and fails to reach a cognitive compromise. Gennarino grievously gazing at Rafaella (Wertmüller, 1:34:50) uncovers that he is not only incapable of love, but he also is conflicted over whether or not he loves or hates her. First, Rafaella represents everything he claims to despise: capitalism, independence, wealth, and power. Confessing his love to Rafaella would be the equivalent of saying that he loves everything she stands for. Gennarino confirms that he sees Rafaella as a walking emblem of greed and power when he suffers from a fit of rage, beats her mercilessly, and declares, “Don’t you understand you have to pay for everything?” (Wertmüller, 1:08:41) leading him to air a list of grievances regarding the injustices inflicted on the poorer class caused by wealthy people. Rafaella, running for her life, cries, “Am I responsible for all the ills of the world?” followed by a resolute “Yes” from Gennarino (Wertmüller, 1:09:28). Taking into account Gennarino’s public stance as a poor but loyal communist, it is no wonder why he is unable to wholeheartedly love Rafaella. Essentially, if Gennarino were the communist he proudly claims to be, he would not have created this obsolete man-is-greater-than-woman hierarchy. Gennarino relishes having power, but he hates being powerless. Knowing that he will never have power outside of the island, conquering Rafaella—who is exceptionally objectified by him—is as close to power as he can get. By making her less-than, he feels bigger. Through the power of the color white (new beginnings), Gennarino could reach a cognitive compromise, but he allows the color black to consume him, leading to his inability to make a decision as alluded to by the absence of grey.

Finally, Gennarino confesses his love to Rafaella, but it is too late (Wertmüller, 1:44:09). Gennarino is practically begging for Rafaella to return to the island with him and pretend that they never left, but as indicated by her black and white shirt, time is up. Wertmüller places Rafaella in a shirt that yet again never achieves grey but instead is composed of small sharp lines of white and black. Though hard to tell, the shirt appears to consist of more black than white. The role reversal brought about by the island is steadily reverting back to its original state, as is Rafaella. The trauma Rafaella endured on the island will most definitely be an emotional scar she will carry for the rest of her life. That being said, the fading of white in Rafaella’s shirt reveals that the healing process for her has already begun and that she is receding into her old ways of life: luxury, independence, and power. Furthermore, the urgency in Gennarino’s request (or rather his desperate plea) to escape back to the island that gives him the upper hand is ensued by the notion that he knows all too well that she is re-adopting her former role quicker than imagined. The omnipresent power dynamic that looms over Gennarino and Rafaella’s love-hate relationship ultimately retreats back to its original homeostatic state.

The lack of grey emphasizes the metaphorical grey. The overabundance of the black and white clothing is unnatural, just as the uncertainty of their relationship is abnormal. The characters individually and as a couple never come to a grey compromise. For instance, at the end of the film Rafaella chooses to wear black because she does not want to change. As explored in the last paragraph, for what reason would Rafaella go back to the island with her abuser? There is nothing rejuvenating or positive about going back to the island with Gennarino as the color white would suggest, and so she chooses black regression. Conversely, Gennarino never even chooses a color and instead continues to wear black and white clothing for the duration of the film (Wertmüller, 1:48:31). He thinks that he loves her, but at the same time he is still unsure. He impulsively wants to return to the island because, although he struggles to admit it, he hates being powerless, poor, and Southern. However, he has already established a life as a poor Sicilian communist. In the end, Gennarino’s inability to make a genuine and definite decision costs him both Rafaella and his Sicilian wife. The characters overemphasize wearing black and white because they wish they could be as single-sided and clear-cut as black and white. Gennarino and Rafaella avoid the greyness that they each possess like the plague because the color grey is incredibly messy and unclear. Does grey consist of more black or white? What are the specific values grey possess? Overall, grey does not have “X” amount of black or “Y” amount of white, and the same goes for Gennarino and Rafaella because people, as well as their relationships, are messy.

The colors black, white, gold, and the absence of grey all work in conjunction to add depth to the film. The plethora of black and white is to illustrate the severe reluctance the characters have toward change. The characters could have had a shot at a loving relationship if they embraced the new slate of white, but they do not. Instead Gennarino and Rafaella’s relationship is always in a state of conflict just as the colors black and white are. If the characters came to terms with their roles, they could have achieved some value of the equality that grey enjoys. While the man versus woman power play is prevalent through the film, the color gold is to represent the other power dynamic in the film: poor versus rich. Furthermore, the glistening state of gold reveals Gennarino’s muddy unstable ego. The absence of grey is to highlight the reality neither character wants to face: the ambiguity of human nature such as their needs, desires, and feelings. After becoming accustomed to the narrow roles Gennarino and Rafaella have come to accept and define as “normal,” the characters struggle to accept new beginnings (the color white). The characters long for a simple black and white solution in which everything and everyone has a place and a specific role, but that is not the case. Gennarino and Rafaella overcompensate for this natural, yet unwanted, chaos through solid black and white garments. The actuality is that, similar to the color grey, no person is a single color just as no relationship is either; instead there are multiple colors and compromises that make up each person and relationship that are vague and undefinable. The color grey does not have a set amount of white or black and few things do for that matter. So, when you think of the color grey what shade is it? Is it a light or dark grey? I bet the shade of grey you are thinking of is different than the one I imagined.

Works Cited

Gordon, Paul Kirpal (KP). 12 March. 2018. Class discussion.

Olesen, Jacob. "Black Color Meaning – The Color Black." N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

Olesen, Jacob. "Black Color Meaning – The Color White." N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

Olesen, Jacob. "Black Color Meaning – The Color Gray." N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

Olesen, Jacob. "Black Color Meaning – The Color Gold." N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2018.

Swept Away. Dir. Lina Wertmüller. Perf. Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato. Medusa Distribuzione. 1974. Web.

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