Thursday, October 18, 2018

“Swept Away”: An Illusion of Affection Stretched Too Thin by Lindsay Knight

Fury curled in my gut when I watched Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away for the first time. I was so angry that my neighbors could probably feel my irritation through the walls. The relationship between Gennarino and Raffaella portrayed almost every terrible stereotype about women that I resent; she was a rude, high-maintenance, unreasonable snob who constantly nagged her husband and the help until a “stronger,” “dominant” man came into her life and taught her the “pleasure” women get from being submissive to men. She started to accept his abusive treatment without question until she eventually gives in to his sexual demands and declares her love for him despite his constant sexual, emotional, and physical abuse in the name of male superiority. Vincent Canby from The New York Times even claimed that “Swept Away is the story of their tumultuous, slapstick courtship, his systematic humiliation of her (as she sees it) until, suddenly, she submits to her love for him and becomes in the process truly liberated” (Canby, par. 8), which only reinforced my original interpretation. I thought that Raffaella was really in love with Gennarino; the only reason, I believed, that she turned down going back to the island with him at the end of the movie was because she wanted to return to her rich life. I immediately wrote the film off as misogynistic propaganda.

After reading Ariana Farajollah’s essay on Raffaella’s possible case of Stockholm Syndrome, though, and discussing the film in class, I realized I may have been missing an essential part of the movie that painted Gennarino and Raffaella’s relationship in a completely different light. Swept Away is not portraying the love between a tamed woman and the dominant man who puts her in her place; rather, it is a story about a cold mockery of love born from fear and abuse meant as a means of survival, not affection. Raffaella is not in love with Gennarino, nor is he in love with her; her affection on the island is an attempt to ensure her own survival that immediately shows its true frailty once they return to the mainland while Gennarino’s narcissism prevents him from actually caring about Raffaella as a human being, let alone as a true romantic partner.

Raffaella’s transition from an outspoken and intelligent woman to a subservient slave is one of most obvious indicators that the affection she displays for Gennarino is actually a survival mechanism she uses to protect herself from more abuse. Raffaella starts the movie as a woman who speaks her mind without fear; she argues with her husband and expresses her opinion without hesitation, not afraid to open her mouth whenever she has something to say. But when her food is suddenly being controlled by Gennarino, and he begins to abuse her whenever she does something he does not like, she starts obeying everything he says without complaint. To some, Raffaella’s change in attitude may seem like the beginnings of love, as she is willing to submit to Gennarino unlike before; but in reality, her strange shift in behavior may be a sign of something more calculated than pure affection. Sharie Stines, psychologist and expert in trauma and abuse recovery, explains what she calls the “eggshell” mentality in her article titled “Victims of Abuse”: “Victims are notorious for being conditioned to ‘walk on eggshells’ in the relationship in order to try to prevent or minimize any future occurrences of upsetting the abuser…They have learned to be hyper-vigilant to the feelings and reactions of others and have stopped focusing on their own internal feelings” (Stine, par.6). Victims of abuse learn to be as unobtrusive as possible to avoid drawing their abuser’s focus, since less attention means that they may escape more punishment. They learn to heavily consider every move they make and every word they say, constantly aware of the possible consequences if they offend or anger their abuser. This mentality is what drives the immense change in Raffaella’s personality that we see throughout the movie. Every time Raffaella speaks her mind or does something without his permission, Gennarino hits her and berates her. Eventually, just as Stines points out, Raffaella learns that in order to continue to survive on the island, she needs to avoid actions that offend Gennarino, so she changes her behavior to match his expectations. One such instance is when Raffaella bends to Gennarino’s wishes and kneels at his feet, laying her head down in submission to possibly gain some of the rabbit that he just killed. She even goes so far to put Gennarino’s hand on her head to appeal to his demands for control rather than face more punishment, which in this case is starvation (Wertmüller, 01:16:23). She modifies her behavior to become what he wants her to be, growing more sexually promiscuous as an appeal to his demands for sex, and stops fighting for her opinions to avoid the physical abuse. Her actions, therefore, are not performed out of love or affection; they are attempts to gain his approval and curtail his abuse by making it seem like their relationship is something stable and healthy. When viewing her transformation through this lens, Raffaella becomes the victim of an abuser rather than a tamed woman who is saved by the power of male superiority, and the validity of any love for him is cast into doubt.

Besides Raffaella’s lack of love for him sinking any chances of any real relationship between them, Gennarino’s narcissism, a trait he displays throughout the film, prevents him from seeing Raffaella as an equal and independent person, let alone as someone to love. Gennarino has several characteristics that match the definition of narcissism; he thinks himself above women, constantly tries to control the lives of those around them, and always needs to feel superior, which is why he gets upset when someone supposedly undermines his “authority.” Dr. Margalis Fjelstad, Ph.D., LMFT, who works with individuals in relationships with narcissist, wrote an article citing the “14 Signs You're Dealing With A Narcissist,” and unsurprisingly, Gennarino fits clearly into no less than nine of the listed symptoms; superiority and entitlement (which is seen in Gennarino’s claims that men are always superior to women), an exaggerated need for attention (his constant want for her to act submissive and loving to him), a great need for control (his demands that Raffaella always refer to him when making any decisions), a lack of responsibility (his insistence that Raffaella is forcing him to abuse her), a focus on emotional reasoning (his abuse is based on the state of his own fragile emotions), splitting (Gennarino blames Raffaella for her punishments all while praising himself for keeping her “in line”), fear (his insistence that Raffaella must prove her love for him by returning to the mainland), and an inability to be truly vulnerable (his belief that being too intimate with his lovers is unmanly and wrong) (Fjelstad, pts. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 13).

Given how many of these characteristics fit Gennarino’s personality and actions perfectly, any affection he possibly has for Raffaella is immediately brought into doubt; if Gennarino actually has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, can he even love Raffaella in the first place? Melissa Schenker has studied love in the home and the workplace, and she warns people away from relationships with narcissists because, “A narcissist acknowledges your existence when you serve a purpose. A person who is not separate from you cannot love you because they cannot see and know you. It’s as if you are one being — the narcissist. You, as a separate, distinct individual cannot be appreciated” (Schenker, par. 4). Schenker writes that narcissists cannot love someone else because they lack the ability to think of others as independent people rather than as tools that exist to serve the narcissist; those with NPD can think they are in love, but because they consider others as extensions of themselves to use for whatever they want, narcissists cannot actually care about anyone as more than an instrument for their own use. Examining Gennarino with this lens brings every instance of “love” between Gennarino and Raffaella into question. Gennarino, therefore, can never love Raffaella because he lacks the ability to think of her as something other than a tool to be used purely for his own pleasure. In class discussion, Professor Gordon stressed the importance of the “power to join” in romantic relationships: a constant combination of trust and working together to grow as one, which can only be accomplished by an equality between the partners (Gordon). Gennarino has no such respect for Raffaella, thinking her as his slave, and it only shows that he is not in love with Raffaella at all. He only wants her as a trophy: a tool for his own pleasure, not someone to love and cherish as his equal in a loving relationship.

Once Raffaella finally has the chance to examine their relationship without Gennarino around, the lack of love in their relationship comes out. When the pair is rescued from the island and brought back to the mainland, Raffaella is freed from constantly being under Gennarino’s influence, and almost immediately the façade of their relationship falls apart. Raffaella realizes that nothing about their life on the island was healthy once she is no longer relying on Gennarino for food. She knows that she can have a life of freedom instead of staying under the control of a man who sexually, verbally, emotionally, and physically abuses her, so she decides to leave him. In her essay, “An Abused Woman’s Colonization and Declaration of Independence in SWEPT AWAY,” Ariana Farajollah perfectly sums up Raffaella’s reason for leaving Gennarino behind: “Thus, Rafaella chooses to desert her suitor, evidencing the notion that she never truly loved him, and that her mind was, in fact, merely colonized by the influence of Stockholm Syndrome” (Farajollah, par. 4). As Ariana points out, Raffaella’s brief time away from Gennarino proved to her that what she was expressing on the island was not love at all; it was an appeal to his demands for submission and sex in order to avoid more punishment, and that any affection he was expressing was not love for her, but his own twisted approval of her subservient actions. Once she has the chance to escape him, Raffaella runs as far away as she can, flying away in a helicopter as he shouts obscenities at her (Wertmüller, 01:59:50). She does not have to rely on Gennarino for survival anymore, so she does not need to pretend to love him in order and can finally leave him. If she had truly loved him, she would have given up her life on the mainland and returned to the island with Gennarino. Instead, she shows their relationship’s true colors as a mockery of love born from Raffaella’s need to survive and Gennarino's narcissistic belief that she is his property top control and abuse.

If there was any sort of actual love between Raffaella and Gennarino, Swept Away would have been a very different movie; Raffaella likely would have gone back to the island with him instead of choosing to leave him if she had any real feelings for him, and Gennarino would not have treated her like a slave if he actually cared about her. Gennarino and Raffaella’s actions prove that what they had between them was never love; it was a relationship built on abuse and narcissism that created a twisted and damaged illusion of affection that can never truly be called love. His narcissistic treatment of Raffaella reveals he never loved her, and that any affection that she may have shown in return was a farce built on her attempts at survival.

When I watched Swept Away for the first time, I thought that Wertmüller was suggesting this kind of relationship was the norm: that women are supposed to be subservient and can only be satisfied when dominated by a man, who has the right to treat her as he wishes. I believed that the blasé attitude that the film has towards abuse and rape was Wertmüller claiming that this was the way that women should be treated when they are being “unruly” by speaking their minds and going against men. But now, I see that Wertmüller is not suggesting that this is the norm; rather, she is pointing out how the twisted circumstances that bring the two together and Gennarino’s narcissistic demand for control is what determined the kind of relationship they had. Raffaella’s actions are not Wertmüller’s way of saying that women should fall in love with men that abuse them; instead, she is suggesting that victims have the ability to leave their abusers and regain their freedom, and that women do not have to be tethered down by men that wish to control them. Swept Away should be seen as an example of how people like Gennarino take abuse people like Raffaella, preying on any form of weakness for their own gain and claiming affection before taking advantage of them.

Any relationship like Raffaella’s and Gennarino’s, as Wertmüller so glaringly shows, is doomed from the start, and Wertmüller does not shy away from this implication. In fact, the film seems like Wertmüller’s own call of action to humanity; if we allow people like Gennarino to get away with their actions, and we do not help those in Raffaella’s position regain their freedom by providing them with the help they need, we are little more than accomplices in the recurring abuse cycle that still plagues society. Gennarino and Raffaella’s circumstances may be unique, but there are still men who follow the same beliefs as Gennarino and treat women like their tools to be used, bruised, and abused at their whim. Women still feel the need to be silent about their abuse in order to survive, whether it is domestic or in the workplace. Wertmüller is dragging the reality of the disease that abuse, both on the part of the victim and the abuser, back into our consciousness. We cannot turn the other cheek now that we have seen the truth; victims deserve the same freedom to live and love as we do, without those that poison affection with their desire for power and control.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. “'Swept Away' Is a Wertmuller Film with Solid Appeal.” The New York Times, 18 Sept. 1975, 52DFBF66838E669EDE

Farajollah, Ariana. “An Abused Woman’s Colonization and Declaration of Independence in SWEPT AWAY by Ariana Farajollah.” Taking Giant Steps, 7 June 2017,

Fjelstad, Margalis. “14 Signs You’re Dealing With A Narcissist.” Mind Body Green,

Gordon, Paul. Class Discussion. 5 Mar. 2018.

Schenker, Melissa. “Can a Narcissist Love Me?” The Huffington Post, 22 Sept. 2014,

Stines, Sharie. “Victims of Emotional Abuse.” Psych Central Professional, 30 Aug. 2016,

Swept Away. Directed by Lina Wertmüller, performances by Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Melato, Medusa Distribuzione, 1974. YouTube.

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