THE PURPLE SEA (Viola di Mare) C
Italy (105 mi) 2009 d: Donatella Maiorca
While this is another one of those movies “inspired by true events,” there’s nothing remotely truthful about this film. In fact, Berlusconi’s iron grip seems to be suppressing every ounce of creative thought coming out of his nation. Instead, everything seems to have the Italian seal of approval stamped on it as a generic product, which means despite a relatively modern and risqué subject matter, a same sex lesbian love affair, there’s nothing remotely modern or groundbreaking about this film, irrespective of its obvious efforts to be exactly that. Set in the 19th century on one of the rugged islands of Sicily where the predominate export is rocks, where male workers slavishly work and earn money from the rich landowner performing back breaking work in rock quarries, while females are seen as a hindrance and a burden, where the island’s fathers really don’t care if baby girls live or die, as only sons are valuable. Into this brutal, male dominated world, where her father (Ennio Fantastichini) is the work foreman, a man who routinely beats his own children for acts of insolence and disobedience, where girls remain illiterate and aren’t even sent to school, Angela (Valeria Solarino) narrates her own birth, where from the outset she has difficulty fitting in and is perceived as having the devil in her, which turns out to be a crush on her best friend Sara (Isabella Ragonese).
Fast forward a dozen years or so from early childhood, where Sara has been living on the mainland, but returns to a flurry of interest shown by Angela, where they meet out alone on the rocks overlooking the sea showing romantic inclinations, which is realized using various camera angles instead of any expressed emotion or state of undress. Already the established tone is dishonest, as the audience is led to believe this is a raw and brutal world, where the graphic reality on this remote island is barren and harsh, where this could just as easily be the setting for a Taviani brother's film, yet these two women who are knowingly breaking the boundaries of love are continually shown in a safe mode, no nudity, no poetry, no passion, nothing daring or shocking, where there isn’t a spark or an ounce of honest emotion between them. Yet the viewer is expected to perceive a rhapsodic love affair just materializes out of thin air. It’s only when Angela’s father arranges her marriage to a quarry worker that she blatantly refuses, expressing her desire to love only Sara. When her father hears this, instead of killing her, which seems to be his first inclination, he locks her up in an outdoor underground storage shelter until she’s willing to accept his conditions as her father, a position supported by the church, where he ends up leaving her there to rot for what seems like weeks on end, with the family slipping her meals. But rather than break her will, she’s only disgusted by her father’s brute force and the tyrannical hold he has over her family, a blatant metaphor for Berluscone if ever there was one.
What eventually breaks this logjam and what happens afterwards is too ridiculous for words. A more obvious solution would be to ship one of the women off the island, which is the punishment shown later for wrongful male behavior, to have her live on the mainland with a relative or friend, or even in a convent, which could certainly be arranged by the church. The father could be rid of her, which is what he truly felt about her in the first place since she wasn’t a son. But this more realistic option is never considered. Instead it veers into the territory of the absurd, becoming overly showy and ludicrous as time goes on, losing any emotional credibility. Perhaps something like this really did happen, but the events as presented in this film are simply a showcase for a world the director wants to present, which is a heavy handed drama that attempts to place a message of same sex love and female empowerment against the backdrop of a brutal, male dominated atmosphere of fascist tyranny, using a remote and impoverished historical setting to make her point. Despite the terrific on-location shooting and some excellent performances all around, this is a limp costume drama that couldn’t be more pretentious, never getting at the truth, never trusting in her characters, resulting instead in something so timidly generic and utterly homogenized, given the politically correct seal of approval, but ultimately a wretched offering.