The entire premise of the accidentally positioned relationship of the sailor with the rich and spoiled woman is entirely contrived and like a very well oiled opera, it spins in surprising circles, taking us to places we did not anticipate when we first meet the characters.
Where it could have fallen into a parody or in its simplest form, a Marxist diatribe, the director raises the form into metaphor and both shocks and surprises us along the way. I can imagine that when this film first came out in 1974, the public must have gasped at several things: there are several moments in the film when the sailor just explodes in a rageful outpouring of physical abuse to the lovely lady. In short, he beats her about the face and wrestles with her until she is quite roughed up. The repeated slapping is still hard to watch, even if you think in your mind that these are well trained actors. The overt machismo that the sailor humiliates the lady with is both laughable and grotesque by our standards. Sure the film is making fun of Italian men and especially at the expense of the so-called coarser Southern Italian men and even more the Sicilian men....but it is so overdone that it too rises to metaphor. He struts about like a liberated tyrant, cave-man, looking for every opportunity to enjoy sweet revenge over his hapless companion. What does he achieve? He certainly does break her down and destroys every vestige of her snobby, boorish, disrespectful, artificial outer self and when pealed away what emerges is her long suppressed tender and humbled self. Listen: some people, usually men, go and seek some lunatic guru up in the mountains to help them attain this type of simplicity and humility, so the idea in itself is not far fetched. The difference is that this lady did not choose her fate on the island, did not go seeking humility; it was the only way to survive and in a way here lies an important aspect of Wertmuller's film. Is she asking us: what control do we have when forces much greater than us (poverty in particular as exemplified by the sailor and his laments) push us to limits of endurance? What type of people do we become? Wertmuller is also asking us: the rich have so many more choices, including cultivating their own sense of place and humility in the world and that they do not cannot be attributed to the same stresses that tear apart the poor. I'm simplifying but this seems to be one of the underlying themes.
Other themes: the sailor takes advantage of a situation that presents itself in his life for the first time. Sure he's been working hard all his life and he's still the lackey cleaning up the crap of the rich. And, he's totally unappreciated by his family. Now, he can work just as hard but call ALL of the shots including sexual domination and physical appreciation. He certainly did not set out to win over the lovely lady but after seeing how dependent she was and how unaware of her own self sufficiency, he saw an opportunity to dominate and over a woman! The temptation was too great to let alone. She is everything he has fantasized about (without admitting it) and he taunts her with the very same thoughts.
And then let's look at passion and love. Where the chemical attraction ends (and by the last third of the film there is plenty of that) there appears to be true and passionate love. At this point I started to feel completely caught up in their torrid affair and the tenderness the sailor finally gives to her just melts your heart. Underneath all that caveman behavior is a very soft hearted and loving man, who never had an outlet for his feelings. Sure he acts like a child, demanding love only on his terms, but that's not the point. They are both childish in their own ways. What the film leaves in your mind...how is it that such diametrically opposed and different people can scratch and crawl their way into passionate and REAL love? And while the film leaves you believing in the truth of their passions, it evaporates at the end, leaving me, at least, very upset at the outcome. Of course Wurtmuller could have opted for the happy ending and then what? In a sense it would have become just too ridiculous, becoming a lampoon of what was uncovered between them. In life, these types of illicit affairs are very often ephemeral and while short lived, very hot. And then they disappear into thin air. Do we seek the romantic ending we wished the film to have taken or do we accept the bitterness of the sailor, cursing much more than the rich lady: his fate yet again returning as bitter as ever; he returning to be a smelly lout of a husband, dragging behind his wife as she barely endures his presence.
Giannini gives a towering performance which although teeters on comic self parody, he inhabits his role and lets his inner self evolve as the moment changes. Never over acting even when in a full rage, showing gentleness and hot passion in perfect balance, he is awesome as the rough edged sailor, going nowhere in life. Mariangela Melato is simply gorgeous and sexy and has the time of her life with this role. The two of them took risks as actors but the sparks all seemed so real. You just don't see movies made like this today because we live in politically correct times. Films like this and Linsday Anderson's "IF" would either shock us or else would have been ignored as too artsy. I loved this film and the way it moved my heart.