Italian helmer Donatella Maiorca’s 19th-century Sapphic costumer, “Purple Sea,” goes way over the top and yet is based on true events: When a woman refuses to renounce her lesbian lover, the church and ruling aristocracy are blackmailed into declaring her a man, despite all evidence to the contrary. Complex class and gender politics make the film’s one-note love story seem simplistic by comparison, despite the beauty and sensuality of the femme leads. Operatic Sicilian meller, driven by Gianna Nannini’s swelling, rhapsodic score, has generated buzz on the gay circuit, but crossover appeal seems limited.
Pic opens explosively, if elliptically, as a man’s voice bellows that he will slit his pregnant wife’s throat if she delivers a girl. Jump-cut to said girl, now about 12, bursting out of confinement in a whirlwind of broken slats to join her best friend, Sara, by the sea.
This raven-haired force-of-nature grows up to be Angela (Valeria Solarino). Her father (Ennio Fantastichini), who oversees the island’s quarries for the ruling baron, is a cruel, violent, overbearing brute who abuses his family and slave-drives his workers. Sara, who left the island when still a child, returns as a resplendent woman (Isabella Ragonese) ready to marry Tommaso (Marco Foschi), her childhood sweetheart.
Angela has other plans. Her impassioned, seaside seduction of Sara, during a drum-driven religious procession, sweeps the blonde beauty into a fevered clandestine affair.
But Angela’s father has arranged for her to marry his second-in-command’s son. When she refuses to wed anyone but Sara, he throws her in a dungeon-like cellar where she progressively weakens, preferring death to heterosexuality.
Significantly, it is Angela’s downtrodden, long-suffering mother, Lucia (Giselda Volodi) who cooks up a cynical solution, placating her husband and rescuing her daughter. The island teems with sexual transgressions, and Lucia knows where the bodies are buried, forcing the powerful local priest to proclaim that Angela’s true identity is “Angelo.” But as Angela now must dress like a man, her father demands that, as his son, she also assume his management position at the quarry.
Maiorca has created something of a 19th-century superwoman here. Though Angela chafes at her masculine garb and lacks any desire to storm male bastions of power, she effortlessly excels as foreman, her concern for the workers’ welfare proving more efficient than her father’s oppression.
“Purple Sea” (the Italian title refers to a fish that changes sex midway through its life cycle) is awash in gorgeous sea-swept scenery and throbbing, bodice-ripping romance, and replete with beautiful bodies wedged in between its sardonic political analysis. But in ascribing all problems to the patriarchal system, Maiorca has created a private oasis of sensual delight that never evolves; the lovers’ blissed-out exchanges and endless bedplay allows the actresses little room for character development.