aGLIFF 2010 (Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival)
By Don Simpson | September 13, 2010
Director: Donatella Maiorca
Writer(s): Giacomo Pilati (novel), Donatella Maiorca (screenplay), Pina Mandolfo (screenplay), Mario Cristiani (screenplay)
Starring: Valeria Solarino, Isabella Rogonese, Ennio Fantastichini, Giselda Volodi, Corrado Fortuna, Ester Cucinotti
Viola di mare is named after a salt-water fish that is born female but can change to male during the course of its life. Thus the title of this 19th-century Sicilian Sapphic love story — based on true events — summarizes the plot perfectly: A woman refuses to renounce her lesbian lover and the church is cajoled into declaring her a man despite the anatomical evidence to the contrary.
Angela (Valeria Solarino) is said woman. Her father (Ennio Fantastichini), manages the island’s quarries for the local baron; he is a cruel and violent person who abuses his family and treats his workers live slaves. Angela’s best friend Sara left the island during their childhood, but she returns as a fully developed woman (Isabella Ragonese). Angela seduces Sara, commencing a clandestine lesbian affair. Both women are promised to men, but Angela stands firm in refusing to wed anyone but Sara.
Embarrassed and frustrated by his unconventional daughter, Angela’s father sentences her to a dungeon-like cellar. It is Angela’s mother, Lucia (Giselda Volodi), who develops the plan to force the local priest to proclaim Angela’s true identity to be “Angelo.” Angela (now “Angelo”) must live the remainder of her life dressed like a man and her father demands that (as his only “son”) she must assume his management position at the quarry. Angela excels in her new management role, firmly breaking from her father’s strict patriarchal system. Angela’s unabashed concern for her workers’ welfare proves much more efficient and effective than her father’s oppressive tyranny. Best of all, “Angelo” can legally marry Sara.
Viola di mare’s frank discussion of class and gender politics adds a level of intellectualism to this otherwise sultry lesbian love story. Relying heavily on the stunning sensuality of the female leads and the incredible beauty of the Sicilian island locale, Viola di mare is visually mesmerizing — at least to anyone with an appreciation for magnificent Italian women frolicking in the Mediterranean sun.
I saw Viola di mare in a theater full of lesbians — literally. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it did add a new level of awkwardness to my cinematic experience. I was uniquely aware of my straight male gaze and for some reason I also felt as though I was infringing upon their experience (not that anyone suggested such a thing). Nonetheless, the story of Viola di mare does not demand that the viewer be of a single gender or sexual persuasion — it transcends all of that. As a straight male, I definitely saw Viola di mare from a different perspective than the other members of the audience, but I think we all enjoyed the scenery just the same.