if the sea was whisky
by Douglas Messerli
If the sea was whisky and I was a diving duck
If the sea was whisky and I was a diving duck
I’d swim to the bottom and don’t know if I’d come up
-L. Caston and W. Dixon
Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (screenwriter and director) Il Mare (The Sea) / 1962
Almost all of the few dozens of English-language critics who have found their way to view Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s 1962 film The Sea have acclaimed it as a work of genius. The unnamed keeper of the significant film blog Cinema Sojourns begins his long review, “Disconnected and Lost in Capri” by writing:
“When did alienation in modern society become a favorite thematic concern in the culture and the arts, particularly in the cinema? Certainly the films of Michelangelo Antonioni addressed the inability of people to connect, feel or relate to each other in a post-industrial age world as early as 1957 in Il Grido. But by the early sixties, it seemed as if every major film director in the world was addressing the topic on some level. A general sense of malaise was in the air as if the modern world was having a counterproductive effect on humanity, creating a sense of futility, amorality or complete apathy. You could see aspects of this reflected in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1961) and Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live (1962). All of these are considered cinematic masterworks of the 20th century but there are also many worthy and lesser-known contributions to the pantheon of alienation cinema and one of the most strikingly is Il Mare (The Sea), the 1963 directorial debut of Giuseppe Patroni Griffi.”
He goes on to say: “It is a remarkably self-assured directorial debut that bears some similarities to Antonioni’s black-and-white trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse) in the way that conventional narrative is replaced by a succinct visual approach to exploring character and setting. It may be too abstract and plotless for some viewers but Griffi embues his film with an underlying compassion and eroticism that is at odds with Antonioni’s more enigmatic and dispassionate approach.”
That Griffi’s work is also a complex study of queer gay, perhaps bisexual love long before it had become popular to explore this territory so significantly makes it of special interest to LGBTQ-interested moviegoers. But I warn those seeking the thrill of verboten gay love may not find what they are looking for in this film of troubled psyches.
There is no question that the unnamed visitor to Capri played by Italian actor Umberto Orsini (better known for his role in Luchino Visconti’s 1969 work The Damned, also featuring Dirk Bogarde who might well have performed Orsini’s role in this film) is searching for someone to fulfill his sexual longing. He has come to Capri, alas, in the winter season where hardly anyone but a few locals remain on this summer retreat of the rich and famous. We get very few details about the intentions of any of the three major figures of this movie, but we can deduce that the Orsini figure, who the director gradually reveals is an actor (all of Griffi’s figures remain nameless throughout the film so I shall have to designate them in my discussion by assigning them the moniker of the actors who portray them), has come there to meet up with a woman, perhaps his fiancée, who for reasons unknown never shows up.
The third time the actor encounters the boy, one night on the street with Mele standing against a wall with a bottle of whisky in his hand, Orsini—bored and obviously sexually starved—steals the bottle from the young man’s grasp leading to a struggle for its contents so intense that you know it cannot be the liquor he desires as much as the body of the boy who holds its container.
Griffi’s entire work might be described as a grand series of metaphors, where his characters struggle over control for something quite trivial which stands for something associated with it. If there was ever a coded work, The Sea is the exemplar. As the two beautiful men struggle over the bottle, pulling it out of each other’s hands over and over again, which finally results in them pushing and pulling each other’s bodies against the stucco walls, it is apparent that their fairly violent contest expresses their sexual desires. They do not want the bottle but he who holds it, and their violent wrestling does not simply represent a playful tussle but a pantingly-desperate attempt to paw one another without entirely giving away their homosexual lust.
When they move on to Orsini’s hotel room, the game is played even more earnestly as they chase each other around the room and into the bed with the tantalizing bottle serving symbolically as the carrot-on-the stick when we know the real lure is one another’s flesh. Finally their drunken orgy ends with Orsini falling into another kind of the bed, the bathtub where he passes out fully dressed, presumably from the alcohol but metaphorically out of exhaustion for their sexual endeavors.
When the youth inexplicably fills the tub with water it is not simply a gesture, as they pretend the next day, of attempted murder but symbolically represents a wet dream beyond Orsini’s imagination. As he later crawls out of the tub, almost slithering across the floor before pulling off his wet clothes, we cannot help but imagine him saying the next morning: “I was so drunk last night I don’t remember a thing that happened.” But clearly something of sexual significance beyond his imagination has occurred between the two of them.
One need only note his immediate rush into the streets in search of Mele the next morning. Without saying a word, Griffi and his cinematographer make it apparent that the good-looking stranger to Capri has become obsessed, so desirous of the young boy that, not being able to find him, he rushes up to the only other visitor to this island, the newly arrived wealthy and attractive woman, Françoise Prévost, embracing her and planting a kiss on her lips. Rationally—although Griffi has utterly no intention of maintaining any rational meaning in his work—he may have mistaken her as his missing girlfriend, and hence his apparent embarrassment for his rash act. But anyone who has ever known a deeply closeted gay man who has suddenly discovered who might really be perceives, the act is a deliberate denouncement of his recent aberration, an attempt to regain normalcy as quickly as he can.
Yet if there is any shred of doubt left in the viewer’s mind that the Orsini figure and Mele, the gorgeous kid, are now homosexually linked, we merely have open our eyes to Griffi’s manipulation of the camera as the two men share a dinner. While they vaguely discuss, in between long silences, why they have come to Capri, the camera frames them in deep closeups face on or as they turn to talk to one another in side-face, intercutting these images so quickly that the two seem to be almost literally pushing themselves into one another’s cheeks and lips. These carefully constructed, discomfortingly tight shots suggest that their intercourse is far more than simple talk, which in any case tells us nothing about them, while the other meaning of the word explains everything.
Into this man-on-man series of frames comes our new Eve, joining them at their table and so interrupting their “conversation” that Mele almost immediately is ready to leave. Prévost, however, clever temptress that she is, sensing the tension and jealousy between them, and knowing that Orsini has abandoned the boy in order to attend to her, turns her focus entirely upon the boy, enticing him—on the basis of Orisini’s insistence that Mele had attempted to drown him the previous evening—to take her along on a murderous adventure.
The tensions between the trio remind us significantly of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (yet another early 60s queer-related film expressing the alienation of its characters), but also suggests what someone other than Blake Edwards might have been able to accomplish if he had remained truer to Truman Capote’s original in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), particularly in the scene where Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak (in the original closer to a straight stand-in for the gay Capote) rob a dimestore. In Griffi’s far more sophisticated version, the two approach a lone musician, Prévost pretending to be a one-eyed assassin as they pretend to slit the man’s throat and run off with his instrument like two bad children out of Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct. And the scene that follows, where they frolic near a deserted swimming pool where Prévost’s character shoots a round of pretended bullets into the willing and waiting Mele, cannot help but remind one of another trio’s encounter with an abandoned swimming pool in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause.
For at least one night, she keeps Mele entertained, while she continues by day to lure the man who she recognizes is Mele’s would-be lover, Orsini. But with regard to women, we realize, Orsini is not at all the frenzied man attempting to sweep into love, but an uncertain stalker, a voyeur who follows Prévost’s wanderings through the rain-swept streets of the island town. Aware that he is trailing her, she orchestrates her movements with a handsome elderly man—to whom he later discover she is attempting to sell her summer home—almost in slow motion, creating a ballet out of stops and starts and the opening and closing of umbrellas. If Orsini was impetuously compelled by the whereabouts of the young boy previously, he is now tentatively fascinated by her balletic movements, but almost fearful of joining her in a pas de deux. When he does again approach her, this time at a distance in a bar as opposed to his streetside rough-housing with his young male companion, he is met with her highly emasculating laughter and even outright derision as she tells him to go away and never again try to contact her.
Even though Prévost again invites the boy over to her now half-inhabitable villa to create a Basquiat like drawing on its pristine white walls, Mele knows that he can never quite regain the attention of Orsini, and his sadness and even madness is represented by his need now also to sulk through the Caprian streets and follow the couple’s speechless outing in a motorboat. We even fear that the young man might harm himself, so that when he finally meets up with Orsini again one evening on the street, we are almost relieved to see his violent hands-on approach to the man who metaphorically had become his lover.
Here Orsini’s sexual denial is shown in full force, as he no longer toys with bodily contact, but almost beats the boy so badly that Mele begs him not to hurt him, blurting out a message about his knowing that what is being told him is not the truth. Some commentators have interrupted the sudden outburst as suggesting that perhaps Mele has escaped from a Naples mental institution and that his violent swings of behavior suggests that he is mad. Any gay man, however, knows that madness has long been a way that the heterosexual society dismisses homosexual desires. What the boy has said might as much have expressed what has occurred in his hotel lobby attempt to contact Orsini as alluding to some mysterious event in an imagined institution.
And even Orsini knows that his hostile reaction to the boy’s attempt to again make contact has gone to far. He drags the boy to Prévost’s house, bandaging his forehead and issuing a series of commands for the kid to sit up, walk, turn, put on his sweater etc. to prove that the boy is now well to be left on his own. But even then, instead of sending Mele off, he forces him to make a call home—wherever that might be—and even then asks if he should accompany the boy back to his hotel. When Mele refuses, and attempts to leave, Orsini runs after him delivering up a bottle of whisky and suggesting that since tomorrow will be sunny he will join him on a boat ride.
It is clear that despite his attempts to return to sexual normalcy, the Orsini figure cannot quite give up his attraction to the youth.
As he turns back to the Prévost figure, she suggests, having finally reeled him in, that for the first time in a long while she does not wish to go to bed alone. We have already established her rather banal reasons for her visit to Capri and her feelings of dissociation. Having lived three blissful years with her husband, he has left her; and she has now come to Capri simply to sell their villa.
When he returns to the hotel, he requests that a telephone call to be made to Rome, his own home evidently, at 11:00. Meanwhile, the clerk hands him the unopened bottle of whiskey he has given Mele the previous night, which the boy has obviously returned as an expression of his angry regret.
As if suddenly realizing the error of his presumptions, not only about the boy but possibly about himself, he rushes out to retrieve Mele from the departing ferry for Naples. Even with the disposal of a taxi, he arrives too late, observing the boat sailing off. As he turns back toward the hotel, he also witnesses Prévost also leaving Capri on what appears to be her personal hydroplane. He now is truly alone on Capri. Either he must return to an empty relationship in Rome or haunt the streets where he has finally discovered and lost his true self and love.
Graffi’s film is an incredible contribution to cinema history in general as well as an amazingly prescient vision of what LGBTQ cinema could become. It is so sad, accordingly, that although I found this film, with English subtitles, on YouTube, it remains for most viewers a basically lost work of art. I could not find a copy of Graffi’s later film, Metti, Una Sera a Cena (1971), a work the Cinema Sojourns commentator describes as “more self-consciously arty and erotic than Il Mare,” but which also deals with gay or bisexual characters. I will, however, continue to keep trying in my attempts to see this work as well.
Los Angeles, March 9, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (March 2021).