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'Swept Away' -- Twice

The original Swept Away...By An Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August polarized audiences in the United States upon its release here in 1975, and viewers flocked to art houses to see it. Its creator was Lina Wertmüller, then (and now) one of very few high-profile women directors in world cinema. As testament to the staying power of its cultural jounce, Swept Away was remade in 2003 as a vehicle for pop star Madonna.

The main character is a manically self-involved blonde named Raffaella. She resembles conservative commentator Ann Coulter, only she's Italian -- a self-described "ruthless profiteer" who spends most of her yachting vacation hectoring her companions about the failures of communism. One of the crew is Gennarino, hunky and brooding and a self-righteous Communist Party member. When the two end up stranded on a Mediterranean island, Gennarino's taste for dominance and sadism is given free range.

Ravishment and slaps soon lead to a blissed-out Raffaella contently washing Gennarino's underpants and bedecking her master's nether regions with pretty flowers as he slumbers. But Gennarino becomes slowly, inexorably vulnerable to her -- a dynamic that plays out operatically after their rescue and the pair reassume their places in the capitalist hierarchy.

It's all totally over the top, but feminists hated Swept Away, excoriating Wertmüller as a misogynistic, ham-fisted provocateur. It's more difficult to argue with her beautiful direction -- she apprenticed with Frederico Fellini -- and the actors Mariangela Melato and Giancarlo Giannini are riveting.

What's Included: The DVD package is cheap -- besides a few cursory on-screen text filmographies, it lacks extras. What a pity... It would have been marvelous to hear the director, and some of the film's early critics, talking about their cause celebre now.

The Madonna-Guy Ritchie Remake

Indeed, they could discuss why Madonna would chose to revive the film as a star vehicle, then allow director Guy Ritchie to drain away the jackhammer ideologies and colorful excesses.

For example, when the original Raffaella snarls at her onscreen husband about the vulgar poor, he promptly turns purple and starts ranting about the Pope. But in Ritchie's wimpy remake, he snidely observes, "I don't think there's a need for that, honey." Whatever your politics, it's a decidedly boring response.

Without the frisson of political extremism, the movie descends into straightforward soft porn, but still manages to be less naughty than many of the leading lady's music videos. That's partly because co-star Adriano Giannini (Giancarlo's son) is about as brooding as a puppy.

Giannini appears mildly embarrassed as he knocks Madonna about, and it's difficult to overlook her superior musculature. Because we're all used to the spectacle of Madonna pushing the envelope with popular culture and sex, her Wertmüller recap feels stale. And this remake is invested in the redemption and ennoblement of both characters, which completely misses whatever mordant points Wertmüller was trying to make.

What's Included: Only parched celebrity voyeurs will enjoy the featurettes in which Madonna and Ritchie horse around with grinning crew members. The real-life spouses also treat us to a pert interview ("Did it make you jealous to watch Adriano smooch up on my neck?") that at least partly explains why poor Adriano Giannini looks so awkward during the film.

In his director's commentary, Ritchie audibly surfs the Web, repeatedly asks about the time and opines upon the actors' suntans. He does summon up the energy to inform us that he began shooting before securing rights to the film ("Clever bastards, those Italians") and raves about a deleted scene that was "one of the best bits in the film -- it's essential -- it'll be in the DVD." It's not, but few will miss it.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.