Sea Violet -- Film Review

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ROME -- Donatella Maiorca's "Sea Violet" is further proof that period films are making a small comeback in Italy. Set in Sicily in the late 19th century, it is based on a novel about a practice not uncommon in rural European communities in the past -- women passing as men. This was usually done when a family had no or few male heirs, but here it serves to legalize in marriage a lesbian love affair.

It may seem farfetched, but the story works reasonably well thanks to its two leads, Valeria Solarino and Isabella Ragonese. Apart from the love scenes between the two women (rare in Italian cinema) and a raunchy electric guitar score by local rocker Gianna Nannini, "Sea Violet" is pretty conventional filmmaking.

At home it has grossed half a million euros in its first week at the boxoffice, not bad for a local indie title, but internationally it is doubtful that it will go beyond the festival circuit.

"Sea Violet" was released right after its festival premiere, which sparked some controversy because the film is distributed by Medusa, part of the media empire of President Silvio Berlusconi, whose government is not exactly gay friendly. On the surface, this is a love story about fearlessness and honesty. But even more interesting is the question it poses about how social acceptance is gained time and again when labels and roles are shifted ever so slightly, and ever so obviously, to superficially maintain the status quo.

Angela (a fiery Solarino) has loved Sara (Ragonese, who continues to prove her skills) her entire life. Childhood friends separated for years, she declares her passion when Sara and her family return to their small Sicilian island (captured with understated beauty by cinematographer Roberta Allegrini). What's more, she does so without the shame befitting her "sinful" ways.

Sara falls for Angela as well. When they are promised off to men, the rebellious Angela refuses, saying she will marry Sara or no one. Disgusted by his daughter's homosexuality, Angela's violent father Salvatore (Ennio Fantastichini) locks her up in the basement for months.

Then her mother comes up with a plan: They'll bribe the priest into saying he made a mistake at childbirth, and the family actually had a boy. Angela reappears as Angelo, takes over Salvatore's business as head of the local quarry and marries Sara.

Until the film melodramatic third act, their lives progress relatively happily, even when Angelo/Angela starts subtly changing. Luckily, the filmmakers know that it's not clothes that make the man but, in a man's world, power.

Venue: Rome International Film Festival -- Competition

Production company: Italian Dreams Factory
Cast: Valeria Solarino, Isabella Ragonese, Ennio Fantastichini, Giselda Volodi, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Marco Foschi, Alessio Vassallo, Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere
Director: Donatella Maiorca
Screenwriters: Mario Cristiani, Donatella Diamanti, Maiorca, Pina Mandolfo
Producers: Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Giovanna Emidi, Silvia Natili, Giulio Volati
Director of photography: Roberta Allegrini
Production designer: Beatrice Scarpato
Music: Gianna Nannini
Costume designers: Lia Morandini, Sabrina Beretta
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Sales: Intramovies
No rating, 106 minutes