Review of “Viola di Mare” (“Purple Sea”)

Purple Sea is a surprising, powerful film from Italian writer/director Donatella Marioca. A period piece set on a rural 19th century island, it’s a heartfelt, riveting, completely unpredictable love story between two women.

We first meet Angela (Valeria Solarino) and Sara (Isabella Ragonese) when they are young girls, running around on their astoundingly beautiful Mediterranean island. They (along with neighborhood boys Tomasso and Ventura) are friends despite differences in social class – Angela is the daughter of the quarry foreman, the only booming industry on the isle, while Sara is destined to be a servant for the “baron” the wealthy man who owns the whole place.

Not all is idyllic on the little slice of paradise, as Angela’s father is revealed to be an angry, bitter, abusive man. He hates that Angela is a girl (she’s useless as a successor in business) and beats her for the slightest offense. Early scenes set up the relationship among the rebellious little Angela, her battered mother, pious aunt, and monstrous father.

We quickly flash forward about fifteen years, where our leads are now young women in their twenties. Sara has returned from time on the mainland, and we can immediately tell that Angela has been counting the days (and possibly the hours and minutes) until her return. Somehow, our anxious heroine seems to figure out right away that she is in love with her childhood “friend” – and despite the fact that they haven’t seen one another in years, they immediately hit it off once again.

After a few friendly encounters, it becomes obvious that there’s far more boiling beneath the surface. Persistent and passionate, Angela is not happy about the possibility of Tomasso proposing to Sara, and on one windswept afternoon, she comes outright with her desire to marry Sara, and boldly steals a kiss.

The rigid social structure of a rural European town in the 1800s is everywhere – in the language, in the dress, in the customs and unspoken rules and religious doctrine that permeates the whole place. The word “lesbian” never even appears – likely, these people didn’t even have a word or a real conception of what that meant. In this way, Purple Sea takes “it simply wasn’t done” to new heights.

Despite the world around them, our leads begin a passionate romance. While Sara seems to have more of an issue processing her feelings – at one point, she proclaims “it’s a sin!” before giving right in to her sinful instincts – things go more smoothly than one would expect for the times. That is, until Angela’s father arranges her marriage to Ventura, one of his “managers” at the quarry, and our feisty heroine outright refuses. Not only does she say no to dad (a big taboo for a woman in those circumstances), she even comes out, spilling the beans about her feelings for Sara.

Sooner than you can say “overblown patriarchy!” she’s locked into an underground storage room. She’s not allowed out of her dungeon until she agrees to marry Ventura, assuring her heterosexuality in the process.