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

Up until this point, the story has taken a fairly conventional arc. Girl meets girl in an incredibly oppressive, patriarchal world. They fall in love. Dire consequences occur at the hands of the tyrannical men in their lives. You’d be forgiven for sighing, predicting that a murder, suicide, or both are in the cards, and turning off the movie. You shouldn’t, because events take a surprising, fascinating turn from this point on.

In order to save face and allow her daughter to survive in a cruel society, Angela’s long-suffering mother bravely proposes an unconventional solution: they’ll call a favor in with the priest (truly, the most powerful man – aside from the baron – in the town), have him declare that he made a mistake at Angela’s birth, and declare her male. Angela will now be referred to as “Angelo” – he will serve as his father’s heir at the quarry, and he will be able to marry Sara. Grudgingly, both the priest and the father agree.

The film logically follows this progression, as Angela (who refers to herself as a woman and goes along with the scheme only so she can be with her beloved) becomes Angelo in public. There’s a fascinating commentary on gender identity and expression here, especially as expressed within a world where male and female roles are so starkly contrasted.

It’s especially powerful because the film is actually based on true events. While it’s impossible to gauge just how accurate Maiorca’s version of the story is, it’s genuinely incredible that these women were able to love one another, more or less openly, despite the odds against them.

There are many twists and turns ahead for the couple – some of which feel astoundingly modern, and very little that occurs follows any sort of “typical lesbian movie” tropes. It feels refreshing and honest, especially for a period piece.

The acting and cinematography sell the story beautifully. Ragonese and Solarino have wonderful chemistry together, and Solarino especially shines through her trials and eventual dual role as Angela/Angelo. The supporting characters are all well drawn, particularly Salvatore and Tommasso, serving respectively as the least and most sympathetic male characters.

Almost as gorgeous as our leads is the spectacular camera work, which highlights both the natural beauty of the island and the trickier, darker environs of the town itself. The love scenes, in particular, are beautifully shot, and rightfully leave the fancy moves to the performers.

The only element that stands out in a negative way is the music – which feels overblown and occasionally takes the viewer out of the experience. There has never been a convincing case for using metal-sounding synths in a 19th-century period setting, and Purple Sea’s overzealous soundtrack isn’t about to change that fact.

It’s rare for lesbian films – particularly those set in the past – to offer genuinely interesting stories that feel fresh and even surprising, but Purple Sea rises well above expectations and delivers. This is a highly recommended, beautiful piece of work.

Purple Sea is available now on DVD through Strand Releasing.

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