An arrogant wealthy capitalist named Raffaella (Mariangela Melato) is vacationing on a yacht in the Mediterranean Sea with friends—swimming, sunbathing, and talking incessantly about the virtues of her class and the worthlessness of the political left. Her nonstop political monologue infuriates one of the underclass deckhands on her yacht, Gennarino (Giancarlo Giannini), a dedicated Communist who manages to restrain his opinions to avoid upsetting his boss and losing his good job. Despite her humiliating insults, Gennarino agrees to take her out on a dinghy late in the evening to see the rest of her friends who have gone ahead without her. On their way, the outboard motor gives out, leaving them stranded in the middle of the sea with no land in sight.
After a night at sea, Gennarino manages to get the motor running again but has no idea where they are or how to get to land. Eventually they spot an island and head toward it, destroying their dinghy in the process. On land, they discover that there is no one on the island except them, and they are effectively shipwrecked. Accustomed to having everything done for her, Raffaella begins ordering Gennarino about, but this is the final straw for him and he snaps, refusing to assist her any longer. Raffaella reacts with a string of insults, but he gives as good as he gets, and they split up to explore the island on their own.
Much better suited to island life than Raffaella, Gennarino is soon catching and cooking lobsters. Gradually their roles become reversed. While she has to rely on him for food, Gennarino wants her to be his slave, convinced that women are born to serve men. He even forces her to endure the indignity of washing his underwear. When she reacts in angry defiance, he slaps her around. Undeniably attracted to Raffaella, Gennarino attempts to rape her, but then changes his mind, deciding that it would be more satisfying if she gave herself to him willingly. He wants her to fall in love with him, and as their differences are gradually forgotten, they reach a kind of balance, although Gennarino still hits her and she takes the more subservient role. Eventually they spot a ship, and although they are both reluctant to disrupt their newfound paradise, they signal the ship and are rescued.
After returning home, they soon revert to their former lives and social roles—she once again embracing the upper-class lifestyles of her friends; he returning to a life of a lower-class worker and husband. They both understand something profound and unsettling about what they've experienced, but Raffaella is unwilling to abandon the society of privilege that has such a strong hold on her. Abandoned by the object of his desires, Gennarino returns defeated to his sad life and loveless marriage—far removed from an idyllic island in the Mediterranean Sea.Giancarlo Giannini as Gennarino Carunchio
Mariangela Melato as Raffaella Pavone Lanzetti
Riccardo Salvino as Signor Pavone Lanzetti
Isa Danieli as Anna
Eros Pagni as Pippe
Aldo Puglisi as Gennarino's fellow
Lucrezia De Domizio
The film was shot in Tortolì, Sardinia, Italy.
In his review in the Chicago Sun-Times, American film critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, his highest rating. Ebert wrote that the film "resists the director's most determined attempts to make it a fable about the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and persists in being about a man and a woman. On that level, it's a great success."
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called Swept Away "the most successful fusion of Miss Wertmuller's two favorite themes, sex and politics, which are here so thoroughly and so successfully tangled that they become a single subject, like two people in love." Canby went on to write:
Swept Away is less a film about ideas than about previous commitments, for which neither character can be held completely accountable. The enormous appeal of the comedy has to do with the way, briefly, each character, is able to overcome those commitments. It also has to do with the performances of Mr. Giannini and Miss Melato, who tear into their roles with a single-minded intensity that manages to be both hugely comic and believable, even in the most outrageous of situations. They are the best things to happen to Italian comedy since Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren squared off in the nineteen-sixties.
Some reviewers criticized the film as deeply misogynistic, with its themes of violence against women, subjugation, and rape. Anthony Kaufman, in The Village Voice, called it "possibly the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman."
Other reviewers and analysts responded that those who focused on the misogyny simply didn't understand the film's message about class warfare. James Berardinelli defended the film, writing "Those who view this film casually may easily mistake it for a male fantasy...The reality, however, is that Wertmuller is exhibiting the courage to show things that other filmmakers shy away from." John P. Lovell wrote "The sexual violence can be analyzed as political violence within the framework of patriarchal politics and the film's concern with a symbolic presentation of social revolt."
In her review in Jump Cut, Tania Modleski dismissed those justifications, contending that critics would not have been so kind to those who made films which reinforced stereotypes—culminating in violent subjugation—about oppressed ethnic groups, so there was no justification for critics to praise a rape-fantasy film. Responding to the film's message about class warfare, she wrote "So even if Wertmuller wanted to convey only a political message, she has clouded rather than clarified the issues. She should have made both parties male."
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received a 67% positive rating from top film critics based on 15 reviews, with an average rating of 5.8/10.
The film was remade in 2002 as Swept Away, starring Madonna and directed by her then-husband Guy Ritchie. The film was a critical and commercial failure. The male lead was played by Adriano Giannini, the son of the actor in the original version.