Sex, rape, and film in 1960

3 June 2010

I’ve been trying to write about Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” for months now, a film that garnered Sophia Loren the Academy Award for Best Actress.  But the subject of rape in connection with women’s sexuality is a tough one, and I kept putting it off — until tonight, after watching Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” which won both the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.  Here’s my question:  Why were people watching so many movies about rape in 1960, and finding them so award-worthy?

In both cases, the rapes are graphic even today — the films show the women struggling, bloodied, traumatized, their clothes torn.  In “Two Women,” Sophia Loren and her 13-year-old daughter, each pinned under a fierce group of ravaging soldiers in a bombed-out church, gaze frantically at each other before they lose consciousness.  In “Virgin Spring,” three shepherds trap the golden-haired, unsuspecting Karin and rape her; when they’re done, they kill her with a club and steal her clothes.  What the hell?

Of course “Two Women” is an antiwar film — it revisits the true story of mass rapes by French Moroccan troops in Central Italy near the end of World War II — but do we really need to see a vicious rape to get an antiwar message?  Rather, the film is partly about the neat contrast of the two women’s sexuality:  it portrays Loren at her most luscious and earthy, wiping sweat from her brow and fanning her magnificent chest as admiring men look on, so different than her religiously devout, pubescent child with big eyes and a clear conscience.  Loren’s character has used sex and her beauty before when necessary, but she has always done so to remain in charge of her future.  De Sica might be telling us that in war everyone suffers atrocities; but by offering us the contrast of their different sexual histories, he makes those histories somehow relevant.

Karin may be the ill-fated virgin in “Virgin Spring,” but she’s no innocent.  As the spoiled daughter of a prosperous farmer, she heads out through the woods with her slatternly, cranky, pregnant-out-of-wedlock foster sister, Ingeri, to deliver candles to the far-off church (they must be delivered by a virgin to please the Virgin Mary, they believe).  Decked out in her most beautiful clothes, she sings songs of spring and renewal, and the countryside blossoms around them.  But as they travel, Karin reveals herself to have a vicious streak:  she smugly informs Ingeri that she’ll never be pregnant outside of marriage, but only when she is “mistress of my house with honor.”

Ingeri:  “We’ll see about your honor when a man takes your waist or strokes your neck.”

Karin:  “No man will get me to bed without marriage.”

Ingeri:  “And if he meets you in the pasture and pulls you down behind a bush?”

Karin:  “I’ll fight my way free.”

Ingeri:  “But he’s stronger than you.”

Stupid girl — Karin won’t learn until it’s too late.  Like De Sica, Bergman uses the contrast of the promiscuous girl against that of the beautiful virgin — and why?  To illustrate a chaotic view of the world around us.  Karin’s rape and murder result in her father avenging her death by brutally murdering the shepherds — at which point they discover that a new spring of fresh water has grown up out of the ground below her dead body.  This isn’t a film about revenge, as some critics have suggested; it’s a film in which nothing makes sense, in which every effort to make sense of the world results in confusion.  Thus, the contrast of the blonde with the dark-haired Ingeri serves no other purpose than to remind us that women’s sexuality is always somehow relevant, meaningful, dangerous.

The argument for showing a rape in film is, I suppose, that its horror will repel viewers, alert them to the terror women experience, and draw larger conclusions about the terrors of war and the meaninglessness of the universe.  But it’s not worth it.  I’ve been thinking about this subject ever since seeing “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” a couple of months ago, with its brutal rape-and-revenge plot.  Rape scenes onscreen tell audiences far more than simply transmit antiwar messages or allow us the satisfaction of a rape victim eventually kicking her oppressor’s ass.  They offer up dividing lines between men and women and insist on showing physical terror that has no comparative violent act against men.  Moreover, rape is an uncontrollable plot device that associates women’s sexuality with fear, violence, and shame.  We need to stop showing them.

Isn’t it interesting that as these filmmakers were producing their films in1960, the so-called “sexual revolution” was beginning to be discussed — The Pill was hitting the market, rock and roll was showing everyone how to use their hips, and the western world was taking a turn toward public discussions of sexuality that had only been glimpsed with the earlier Kinsey Reports and Beauvoir’s Second Sex.  Isn’t it interesting that one of the harbingers of that shift was two prominent films that used rape as a plot element; rape allowed these directors to make “serious,” hard-hitting, perhaps even controversial films.  But ultimately they simply warn girls to watch out.  We need a moratorium on rape scenes in film and television.

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7 Responses to “Sex, rape, and film in 1960”

  1. Hattie Says:

    I totally agree with your analysis. I saw “The Virgin Spring” in Berkeley as a young woman when it was all the arty rage, and I was horrified, especially at the widely held opinion that it was about innocence, sin, and redemption. I agree with you that it was about meaninglessness.

    • didion Says:

      You know, I thought again last night, after posting, about Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” — a film in which the rape of the young girl takes place offscreen, but we see her ravaged body nevertheless. Yet again, this becomes the catalyst for the man to enact vengeance. But damn, AGAIN, why are these directors coming up with the rape of women as the event that sparks men to action?

  2. didion Says:

    Many thanks to Diddlebock for sending me this link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/charlottehigginsblog/2010/may/27/michael-winterbottom-women — it’s an article about the new infamous Michael Winterbottom film that hasn’t opened yet (I don’t think) that puts violence against women so much at the center. And I see the Guardian has a new essay on the subject too: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2010/jun/03/women-violence-killer-inside-me-feminism. This film seems to be less about rape than violence against women, but the question still remains: why now?


  3. [...] mentioned several times here that I’ve had it with gratuitous scenes of violence against women, especially [...]


  4. [...] On the scene of Nadia’s rape, with the sound blurred out and the strange view of the slats in the headboard: I actually found that a nice solution to depicting more graphically the pain and humiliation. NOT that I ever want to see rape depicted onscreen, a topic I’ve ranted about in the past. [...]


  5. [...] film is more sympathetic to Mary Ann than other films about rape victims from that era, my assessment of two other 1960 films – Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, plus Robert [...]


  6. [...] find it fascinating and bizarre that one of the most frequently-viewed posts I’ve ever written is from over a year ago on the portrayal of rape in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women and  Ingmar [...]


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