Oh, the soft sound of rain
On the ground, on the town.
For the heart in its pain
Oh, the sound of the rain!

– Paul Verlaine, “ Il pleure dans mon coeur”1

Anybody who suffers should gather one tear on
the tip of one finger, show it to his friend and say:
Touch it, this is what I suffer. Keep it safe for me
always, this is my pain.

– Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, The Death of Beauty2

It starts with a sound like an angel’s cry. A high falsetto wailing of a lone boy soprano. The credits are black on silver. Il Mare. “The Sea.” A man stands alone on the deck of a ferry. He wears a dark woollen coat, its collar raised high against the wind. He gazes glumly out at the grey waves. The ship is all but deserted. It docks on an island we may recognise as Capri. Out of season, chilly, rain-soaked and windswept. A taxi whisks the man to a Grand Hotel high above the town. Like the ship, it is all but empty, a luxurious white marble mausoleum. A porter shows the man to a suite with a sea view, furnished in ersatz Louis XV. He walks to a window and gazes out again at the sea.

 At first glance, Il Mare may seem like a minimalist black-and-white remake of Morte a Venezia/Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) – the archetypal gay-themed Italian film. In fact, Il Mare was shot a decade earlier and premiered at the 1962 Venice Film Festival. It marked the film debut of another gay Italian aesthete, the writer and director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (1921-2005) who made his name with a string of plays on taboo sexual themes. His two novels – Scende giù per Toledo/Next Stop, Toledo (1975) and La morte della bellezza/The Death of Beauty (1987) – are classics of Italian gay fiction. In later years, he developed a bizarre sideline directing ‘live’ opera films for TV. His six theatrical features explore the darker, more arcane aspects of human sexual desire.

Like most of the later films, Il Mare was dismissed by critics and largely ignored by the public. It is a starkly stylised chamber piece with only three major characters, not one of whom is ever called by name. They exist solely as The Actor, The Woman and The Boy. Their dialogue, terse and enigmatic, spells out precisely none of the erotic torment that seethes away beneath the glamorous soigné surface. This visual and emotional bleakness has led critics to compare Il Mare (unfavourably) to the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, in particular his ‘Trilogy of Alienation’: L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith wrote sniffily that “Antonioni founded no school and attempts to follow closely in his footsteps such as Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s Il Mare only succeeded in aping his mannerisms while capturing nothing of the substance.”3 

 His dismissal seems to reflect the common critical view. The great misfortune of Il Mare was to appear at a time when its natural and most appreciative audience had not yet come into being. At the dawn of the 1960s, the concept of Queer Cinema as it is understood today did not exist. The first dedicated gay and lesbian film festival began only fifteen years later, in San Francisco in 1977. The direct marketing of films to queer audiences via home video was decades in the future. So too were the global online fan communities that promote and evaluate films from a specifically queer perspective. These days an anonymous blogger can point out – as does the author of Cinema Sojourns – how “Griffi imbues his film with an underlying compassion and eroticism that is at odds with Antonioni’s more enigmatic and dispassionate approach.”4  Are there ways of viewing Il Mare that lay beyond the critical vocabulary of its time? 

Over the past six decades, the rediscovery and re-evaluation of this film has gone hand in hand with the growing Queer Cinema movement. In 1972, the openly gay critic Parker Tyler hailed Il Mare for its “hauntingly poetic eroticism” and proclaimed it “highly seeable despite its self-consciousness.”5 In 1991, the National Film Theatre in London hosted a season curated by leading queer filmmakers under the banner ‘My Favourite Film.’ Derek Jarman chose Il Mare and described the one-off showing in his journal:

Griffi’s Il Mare is an extraordinary film that has been lost for many years –  it was found for me in the National Film Archive. Much as I remembered it from screenings at the Academy in the sixties: boredom, the possibility of a relationship between two young men – an actor and a runaway – in out-of-season Capri. The landscape takes over the characters, becomes an extension of their thoughts.6

In this film, Jarman saw “the first faltering attempt to depict a gay relationship before cinema could be more explicit.”7

Jarman’s statement is problematic for a number of reasons. Twenty years had passed since Luchino Visconti inserted a discernible gay subplot into Ossessione (1943) his unofficial adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. Furthermore, the tacit but heavily eroticised liaison between Gino (Massimo Girotti) and the enigmatic itinerant artist known as ‘The Spaniard’ (Elio Marcuzzo) is shown to be entirely healthy and natural, unlike his tormented and homicidal passion for Giovanna (Clara Calamai). In the Mauro Bolognini drama La notte brava (1959) an aristocratic playboy (Tomàs Milian) eyes up some rough trade (Laurent Terzieff) and nibbles on a chicken leg with what is clearly lascivious intent. The rediscovery of Il Mare by gay cinephiles in Italy became official only in 2009, when it played in a retrospective of Patroni Griffi’s work at the GLBT Film Festival in Turin.

Dino Mele as ‘The Boy’

Meanwhile, much of his later work has been re-evaluated as ‘camp’ by queer and cult audiences. His film of his own play Metti, una sera a cena/Love Circle (1969) won notoriety for its bisexual three-way kiss between three glamorous actors (Lino Capolicchio, Tony Musante, Florinda Bolkan). His lyrical, blood-soaked adaptation of a Jacobean tragedy by John Ford, Addio, Fratello Crudele/’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971) includes copious nude scenes of Charlotte Rampling – as a Renaissance princess with an incestuous passion for her brother – yet its erotic focus is on its unclothed male actors and the sadomasochistic goings-on between them. His film of the Muriel Spark novel, Identikit/The Driver’s Seat (1974) boasts Elizabeth Taylor in full-on drag queen mode as a disturbed woman in search of a man who will rape and kill her. Her clashing LSD wardrobe and deranged Kabuki hairdo make this, as David Ehrenstein writes, “a John Waters fever-dream come true.”8 If Patroni Griffi films are catnip to 21st century queer audiences, they are so for all the reasons why critics in the 60s and 70s disliked them.

Yet nothing could be further from camp than the aesthetic starkness of Il Mare. Capri, a popular gay resort since the reign of the Emperor Tiberius – and celebrated as such by the Norman Douglas novel South Wind and the Noël Coward song “In a Bar on the Piccola Marina” – looks as bleak and empty and colourless as it is possible for a celebrated island paradise to look. The Actor (Umberto Orsini) leaves his hotel and wanders through a labyrinth of streets as spectral and deserted as the streets of Montmartre in Orphée (Jean Cocteau, 1950) where Jean Marais searches for a woman who embodies his Death. At times, they evoke the streets of Cabeza de Lobo, that mythical Spanish resort where the faceless Sebastian Venable is hunted by cannibal rent boys in Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1959).

Yet nobody seems to be hunting The Actor. From his anxious demeanour and a terse and one-sided conversation by telephone, we know he is waiting for a woman. Also, that the woman has failed to show up. He looks crushed but not especially surprised. He goes back to his wandering and it seems purely by chance that he finds The Boy (Dino Mele).  This youth has the sultry dark looks and long-lashed bedroom eyes of a barely post-pubescent Valentino. He looks no older than eighteen or nineteen, but already has a severe drink problem. The Actor glimpses him first in a bar, throwing a fit because a waiter has served his whisky on ice. Their next encounter comes on a clifftop, where The Boy lies draped languorously across a pagan stone altar, sprawled and ready for sacrifice. They exchange not one word at either meeting.

Yet that night, they meet again in a dark alley. The Boy sits alone, drinking whisky straight from a bottle. The Actor takes the bottle from his hand; The Boy gives him a faint smile. They wind up tussling over the bottle, each seeking to control it and wrest it back from the other. The Actor grabs it and tries to drain the whisky in one gulp; The Boy insists he take it easy and drink it in small sips. The phallic symbolism is none too hard to detect. Douglas Messerli writes:

Obviously, this is the far more experienced boy’s way of showing his elder how to enjoy sex, slowly, teasingly eliciting the flavours of the body…This is probably not the first film wherein a bottle of whisky symbolises a cock.9

This encounter ‘climaxes’ with the two men wrapped tightly in each other’s arms, fully clothed but breathing heavily as if in the throes of orgasm. Twenty-five years later, Patroni Griffi made this subtext explicit in his novel The Death of Beauty. In the final days of World War II, an air raid on a cinema in Naples leaves two men clinging together in fear and having orgasms at the same time.

The location shifts to The Actor’s hotel room. Snatching the bottle of whisky, The Boy nestles it in a chandelier. Hanging in mid-air, it casts queer spidery shadows on the walls and floor. Seated on the bed, The Actor eyes it longingly. This scene evokes The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) a film that makes alcoholism and gayness seem like two symptoms of the same disease. The Boy disappears into the bathroom. The Actor follows and The Boy ambushes him from behind. Brandishing a flask of men’s cologne (Monsieur de Givenchy) he presses it up against The Actor’s mouth and forces him to drink it. Overcome by nausea, the older man sinks into the bathtub and lies there without moving. The Boy turns on the tap and floods the tub to the brim. He goes out and leaves The Actor on the verge of drowning.

Symbolically, what we have just seen is an act of rape. One of the few appreciative critics at the time, Raymond Durgnat in Films and Filming identified it as such and found in Il Mare strong echoes of The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963):

Indeed the general tangle of moods is not dissimilar – a sense of spoilt aimlessness, of ideological collapse throughout society, constant equivocations about dominance between men of different social class…indeed, both have bathroom scenes between men which are almost rape scenes.10

Such use of an inanimate object as a weapon of penetration takes on a more explicit form in The Death of Beauty. After sharing an inadvertent orgasm at the cinema, the teenage Eugenio and the 28-year-old Lilandt become lovers. In the book’s most scabrous scene, the boy watches as the man commits an act of self-sodomy with the carved handle of an antique letter-opener.

It was, of course, impossible for Il Mare to include anything so explicit. Yet the next morning, The Actor wakes up in the bathtub with the air of a man who has been through a night of rough sex. He goes out and wanders again in the maze of white streets. At the far end of an alley, he spots a woman dressed in white and bathed in sunlight. He runs up and flings his arms around her. Does he imagine she is the woman he came to Capri to meet? In fact, The Woman (Françoise Prévost) is a stranger. Fashionably gowned and immaculately coiffed, she combines the gamine elegance of Leslie Caron with the moody sensuality of Lucia Bosè. Realising his mistake, The Actor makes his apologies and goes on searching for The Boy. He finds him and they wind up tussling on the ground. The Boy has his legs in the air; the Actor has his groin pressed tightly against The Boy’s arse.

It is The Boy who disrupts this symbolic act of copulation. He announces he is hungry and insists the man take him to dinner. Sitting at a small table in an otherwise empty trattoria, the two men still look a shade too close for comfort. With both their profiles squeezed into a frame too tight to contain them, they are vying – consciously or not – for exclusive control of the space. At moments, one head moves awkwardly out of frame and leaves the other in sole possession. Then it hovers back into view and the duel resumes. They scarcely notice when The Woman walks in and sits down at their table. Her irruption into the hitherto all-male aesthetic of Il Mare will turn this uneasy man-boy couple into an even more tortuous bisexual triangle. “Through an unsettling economy of glances,” writes Lorenzo Ciofani, the mise-en-scène “conveys the physical attraction and unease of the two male bodies and the perplexity and discomfort of the woman.”11

Dino Mele, Françoise Prévost & Umberto Orsini

It turns out The Woman has come to Capri to sell her villa – a home she once shared with her ex-husband. “I’m dead,” she says bluntly. “I died a year ago, on this island.” She is an haute couture ghost who haunts the ruins of her own past with the élan of Delphine Seyrig in L’Année dernière a Marienbad/Last Year in Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961). The next morning, The Actor stalks her obsessively through streets awash with rain, as she meets a prospective buyer. Alone in a squalid attic room with no water, The Boy goes out on the terrace and stands – naked to the waist – beneath the eaves, letting the raindrops pour over his bare skin. “I wondered if the scenes of the boy washing in the thunderstorm had remained in my mind when I made Sebastiane,”12 wrote Derek Jarman. In his 1975 debut feature, two men wrestle naked in water. Back at the villa, The Boy defaces a blank wall with a swirl of undulating lines. The Woman drifts aimlessly about as The Actor watches them both.

It is no great surprise when The Actor and The Woman form a couple. From now on, The Boy becomes an impediment to this new liaison, a token of The Actor’s past failure as a heterosexual man. On a rainy night at the villa, The Actor compels The Boy to strip to the waist and put on a jumper full of holes. A table lamp stands on the floor and casts eerily enlarged shadows on the white walls. The Actor commands The Boy to telephone his family and say he is coming home. The Boy takes the telephone and talks into it. Is there anybody on the other end? The Actor shows him the door and – once The Boy is gone – he and The Woman have sex. The lovemaking consists of posed, fragmented flashes that foreshadow the sex scenes in a Nicolas Roeg film: Mick Jagger and his two groupies in Performance (1970) or Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now (1973). 

It is clear things go drastically wrong. Morning finds The Actor alone in bed and The Woman curled up in a chair. She pretends not to see as he gets up and walks into the next room. He finds the telephone with its cord hanging loose. He realises the boy was talking to nobody. He wanders to the window and stares out at the sea. “At the end,” writes Parker Tyler, “everyone is unhappy and the enigmatic pathos of the restless sea triumphs.”13 Or perhaps not entirely. Back at his hotel, The Actor finds a bottle of whisky waiting at the front desk. One word is scrawled across it. CIAO. Racing to the port, he finds the ferry to the mainland has just left. We assume The Boy is aboard it. We see The Woman board a private motor launch that will carry her back to what she calls her everyday life. The Actor walks by and goes on walking.

The effect is one of absence redoubled. Yet that absence is conveyed in subtly yet essentially different ways. The heterosexual strand of Il Mare ends on a note of negative closure, as The Woman sails away and out of The Actor’s life. In contrast, its homosexual strand is obscurely but tantalisingly left open. We never see The Boy get on the ferry. He may have been hung over and missed the ferry. He may have made a conscious decision to stay on Capri and call The Actor’s bluff. He may arrive in Naples, turn around and catch the next boat back. This last scene holds a wealth of unseen and unwritten endings. Not one of those endings could ever have been filmed in 1962. When Derek Jarman rescued Il Mare from archive limbo in 1991, his screening was both fitting and ironic. As a pioneer of Queer Cinema, Jarman had spent his life telling stories Il Mare had inspired him to tell. On that night, the wheel came full circle.

Il Mare/The Sea (1962 Italy 100 mins)

Prod: Gianni Buffardi Dir: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi Scr: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, Alfio Baldarnini Phot: Ennio Guarnieri Mus: Giovanni Fusco Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Cast: Umberto Orsini, Françoise Prévost, Dino Mele


  1. Paul Verlaine, “Il pleure dans mon coeur,” 1885. Translation from French by the author.
  2. Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, La morte della bellezza, Baldini & Castoldi, Milan, 2000, p.263. Translation from Italian by the author.
  3. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Making Waves – New Cinema of the 60s: Revised and Expanded Edition, Bloomsbury, New York & London, 2013, pp. 159-160
  4. Anonymous, “Disconnected and Lost in Capri” in Cinema Sojourns, 27 July 2017
  5. Parker Tyler, Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, Da Capo Press, New York, 1993, p. 140
  6. Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion: Journals, 1991-1994 (edited by Keith Collins) Vintage, London, 2001, p. 6
  7. Ibid.
  8. David Ehrenstein, “Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat” in Slant Magazine, 25 March 2013
  9. Douglas Messerli, “If the Sea Was Whisky” in World Cinema Review, 9 March 2021
  10. Raymond Durgnat, Films and Filming, Volume 10: Number 8, Hansom Books, London, May 1964, p. 25
  11. Lorenzo Ciofani, “Il Mare: Giuseppe Patroni Griffi (1962)” in Lorenzo Ciofani – Visioni e Rescensioni, 25 March 2019 Translation from Italian by the author.
  12. Jarman, p. 6
  13. Tyler, p. 140

About The Author

David Melville is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature at the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He teaches courses on Michael Powell and Dark Fairy Tales and is currently working on a book about Cinema and Queer Spectatorship.

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