The war is over and we’ve lost. What matters is to come out alive.

– Eleonora Rossi Drago, Violent Summer

One of the few violent moments in Estate violenta (Violent Summer, 1959) happens early on, as the cream of Italy’s Fascist-era bourgeoisie are enjoying a day at the beach. The mood at the Adriatic resort of Riccione is languid, sun-kissed and superficially free of care. It seems not to matter that the year is 1943 and the Second World War has been resoundingly lost. That Allied troops are working their way implacably northwards from the toe of the Italian peninsula and the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini is teetering on the brink of collapse. The sea is calm, the sun is out and that is all anybody deigns to notice. It may be wartime but it is still a perfect day for a swim.

Suddenly, we hear a low roar from somewhere just out of sight. The sky splits open and a Nazi warplane swoops down low above the beach. Bathers run screaming out of the surf. Beach umbrellas keel over in the blast of the aircraft’s wings. A little girl, panic-stricken, races across the sand crying for her mother. Barely seconds ago, the war and its carnage felt like a rumour from another world. Now they have become the world – and it will take more than an act of wilful oblivion to make them go away. The child takes refuge in the arms of a stranger, a callow youth clad in the skimpiest of trunks. Her mother finds the child and kneels down beside her in the sand. On an impulse, she raises her eyes and meets the gaze of the young man… 

In setting up this fateful meeting between a sophisticated older woman and a naïf and slightly feckless younger man, director Valerio Zurlini was inspired by Le Diable au corps (The Devil in the Flesh, 1923), a once-scandalous novel by the French author Raymond Radiguet. Zurlini saw their romance as “something that is lived with great intensity, because on the far side of it there is the counterpoint of death, always possible and always near.”1 His co-writer was Suso Cecchi d’Amico, the most illustrious female screenwriter in the history of Italian cinema. In a career that stretched from the 40s to her death in 2010, Cecchi d’Amico specialised in creating women who were not mere objects of male fantasy, but sentient and powerful agents in their own on-screen stories. 

In Violent Summer, Carlo (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is the idle playboy son of a high-ranking Fascist. His father’s connections have so far kept him out of the war. Roberta (Eleonora Rossi Drago) is the upper-class widow of a naval war hero. They come from radically opposing worlds, but the sexual magnetism between them is instant and overpowering. It is a force strong enough, writes Daniele Badella, “to undo the nagging obsession with control that pervades the society of Fascist Italy.”2 Their eyes meet again one night at the circus, as an Allied air raid plunges the tent into darkness and abruptly stops all the fun. Roberta fishes a torch from her handbag; she turns it on to reveal Carlo with his eyes fixed on her. It is the woman who holds and controls the light, the man who is illuminated passively and decoratively by it.

Carlo invites the entire party back to his father’s monumentally ugly Futurist villa. They fling open the French windows and dance by moonlight, as bombs explode in the distance like fireworks in a dark velvet sky. The song they dance to is “Temptation” by Brown and Freed. It is the same song (albeit in a radically different arrangement) to which Dorothy Malone dances her infamous ‘death by mambo’ in the camp Douglas Sirk classic Written on the Wind (1956). The stifling bourgeois worlds of these two films are not a million miles apart. War or no war, the characters in Violent Summer exist within an illusion of suburban normality, an ‘imitation of life’ that is comparable not only with Sirk but with other Hollywood melodramas of the ‘50s such as Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957) or Some Came Running (Vincente Minnelli, 1958). They may know, as we do, that this illusion is impossible to sustain. That makes them only more determined to sustain it. 

Yet it crumbles in the face of any authentic passion – as Roberta and Carlo lock eyes yet again. Is it the woman who is seduced? Or is it she who does the seducing? The plot dynamics in a ‘typical’ Italian war film tend to reduce women to the status of victims, no matter how gloriously flamboyant the actresses who play them may be. Anna Magnani in Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945) gets gunned down after the first hour by a Nazi goon squad; Sophia Loren in La Ciociara (Two Women, Vittorio de Sica, 1960) is gang-raped midway through by Allied soldiers. Yet Eleonora Rossi Drago in Violent Summer is never the victim of men. Her nemesis is her own conflicted loyalty, her own untamed libido. As an icon of perverse female empowerment, she ranks alongside Cecchi d’Amico’s other most memorable creation, Alida Valli as the erotically tormented Countess Serpieri in Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954). That is as perverse – and as empowered – as any woman on screen has ever got.

In their radical reframing of Italy’s recent wartime past, Zurlini and Cecchi d’Amico make nonsense of Mira Liehm’s contention that Violent Summer is “limited to the introduction of new subject matter” and makes no effort “to break through the clichés of the traditional narrative.”3 This is not a case of opting for the personal over the political. Rather, it is one of realising that no such distinction actually exists. Some critics may lament the fact that Zurlini has “lost potential admirers to the grotesqueries of Fellini, the opulence of Visconti and the puzzles of Antonioni,”4 yet the world view that emerges in Violent Summer is as bold and distinctive as any of those much bigger names. All it takes is a man, a woman and a beach.

Estate violenta/Violent Summer (1959 Italy/France 103 mins)

Prod. Co: Titanus Prod: Silvio Clementelli Dir: Valerio Zurlini Scr: Valerio Zurlini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Giorgio Prosperi Phot: Tino Santoni Mus: Mario Nascimbene Ed: Mario Serandrei Prod Des: Dario Cecchi, Massimiliano Capriccioli

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Eleonora Rossi Drago, Jacqueline Sassard, Enrico Maria Salerno, Lilla Brignone, Raf Mattioli, Federica Ranchi


  1. Valerio Zurlini, “Donne, partigiani, fascisti, banditti” in L’avventurosa storia del cinema italiano – raccontata dai suoi protagonist, 1960-1969, Franca Faldini and Goffredo Fofi, eds. (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1981), p. 94. Translation from Italian by the author.
  2. Daniele Badella, “Nessun posto al sole (d’Italia) – Estate violenta di Valerio Zurlini,” Frames Cinema, 22 July 2022. Translation from Italian by the author.
  3. Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984), p. 165.
  4. Richard Harland Smith, “Zurlini’s Early Masterpieces,” Violent Summer and Girl with a Suitcase, 2-DVD Special Edition, NoShame Films, 2006, p. 4.

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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