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Italian filmmaker Marta Savina finds modern relevance in Franca Viola's 1965 rape case

Claudia Gusmano stars as Franca Viola in filmmaker Marta Savina's short film
Claudia Gusmano stars as Franca Viola in filmmaker Marta Savina's short film "Viola, Franca."
Courtesy Marta Savina

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The U.S. is going through a reckoning over issues of sexual assault and harassment against women. But, in the words of Italian actress Asia Argento: “This historic moment doesn’t mean much to Italy, sadly.”

Argento, who is among the women who have come forward with allegations of sexual assaults committed by Harvey Weinstein, has had to flee Italy for Germany because of a widespread backlash against her.

Italy does not have a great history of supporting victims of alleged sex crimes. For generations, women who were raped were shunned by society for no longer being a virgin unless they married their actual rapists. There was even an article in the law that said a “reparatory marriage” protects a rapist from being charged with a crime which was in place until 1981.

The woman who first successfully challenged that custom was 18-year-old Franca Viola.

Her story is told in the 2017 short film “Viola, Franca” by Italian filmmaker Marta Savina which premiered at the Tribeca Film Fest this year. Savina is now turning it into a feature-length film.

In 1965, Viola was kidnapped and raped by a man who she had previously rejected. Instead of marrying him, she risked being deemed a pariah and insisted that he be tried for his crimes. With her family’s support, she won and the man was sentenced to 10 years in prison.  

But society was slow to catch up. The law where a rapist could be protected from prosecution if he married his victim was not overturned until 1981.

The Frame's John Horn recently connected with Savina in Italy where she's working on the feature film version of 'Viola, Franca' to talk about the modern day importance of the story.

Interview Highlights:

Why was what happened to Franca Viola so common in Sicily at this time?

There was a very common thing called "fuitina," which is basically when a couple would elope, so they just disappear for a couple days then they come back and have to be married. So this was sometimes consensual, but sometimes it just wasn't, so the girl was forced to forced to marry her rapist. It was unfortunately very common and she was the first one that refused to go through with the wedding, which was completely unthinkable at the time. 

What was the role of her family in the case?

Her family was always very supportive and very clearly defended her and supported her decisions. They endured threats and it wasn't just the public shaming that she was now "dishonerata," which means dishonored, because she had lost the only value that society attributed to her, her virginity, but also she was going against this very powerful family, so it was a very brave thing that her family did in supporting her throughout the court case and never turning their backs to her. 

It seems as if the penalty that Franca faced is not dissimilar to the penalty that women faced in Hollywood for so long.

It's exactly the same, which is why it makes me so angry that we're still facing this and why I really want to make this movie at this time. It's crazy that it's still relevant to a story that happened in Sicily in 1965 in Los Angeles, it's literally happening right now in 2017. I think what really drove me to tell the story is we used to think of people that shape history and speak out as incredibly strong people and leaders, because it does take an enormous amount of courage and strength to sustain the backlash that comes from speaking out. Here is this small, very soft spoken young girl that no matter what stands up for her own right. It was just an incredible character for me. I'm 30 years old and sometimes it's really hard to stand up for who I am and who I think I want to be and the fact that this woman did it when she was 18 years old is incredibly inspiring to me. 

And then you have today, with Asia Argento saying she had to leave Italy because of the backlash against her:

The backlash was brutal, I was furious and embarrassed. There was a magazine titled "Asia Argento, Madonna or whore?" they came out with this headline and I was just so infuriated because it's exactly the same choice that was granted to Franca 50-odd years ago. You have this binary choice as a woman, you can either be a Madonna or you can be a whore and it's incredible that this is still the truth in 2017, I think this needs to change right now. 

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