Last month, actress and director Asia Argento voiced her disgust with criticism from the Italian public after she came forward with rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein. “Italy is far behind the rest of the world in its view of women,” she told the press of her native country.
50 years ago, Italy was rocked by one woman’s courageous efforts to challenge the country’s treatment of rape victims — the lessons of which are sadly still relevant.
In 1966, Franca Viola became the first Italian woman to take to court a cultural convention that would have her marry her rapist. With the eyes of a nation upon Viola, her statement to her rapist from the stand became a rallying cry for other women to follow suit.
IMAGE: COLLECTION OF DAISY ALIOTO
Viola grew up in Alcamo, Sicily in a farming family. She dated Filippo Melodia, a mafia-connected local in his early 20s, for six months in 1963 before rejecting him. He spent the next year in Germany, and when he returned and Viola still didn’t want him, he resorted to violent measures — with the assumption that the law was behind him.
Melodia waited until Viola’s father was out of the house, then stormed in with 15 friends and abducted her. He held her prisoner in a remote farmhouse for over a week, during which he raped her.
Traditionally, such an appalling crime would be excused if the couple later wed in a "reparative marriage" — the man forgiven for his violence and the woman’s “honor” restored. This was not just an informal tradition, but an explicit exception in the Italian criminal code.
Instead, Viola took Melodia to court for kidnapping, “carnal violence,” and intimidation.
The trial was a sensation in Alcamo and beyond. Crowds flocked to debates about the trial, which were later relayed by the New York Times with the most patronizing of headlines: “No Admirers Call On Sicily’s Franca.”
Despite being the central figure of these events, the public narrative overshadowed Viola's thoughts and aims on the matter. Newspaper reports described her as “gentle," “slim," and “pretty."
A May 1967 dispatch reported that Viola, the triumphant legal trailblazer, seemed “destined to live as a spinster.” In a panel discussion on Italian television, local men unanimously agreed that Viola had shown great courage but that none of them, personally, would have the same courage to marry her. The Times also noted that, “Her defiance of tradition has since been imitated by at least four other Sicilian girls.”
The next year, the headlines could not have been more different.
IMAGE: TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT, DEC. 4, 1968
IMAGE: DES MOINES TRIBUNE, DEC. 4, 1968
IMAGE: ORLANDO SENTINEL, DEC. 5, 1968
In Dec. 1968, in a ceremony held in the early morning to avoid throngs of supporters, 20-year-old Franca Viola wed her childhood friend, 25-year-old Giuseppe Ruisi.
The Italian president sent $40 as a wedding present (over $250 today) and the country’s Transport Minister gave the newlyweds a month of free railway rides.
Melodia was released from prison in 1976 and banished from Sicily for his mob ties. He was shot dead in Modena two years later.
Franca still lives in Alcamo with her husband, two sons, and grandchildren.
IMAGE: 'VIOLA, FRANCA,' COURTESY OF GIULIA FASSINA
The Italian filmmaker Marta Savina has brought Viola’s story to life in a 15-minute short film that was recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. For Savina, Viola, Franca (2017) was a way to overwrite the punditry that had overshadowed Viola’s brave choice at the time. This is done through the physical expressiveness of lead actress Claudia Gusmano, whose sole line is the word “no.”
“We’re used to thinking of leaders and people that change history as these sort of outspoken people,” says Savina. She wanted to show how Viola, who has lived outside of the spotlight, remains a role model for her resistance.
The short film, which will eventually be feature length, also shows the importance of male allies in holding other men accountable for gender-based harassment and violence. “[Viola’s] family and her father specifically really supported her,” Savina explains.
In Dec. 2017, she will screen Viola, Franca in Alcamo. It will be Franca Viola’s first time seeing it.