Important social changes that began taking place in Italy after World War II gained momentum with the economic boom of the 1960s. Rigid family relationships were modified as young people sought a more visible role in society and women called for greater freedom. But progress towards this new cultural revolution in some regions, especially in southern Italy, was slow as inroads into deeply ingrained customs and beliefs were strongly resisted.
One such custom, the fuitina, a Sicilian word for ‘elopement’ that is now part of the Italian language, had long been practiced in the South. A very young couple, often minors, would run away from home for a day or so without telling anyone where they were going, thus presenting their union as a fait accompli. The only alternative for saving the girl’s reputation was that the couple enter a matrimonio riparatore (‘rehabilitating marriage’). Some poorer families who could not afford dowries for their daughters actively encouraged the fuitina.
Until fairly recently, however, there was a much darker side to this picture. It was not rare for the girl to be the unwilling victim in this practice. Her suitor, frequently an unwanted admirer or a man she had already rejected, would kidnap and rape her and then rely on the matrimonio riparatore to protect him from being convicted of either kidnapping or rape. This was possible because, under Article 544 of the Criminal Code, which was not repealed until 198, sexual violence was considered an offence against morals and not against the person. An accusation of sexual violence, even against a minor, would lapse if the perpetrator married his victim. To make matters worse, any girl who had suffered the humiliation of losing her virginity in this way either submitted to this kind of marriage to save her honour and that of her family or risked remaining an old maid and forever being labelled una donna svergognata (‘a shameless hussy’). In other words, socially and psychologically, she was the one to blame for the violence she had suffered.
On Boxing Day 1965, Franca Viola, a beautiful 17-year-old from Alcamo, a small Sicilian town, was abducted by Filippo Melodia, a local small-time criminal, whose advances Franca had repeatedly rebuffed. With the help of 12 of his friends, Melodia dragged her into a car; he drove her to a farmhouse on the outskirts of town where he raped her and kept her secluded for more than a week.
With incredible courage for those times, when she returned home, she rebelled and told her father that under no circumstances would she marry Melodia. With the help of her equally courageous father, Bernardo, her kidnappers were arrested by the local police. This would cost both Franca and her family dearly. They were intimidated and ostracised by most of the townspeople, her father received death threats and their barn and vineyard were burnt to the ground.
During the trial against Melodia and his accomplices, the defence did everything possible to discredit Franca, alleging she had consented to the elopement, which the judges refused to believe. Although five of his friends were acquitted and the others given relatively mild sentences, Melodia was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment, which, on appeal, was reduced to 10 years with a two-year period of compulsory residence in Modena. He finally got out of prison in 1976 and was killed in April 1978 in a mafia-style execution.
In 1968, Franca married her childhood sweetheart with whom she would later have three children. Conveying clear messages of solidarity, Giuseppe Saragat, then president of the Italian Republic, sent the couple a gift on their wedding day. Soon after their wedding, Pope Paul VI received them in a private audience.
Franca’s story created such a sensation and provoked so much debate throughout Italy that, in 1970, director Damiano Damiani released a film, The Most Beautiful Wife, based on it. It starred the 14-year-old Ornella Muti in her first film role and helped turn Franca into a kind of national feminist icon, a status she never capitalised on.
Franca, now a grandmother, still lives with her family in Alcamo. When asked to comment on the stance she took in the face of an archaic and intransigent system of values and behavioural mores, she said, ‘It was not a courageous gesture. I only did what I felt I had to do, as any other girl would do today, I listened to my heart…’ Listening to her heart transformed Italian society and liberated other women so they also could say ‘no’.