Two years ago, Michele Morrone was working as a gardener in a tiny northern Italian village. Newly divorced, broke and severely depressed, he had given up on his TV acting career after being repeatedly told that he was too attractive for the roles on offer. “In Italy, if you’re a good-looking guy, you’re not an actor,” he said matter-of-factly. “You’re just someone good-looking.”
But after five months toiling alongside cows and chickens, he got a call from his agent that a team of Polish filmmakers wanted to offer him the role of a Mafia boss in the erotic thriller “365 Days,” a part that required someone Italian and very good-looking.
“I woke up, called my gardening boss and said: ‘I’m not coming in today. My stomach doesn’t feel good,’” the 29-year-old father of two recalled. He boarded a plane to Poland and his life hasn’t been the same since.
Despite a zero percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, “365 Days,” directed by Barbara Bialowas and Tomasz Mandes, quickly became a viral sensation when it arrived on Netflix worldwide on June 7, following a successful theatrical run in Poland and a limited British release earlier this year. Scripted in English with occasional subtitled Polish and Italian, the dicey plot clearly didn’t deter viewers: the Sicilian Mafia boss Massimo (Morrone) kidnaps the unsuspecting Laura (the Polish newcomer Anna-Maria Sieklucka) and gives her one year to fall in love with him before he’ll free her from his palatial lair.
Amid a growing backlash, critics say it glorifies rape culture and Stockholm syndrome. Fans say it’s been unfairly maligned. What isn’t in dispute is that nearly a month after its streaming debut and with seemingly no promotion, the film remains among Netflix’s Top 10 most-watched titles in the United States and other countries, including Australia, Britain, Brazil, France, Spain and India.
Based on the first in a best-selling trilogy of Polish novels by Blanka Lipinska, “365 Days” leans heavily into travel porn, wealth porn and soft-core actual porn, apparently an appealing combination in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis when many viewers have been at home for months on end.
“In a way, it was almost custom-made for pandemic viewing: beautiful people having exotic sex in opulent settings,” said Caetlin Benson-Allott, an associate professor at Georgetown University and an expert on movie viewing habits.
There’s plenty of (simulated) carnality to ogle in the film’s 114 minutes: breasts, buttocks, fellatio, cunnilingus, nipple tweaking, seductive ice-cream licking and more. And since Netflix defines a view as watching a mere two minutes of a title, it’s impossible to know if a majority of viewers watched the full movie or skipped to the more tantalizing scenes.
Teenagers on TikTok were some of the first to spread word of “365 Days” by filming themselves reacting to the sex scenes with a mix of shock and admiration. “I did not expect this kind of movie to be on Netflix; maybe, like, late-night HBO,” Noah Holifield, an 18-year-old Chicagoan whose reaction video has more than 2.6 million views, said in an interview.
Some joke that they too would like to be kidnapped by Massimo, and his catchphrase, “Are you lost, baby girl?” (often stylized “baby gorl” to mirror Morrone’s elocution), is now a meme set to music in which the users eagerly respond, “Yes, daddy!”
“I don’t see anything problematic with the relationship of Massimo and Laura other than the fact that he kidnapped her and planned to keep her kidnapped for 365 days,” another TikTok user, Marin Hawkins, said in an interview. Hawkins, a 19-year-old from Ohio, posted her wide-eyed reaction to the infamous shower scene (not to be confused with the infamous boat scene). “Other than that, the relationship between them was good.”
And its impact extends beyond Gen Z. Audrey D’Antuono, a 44-year-old mental health counselor from Eden, N.C., and her sister flew to Poland in February to see “365 Days” in a Warsaw cinema after the trailer began surfacing on literary fan pages on Facebook.
“My husband told me I was crazy,” D’Antuono said. “He said it would be available to stream within the next few months, but I couldn’t wait. I’d never seen a trailer quite like it, and the movie lived up to the hype. I think we as a society are scared to talk about erotica or sex. It’s like this hush-hush mentality, but they’ve brought a taboo subject to the mainstream and found people like it.”
Then there’s Susana Rodriguez, 33, of Houston. She said she’d watched “365 Days” at least 100 times on Netflix and doesn’t agree with those who condemn it. “Yes, it does romanticize Stockholm syndrome, but it’s just a movie,” she said. “Other movies have killers and people getting killed, but they’re not protesting those movies. It’s 2020. We need to separate fiction from reality.”
Some of the criticism of “365 Days” echoes that of the “50 Shades of Grey” trilogy, another campy book-to-movie slice of erotica featuring a wealthy, powerful man and BDSM. Benson-Allott said the outright dismissal of both franchises was the byproduct of the United States being “still a very puritanical country in a lot of ways.”
“We frown on pornography and judge people for enjoying erotic fiction,” she added.
But it’s hard to ignore that the entire premise of “365 Days” is problematic. Variety’s review blasted the film’s “two flavors of misogyny” and its suggestion “that consent can be obtained retroactively,” while the feminist website Jezebel lamented “how quickly depraved abduction turns to cookie-cutter fairy tale.”
In an open letter to the Netflix chief executive, Reed Hastings, made public on July 2, the Welsh singer Duffy — who earlier this year opened up about her own experience being drugged, kidnapped and raped — asked the platform to remove the title, writing, “This should not be anyone’s idea of entertainment, nor should it be described as such, or be commercialized in this manner.”
The streaming service wouldn’t comment for this article, while Morrone emphasized that the story was pure fantasy and that he “would never encourage or want anyone to fall in love with their captor in real life.”
But Dr. Goali Saedi Bocci, a clinical psychologist and columnist for Psychology Today, warned against dismissing the issues on the basis of fiction.
“There is clearly quite a bit of misunderstanding about sexual consent and assault” in real life, Bocci said, “and such films only continue to muddy the waters.” The danger is that men and women “can be victims of sexual assault, rape, molestation and not even recognize it as such.”
“We have to be extra cautious of the media we consume because, like it or not, these things get into our subconscious,” she said.
Still, the film has racked up fans, as evidenced by Morrone’s Instagram account, which has skyrocketed from fewer than 200,000 followers in January to more than 7 million at the end of June. On a night out while visiting Berlin, he was mobbed by German teenagers clamoring for selfies. It’s an unexpected turn for the son of a construction worker and housekeeper who paints, dances (he was a runner-up on the 2016 season of Italy’s “Dancing With the Stars”), plays guitar, sings and writes his own extremely personal music, like a song about his 2018 divorce from the Lebanese fashion designer Rouba Saadeh.
After four of his tracks were featured in “365 Days,” Universal Music Group signed him to a global record deal, and he’s working on a second album while fielding scripts from Hollywood and Europe. But first, with “365 Days” ending on a cliffhanger and two books still to go in the series, he’ll soon reprise his career-making role in a sequel that will film when pandemic restrictions are lifted.
He teased, “The story is going to be very, very interesting.”