Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of 5): *****
The essayist Phillip Lopate came up with a perfect phrase for Luchino Visconti's style: operatic realism. Like his contemporaries Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Visconti experimented with a realistic style, though it can be argued that he made only one genuine "Italian Neo-Realist" film, La Terra Trema (1948). Visconti was interested in adding personal flourishes to his films in addition to the realism and the social commentary, and his films eventually grew bigger and showier through the decades, while focusing on more personal themes.
It can be argued that 1954's Senso (1954) is the culmination of Visconti's work, the perfect collision of style, themes and look --and perhaps his greatest film.
The time is the 1860s, when Austria occupied Italy. The film opens on a Verdi opera, Il trovatore. A group of Italian rebels secretly passes around leaflets and ribbons with the colors of the Italian flag; the Italians are in the wings and the Austrian troops -- dressed in white -- are on the floor. When the intermission comes, the rebels create an uproar, sending the leaflets and ribbons spiraling down from the rafters.
Alida Valli (The Third Man, The Wide Blue Road) stars as Countess Livia Serpieri, who quietly supports the outburst. Her stuffy husband (Heinz Moog) has always kissed up to the Austrians, but she believes herself a "true Italian." Unfortunately her cousin, Roberto (Massimo Girotti), gets into an altercation with one Austrian soldier, Lt. Franz Mahler (Farley Granger, best known for his two collaborations with Hitchcock, Rope and Strangers on a Train). The Countess goes to Mahler to convince him to spare her cousin, and the two begin a torrid affair, which causes the Countess to betray her country in the name of love.
It goes without saying that this type of thing cannot possibly have a happy ending, and though the ending is crucial to the movie's themes, I won't discuss it here. Rather, I will discuss how Visconti depicts this romance with the heightened, heartrending surge of an opera. The startling opening sequence does supposedly mirror the opera on the stage, though I'll leave it to someone who's more of an opera buff to explain just how.
Other memorable sequences include the one in which the Countess, unable to stand her lover's absence, makes her way to the Austrian barracks. Mahler is not there, so she waits, with various soldiers planted around the frame, surrounding her and staring at her to the point that she feels immobile. Later, as if out of a horror movie, Mahler appears on her window ledge, having aroused the attention of the dogs. Most strikingly is the famous scene in which she hides him in her husband's granary; Visconti shoots from above to show the room like a maze. And yet, they are alone for a breathless moment.
Senso is one of the few romances that has the visual passion to match that of its lovers. At one point, rumors say, Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman were considered for the leads, and compared to them, Valli and Granger seem like a step down. But at the same time, they would have been slightly more malleable, more easily fitted to Visconti's style, without bringing any baggage. Valli was Italian, and Granger American, and so Visconti shot their scenes in English, with dialogue written by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles! (That's not all: future directors Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli served as assistants to Visconti.)
As often seems the way with many great films, Senso was a disaster upon its release. It was savaged in Italy, and in America was chopped up, dubbed into English and re-titled as the lurid The Wanton Countess. Now, after a proper restoration -- aided by Martin Scorsese -- the Criterion Collection has given the film a DVD (and Blu-Ray) release, and I can safely say that it has catapulted to being my favorite of the five Visconti films I've seen to date.
Extras include that The Wanton Countess cut, available for the first time in years; a new making-of documentary, a new documentary on the connection between Visconti, Senso, and opera; a visual essay by Peter Cowie, and a 1966 BBC program on Visconti. The liner notes include an essay by underground filmmaker and writer Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from Granger's biography.
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