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Melodrama has a bad reputation because it has been abandoned to schematic and conventional interpretation. —Luchino Visconti
Senso, Luchino Visconti’s extraordinarily lush 1954 movie, was never truly released in America. Even though an American star, Farley Granger, and a European star, Alida Valli, familiar to international audiences for her role in the very successful The Third Man (1949), were cast specifically to help guarantee the expensive production’s success in the States, it was shown only at the Italian-language cinemas of the day, which catered to immigrant audiences. It wasn’t until 1968, five years after the disastrous release of The Leopard—shortened by a good half hour, in a mangled, clumsily dubbed English-language version, and printed on inferior De Luxe rather than the proper Technicolor stock, and in CinemaScope instead of Technirama—that Senso got a very limited run of nine days at the repertory Elgin Theater (now the renowned dance theater the Joyce) in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. In the interest of full disclosure, I went to see it five times during that period. I thought it was the most beautiful movie ever made, and have had no reason during the intervening years and after many subsequent viewings to change my mind. After this unofficial New York debut, it played at the Bleecker Street Cinema, another vaunted repertory movie house, and was reviewed by the New York Times. It was massacred.
Originally, Visconti wanted even bigger stars, Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman, for the roles played by Granger and Valli. Roberto Rossellini, who was married to Bergman at the time, wouldn’t let her do it. Visconti was, after all, the competition, and Bergman was his trophy wife and star. Brando, who flew to Rome to do a screen test, was ultimately rejected by the producers—for reasons that have never been entirely clear—in favor of Granger (perhaps the success of Strangers on a Train was a deciding factor). Needless to say, if Brando and Bergman had been in it, the movie would not have disappeared off the radar. In his autobiography, Tab Hunter, who was a young heartthrob at the time, says that he, too, was approached by Visconti (Visconti wanted the Austrian officer to be blond and even tried to dye Granger’s hair), but his agent, who had never heard of Visconti, threw the telegram in the wastebasket. Hunter found out about it only years later. (Visconti also wanted him to play Claudia Cardinale’s American husband in the 1965 Sandra, but the producers felt his name didn’t have enough clout at the box office and, strangely enough, chose Michael Craig, whose name meant decidedly less, instead.)
Since Granger’s scenes with Valli were to be shot in English, Visconti engaged Tennessee Williams (whose work he’d directed onstage) and Paul Bowles to write English dialogue for them. The authors’ joint credit, one of the most intriguing in film history—“Dialogue in Collaboration with Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles”—is as big as that of the scriptwriters, Visconti and Suso Cecchi D’Amico. Still, this didn’t help the film in the United States any more than in the United Kingdom, where a butchered English-language version was released, but cut by nearly a half hour and called The Wanton Countess.
The checkered history of Visconti’s films in America didn’t start with Senso, however. Nor did it end with The Leopard. His first film, Ossessione, made in 1942, was censored by the fascists in Italy. It was based on James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, and since Visconti had never acquired the rights, it couldn’t be shown in America. Its first official screening in the U.S. was in 1975, at the New York Film Festival. His second film, La terra trema (1948), a documentary-style, three-hour epic, in Sicilian dialect, about the lives of struggling fishermen, had to be subtitled even in Italy. It was excoriated by Italy’s highly political film critics, on both the right and the left (despite the fact that Visconti was a Communist and the party had helped fund the project—apparently, the final result was not uplifting enough for them), and was shown in America only very briefly, in 1965. Even after the huge success of Rocco and His Brothers (1960), the seven-episode portmanteau film The Witches (1967), produced by Dino De Laurentiis as a vehicle for his wife, Silvana Mangano, was shown for just one week, on a double bill at the Apollo, the only foreign-language grind house on Times Square’s Forty-second Street. The film, which contains Visconti’s blistering, forty-minute feminist comedy of manners “The Witch Burned Alive,” also stars familiar art-house regulars like Annie Girardot, Francisco Rabal, and Massimo Girotti, and marks the debut of Helmut Berger, an important figure in Visconti’s private as well as artistic life. (Other episodes are by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, and Mauro Bolognini.) This haphazard release of Visconti’s films in America—including the belated nonrelease of Senso—made it very difficult for critics to assess his work in any coherent way.
Senso, Visconti’s fourth film, was received with howls of outrage by Italian film critics. It was seen as a betrayal of neorealism, which, ironically, had been ushered in by his seminal Ossessione. However, if one looks closely at Ossessione and La terra trema, they are very different kinds of realism from those depicted by fellow neorealist filmmakers Rossellini and De Sica. In their films, unlike Visconti’s, the camera is more of an impartial observer, recording ordinary lives with an objectivity tempered with humanism and playing a secondary role. As early as Ossessione, Visconti was as concerned with the way the movie looked as with its content. And, of course, the pulpy, melodramatic plot of The Postman Always Rings Twice is the structuring device of Ossessione, in contrast with the episodic, picaresque plotting of the films we think of as neorealist. In La terra trema, the characters may be poor Sicilian fishermen played by poor Sicilian fishermen, but their situation is explored on a stage as grand as that of any Greek tragedy. It is more of an epic than a neorealist document. Visconti, from the very beginning, was an operatic director, even before he directed opera.
He began working in theater in 1945, and had a huge succès de scandale with Cocteau’s Les parents terribles before making La terra trema. During the postwar period, he directed for the Italian stage groundbreaking productions of, among many other plays, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. In short, he was a master of melodrama, even in his films of this period. But it was in the operatic Senso that he found his true cinematic voice. Coming right before he directed his first opera—the long-forgotten La vestale, at La Scala, undertaken primarily so he could work with Maria Callas—Senso was the prelude to his full-throttle operatic works, like Rocco and His Brothers, Sandra, The Damned (1967), and Ludwig (1972), and also to his career as one of the great opera directors of his time. Under his guidance and tutelage, and in his productions, Callas would become the most famous opera singer of the twentieth century.
In fact, the very first scene in Senso takes place in an opera house. It is the time of the Risorgimento, the fight for the unification of Italy, in Venice, during the rebellion of that region (one of the final battlegrounds of the nationalist effort) against its Austrian occupiers. The opera being performed is Verdi’s Il trovatore; the aria is “Di quella pira,” which ends with a call to arms: “All’armi, all’armi!” After the aria ends, revolutionaries in the galleries drop a blizzard of tricolor leaflets, the colors of the Italian flag, down into the orchestra, occupied chiefly by Austrian officers. When one of the officers, Franz Mahler (Granger), casually insults the Italians by making fun of their amusing and colorful methods of resistance, the plot kicks into motion. The opera onstage spills over into the lives of the characters. The Countess Livia Serpieri (Valli), an Italian patriot, and the Austrian Mahler begin a clandestine affair set against the backdrop of an occupied country in turmoil. Visconti’s strategy was a very carefully calculated one. “I like melodrama because it is situated just at the meeting point between life and theater. I wanted the melodrama onstage to reflect the melodrama in the film,” he said in a 1958 interview.
The countess’s passion for Franz and his increasing indifference toward her, and ultimate exploitation of her love, could easily have been the plot of a Hollywood movie. Visconti fleshes out an 1866 novella by Camillo Boito, only the broadest outlines of which remain. In Boito’s tale, the countess is a devastatingly beautiful but vain, self-centered mantrap who is concerned only with herself. Visconti had more on his mind than the degradation of a noblewoman by an unworthy object of her love and her ultimate revenge, however. He embeds this story in a historical framework, and it becomes a Racinian conflict between passion and duty, personal desires and social imperatives. Visconti always brackets the personal in the larger historical context: Livia’s degradation, as important as it is in her life, is only a detail in his epic canvas.
The love affair begins at the opera house, which is in fact the historic Teatro La Fenice in Venice, still a world-famous opera venue today, as it was when the movie was made more than fifty years ago, as well as when the story takes place, a century before that. Similarly, the use of the Palladian Villa Godi Malinverni, near Vicenza, the palatial ancestral estate to which the Serpieris retreat to escape the war—without much luck, as the war finds them, as does Franz—adds a depth, a physical presence, and a historical gravity to the scenes that no studio sets could hope to emulate. The villa is not merely lived in, it’s inhabited, and even haunted, by the characters and their predecessors. They belong to it, and it belongs to them and defines them. All of the furnishings and artworks, all the props—the statues, the draperies, the frescoes on the walls—situate them in a very specific time and place that, let us say, Hollywood movies of that era had absolutely no interest in. Indeed, the sublime gorgeousness, the sensuousness of the locations and the props that fill them are every bit as important as the characters. These things give us information about the characters that neither they themselves nor the script could possibly articulate. This is true of practically all of Visconti’s movies but especially the period films. One would also have to include his nonperiod sketch film “Il lavoro,” in Boccaccio 70 (1962), one of his most beautiful and most perfect works. The sets and costumes bespeak wealth, privilege, and especially the casual acceptance of them in a way that no dialogue could adequately convey. If decor is as important an element as characters, camera work, and plot in many films, in Visconti’s, the ante is upped—decor is destiny.
Visconti himself was of noble birth and from a very wealthy family. Objets d’art, luxurious trappings, and opulent furnishings were part of his heritage, upbringing, and natural surroundings. In fact, on many of his films, he supplemented the sets with art and objects from his home. With Senso, Visconti becomes the Visconti we know and are just now learning to appreciate—a perfectionist who could not rest until each detail was in place. He was a tyrannical set designer, art director, and production designer, the bane of producer after producer. His cost overruns were legendary. According to Granger, for Senso, he was hired for a three-month shoot that lasted for nine. The film bankrupted Lux Films, just as The Leopard would Titanus Films nine years later. Producers shrieked when a film like “Il lavoro” went over budget, but today, when all the accountants are long forgotten and the heartaches of production no longer remembered, we are the happy beneficiaries of his efforts. Only Visconti’s glorious images remain on the screen to ravish us again and again with their sensuousness and precision. Not that he didn’t have help from the best people available. He had two great cameramen on Senso—three, really. Aldo Graziati (a.k.a. G. R. Aldo), who had shot La terra trema, Orson Welles’s Othello, and De Sica’s Miracle in Milan and Umberto D., started the film but unfortunately died in a car crash during the shoot. He was replaced by Robert Krasker (who had shot Laurence Olivier’s Henry V and Carol Reed’s The Third Man). But Visconti and Krasker didn’t get along. The third cameraman was Giuseppe Rotunno, who started out as the camera operator but replaced Krasker toward the end of filming. (Rotunno subsequently shot many of Visconti’s and Fellini’s films.) But the look of the movie is all Visconti.
Visconti’s photographic memory for the decorative arts was certainly matched by his extensive knowledge and appreciation of the fine arts. It is not exactly an accident that the film brings to mind Manet, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Titian, among others. It is as if we were in a Manet painting twenty-four frames a second. Which is not to say that it has the studied, frozen, waxwork, art-directed quality of a period film like Barry Lyndon (1975), about which critics raved that each frame was a masterpiece. Senso is much more fluid than that. You don’t want to hang the images on the wall. You want to live in them. The figures move in architectural surroundings with the grace and elegance of Veronese figures come to life. They inhabit the backgrounds as if they and history are one. Which also explains the lack of close-ups in Senso. The characters are always surrounded by the splendid objects that formed them and that they are so accustomed to seeing. They are never isolated from their backgrounds. Visconti was equally attentive to the costumes, since the clothes the characters wear define them as much as the spaces they move through do. Let us not forget that he got his first job in films, before he was even interested in them, when his good friend Coco Chanel introduced him to Jean Renoir, as a result of which he wound up designing the women’s clothing for Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936).
Visconti’s attention to detail extends to the battle scenes as well. These are, if it’s not too distasteful an oxymoron, the most beautiful battle scenes ever put on film, on a par with the spectacular ballroom climax in The Leopard. In a sense, this movie is a companion piece to The Leopard, taking place in the same historical period. Even though The Leopard is more autobiographical, Senso is definitely the film in which story elements relating directly to Visconti’s life start to appear. Franz’s speech at the end of the movie, in which he declares that it is the end of an era for him and his kind, foreshadows the major themes of The Leopard, in which the Prince of Salina comes to the realization that he is the last of his line, that he and aristocrats like him will soon be replaced by a rising middle class of grasping shopkeepers and merchants. In virtually all of Visconti’s films subsequent to Senso, there is an aching sense of yearning for what is passing or has already passed, a malaise of regrets, a mourning for an era of privilege that is coming to an end. This elegiac plaint reaches its fullest expression in his next-to-last movie, Conversation Piece (1974), in which Burt Lancaster plays an old man, a reclusive scholar who lives in the past—surrounded by books, art, and memories that he realizes are of no use to anyone else—and neither understands nor likes nor wants to know where the modern world is headed. To say that Visconti would have been the ideal director for a film adaptation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu—a project that he in fact worked on for many years but that proved impossibly expensive and was unfortunately aborted—is to state the obvious. He was the only filmmaker ever who knew firsthand what Proust’s world looked like. It is, without doubt, one of the greatest movies never made.
As consolation, however, we now have a fully restored version—minus the five minutes of battle scenes removed by the Italian censors—of his great Senso, which ranks among his and the world’s most beautiful movies. Even more importantly, this version will undoubtedly reach more people in the English-speaking world than have ever seen the film before. Like with many great movies that were unjustly neglected, misunderstood, or rejected at the time of their making (like The Leopard, Hitchock’s Vertigo and Under Capricorn, Dreyer’s Gertrud, Ophuls’s Lola Montès, Leone’s Once upon a Time in the West, Welles’s Touch of Evil), time has vindicated Senso and revealed it to be the masterpiece that it is.
Mark Rappaport is a filmmaker and writer. His films include Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg. He is a regular contributor to the French film magazine Trafic, edited by Raymond Bellour. A collection of his writings, Le spectateur qui en savait trop (The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much), was published in France in 2008. He lives in Paris.