Operatic, painterly, theatrical, musical. Senso (1954), the fourth feature from Luchino Visconti, is all of these, but ultimately this lush, lavish melodrama of a self-destructive love affair set against the idealistic passions of the Risorgimento (the fight for the unification of Italy) is the very definition of cinematic.
Senso opens in La Fenice, the magnificent Venice opera house, during a production of Verdi’s “Il Travatore,” and as the aria ends with a climactic call to arms, the upper balconies explode with their own call to arms with a hurricane of three-color leaflets (red, green and white, the colors of the Italian flag) and bouquets showered upon the soldiers on the floor. The sequence is a visual symphony conducted masterfully by Visconti: art and life mirrored in the dramas on- and off-stage, political action battling social decorum and conformism for dominance in a communal hub where everything is a matter of etiquette and codes of behavior, the occupying army an island of Teutonic white uniforms in the center of Italian color and culture.
Visconti maintains the tension between the personal—the cagey flirtation begun by proud Venetian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) to save her revolutionary-leader cousin from a duel with Austrian officer Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform—and the national march toward revolution and unification. (Valli and Granger were not Visconti’s first choices—the original script was written with Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in mind, but Bergman turned it down and the producers reportedly turned down Brando for Granger.)
Both a dedicated Venetian roused by the march of Garibaldi and the passions of the Risorgimento and an aristocrat married to an apolitical Count whose collaboration with the occupying Austrians is less a matter of politics than self-interest (concerned only about stability and standing on the winning side, he condemns the revolutionaries until the tide turns toward the Italians and he shifts allegiances), Livia straddles both worlds, using her influence to help the cause while fraternizing with the enemy in her social duties. Yet she falls for this unimpressive officer and enters into an affair beyond logic. While handsome and tall with crisp military bearing and a way of appearing sincere (if not exactly passionate) as he woos and seduces, Granger simply doesn’t have Valli’s presence or personality. Valli tends toward the operatic expressions which would be overplayed in a realist film but seems right for a woman of impulse and emotion. What Granger captures is a the confident smugness, arrogance and vanity of this shallow, cowardly cad of an officer who uses romance for his own pleasures and greed. (The Italian dubbing actor adds a little gravitas as well.) In her runaway obsession with this callow character, Livia betrays herself and her cause.
Visconti frames her story with magnificent scenes of revolution and war staged on a vast scale and winds Livia’s spiral through the pageant of history playing round her. He shot much of the film on location in Venice and at a palatial estate near Vicenza and he makes magnificent use of his locations to place his characters with the larger world, and creates a grand action painting from the death and destruction of the vividly choreographed battle scenes. Visconti’s camera moves through these dense, richly-composed scenes with a focus that picks out the individuals within the tableaux. And as Livia charges headlong through the battle, her personal story collides and intersects with this massive action, as if challenging and defying the tide of history. Yet even in intimate scenes there is no escape from the world outside, which is either threatening to break in on Livia (knocks on the doors, shouts from outside the windows and breathless warnings from her loyal maid) or simply reverberates through the walls that can’t quite block out the life she’s trying to escape in Franz’s arms.
You could call this romantic tragedy and Visconti certainly has Valli play it as such, her careful social composure giving way to wide-eyed expressions of panic, anxiety and ardor. But as he casts her melodramatic meltdown into grand gestures of self-destructive, emotionally-driven action against the bigger picture of a national uprising, her story becomes more pathetic and her furious revenge more motivated. It’s not his betrayal of her that rouses such fury, it’s her betrayal of her cause for such callow, cowardly creature. Her final vengeance seems petty to the officers around her, but it’s perfectly appropriate to the scale of the destruction wrought by his mercenary machinations.
A masterpiece of Visconti’s career and a magnificent Technicolor production, this is also one of the most lavish restorations of a film classic ever. Funded by Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation and executed by the Cinetecca di Bologna, it’s a painstaking reconstruction of the original three-strip elements (which have all shrunk beyond repair for traditional photochemical reproduction) through digital means to preserve the filmic quality of the texture, the grain and the unique colors of this process. The image is mostly stunning, not showy but rich in subtle, quietly expressive colors (in the supplements, costume designer Piero Tosi describes the process as “like an oil painting instead of watercolor”) and sharp enough to see all the way through his deep-focus shots. Only the opening and closing credits look soft, which is probably an issue inherent in the post-production process. The Italian soundtrack is in clean, clear mono.
The two-disc DVD and single disc Blu-ray editions feature the same supplements. “The Wanton Countess” is the English language edition of the film, which is a half-hour shorter than the original cut (the entire first meeting between Livia and Franz, from the opera house loge to the walk along the canals, is completely chopped out) and features Farley Granger and Alida Valli performing their lines in English (though to be honest, that doesn’t sound like Granger’s voice to me) from a translation credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (thus their credits on the film).
The 33-minute “The Making of Senso” is a largely first-person account of the production featuring new interviews with director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, assistant director Francesco Rosi, costume designer Piero Tosi and Caterina D’Amico (daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico and author of “Life and Work of Luchino Visconti”). The 36-minute “Viva Verdi: Visconti and Opera,” with Italian film scholar Peter Brunette, Italian historian Stefano Albertini and author Wayne Koestenbaum examining Visconti’s love of and career directing opera (which, you could say, began with the opening scene of this film). Film historian Peter Cowie offer a perceptive visual essay. On the archival front, the 48-minute “Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti” is a 1966 TV special made for the BBC featuring interviews with Visconti. The accompanying booklet features an essay by filmmaker and author Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from actor Farley Granger’s autobiography “Include Me Out” covering the production of the film.