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Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti’s Activist Cinema

‘La terra trema’

Luchino Visconti is one of the most fascinating artists of Italian cinema. The child of Italian aristocracy, born in a Milan palazzo with a family title that went back centuries and a family fortune built on landholdings and industry, he embraced Marxism with the zeal of a revolutionary but channeled his activism into theater and cinema. He apprenticed as an assistant to Jean Renoir and, just as the ambitious young filmmakers of the French nouvelle vague would a decade later, wrote for a film journal that challenged the orthodoxy of the cinema of his day as a prologue to embarking on his own filmmaking career.

His reputation today rests largely on his beautifully sculpted his portraits of life in the aristocracy and the social world of the rich and titled in films like Senso (1954), The Leopard (1934) and Death in Venice (1971), worlds he knew intimately from his own life, yet he began his film career with a film that has been called by some the first masterpiece of neorealism. I think of Ossessione (1942), an unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (in fact, he never secured the rights to the book), more precursor than neorealist exemplar, a shot across the bow of Italy’s cinema of distraction made under Mussolini’s rule. He defied censors with a tale of lust, adultery and hothouse passions among the working class, yet it was thanks to the political and social connections of his titled family that the film was even released in Mussolini’s Italy.

If Ossessione anticipates the movement, La terra trema (1948) is one of its defining films and greatest triumphs.

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 2

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Mine has been a sheltered existence: I never attended a film festival before. And as a matter of fact I attended only four days of this one. But four more disillusioning and dispiriting days I don’t expect, or want, to experience for quite a while, thank you.

It was bad enough knowing that the Joseph L. Mankiewicz tribute, The Romantic Englishwoman, Les Ordres, Black Moon, the Michael Caine tribute, Conversation Piece, the Louis Malle tribute, Chronicle of the Years of Embers, and Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August—to list them in approximate sequence of anticipatory enthusiasm—would take place before teaching and Film Society commitments permitted us to wing south. The remainder of the program was dominated by unknown and hence unanticipatible quantities, save only for the latest film by the director of The Hireling (which we most wanted to see), a three-hour Soviet WW2 epic by Bondarchuk (which we least wanted to see), a new French film starring Jeanne Moreau (which closed the festival and which, because of return-flight connections, we knew we couldn’t see), and tributes to Gene Hackman, Jane Fonda, and Stanley Donen. Of these last, Hackman and Fonda were two eminently admirable people whose work and ever-emergent identities are so much a part of the contemporary cinematic experience that any summary tribute to either seemed a little inappropriate; but I was perfectly prepared to admit that some tribute designer might very well be able to put the consistently likable creations of director Donen into clearer perspective for me, and besides, the general interruptedness of his career in the late Sixties and early Seventies tended to redouble the justification for a festival salute now that that career seems to be off and running once more. And of course, a film festival is a film festival (isn’t it?), and who knew which of those untried films and filmmakers might be the L’avventura or Viridiana, the Godard or Jancsó, of 1975?

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Out of Season: The 19th International San Francisco Film Festival – Take 1

[Originally published in Movietone News 46, December 1975]

Beforehand, the 19th San Francisco Film Festival looked less than scintillating. The parts of it that I was able to see were, by most accounts, the best parts, and if that’s so, then the first impression was not entirely wrong. The 1975 edition of the festival wasn’t bad, but … I’m not sure that there were any absolutely first-rate films in the 12-day program. For me, Joseph Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman, Louis Malle’s Black Moon, and Self Service, a Bruno Bozzetto cartoon, came closest. Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August got a much warmer reception than I thought it really deserved (the word-of-mouth consensus seemed to be that this was the Festival’s high point). And Luchino Visconti’s Conversation Piece got a much cooler reception than I thought it deserved, but—given the nature of the film—that was not too surprising.

For me personally, the proceedings were made especially memorable by the presence of J Joseph Mankiewicz as well as by the various contributions of Louis Malle. The Festival’s tribute to Mankiewicz (a string of film clips followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session) ranks with the best of the tributes I’ve seen in other years at San Francisco. And Malle, who made no fewer than three appearances before the public and press, left his mark via both Black Moon and his charmingly perceptive remarks about his own work and others’. But one sign of the Festival’s disappointingly middlebrow direction is that other Festival honorees included Jack Lemmon, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Steven Spielberg—all or most of whom are worthy figures, but none of whom has reached a point where a retrospective might really mean something. Lemmon, of course, comes closest to an exception. But Hackman, for example, has been in films for only a little over a decade and Spielberg, as everybody knows, would still be wet behind the ears were he not so precociously “successful.” (Just for the record, Lemmon “in person” is very like the man we know from the movies, while Caine “in person” is quite another fellow altogether.)

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Senso – DVD/Blu-ray of the Week (Part 1)

Senso (Criterion)

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.

Alida Valli as Countess Livia, intoxicated by the revolution

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.)

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The “Blu” Leopard, New York Confidential and Night Train to Munich: Blu-ray/DVDs of the Week

The Leopard (Criterion)

This is what Blu-ray was made for.

I know that the special effect-laden sci-fi extravaganzas and action epics are what really drive home theater sales, with fans wanting to get theatrical presentation muscle into their home. But that’s all about showmanship (not that there’s anything wrong with that). What really sends me to heaven is watching a presentation of a cinema masterwork with the clarity, richness and integrity of a perfect 35mm presentation. Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), quite simply one of my all time favorite films, is one of those masterworks and Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition (freshly mastered from a stunning print with unparalleled color and crispness) is as perfect a home video incarnation as anyone could hope for and better than any theatrical screening I’ve have the pleasure to experience.

Burt Lancaster leads the dance
Burt Lancaster leads the dance

I believe that Visconti’s 1963 adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel is his masterpiece. Burt Lancaster (his voice is dubbed by a deep-voiced Italian) may seem an unusual choice to play Prince Don Fabrizio Salina, an idealistic 19th century Sicilian prince (Visconti favored Laurence Olivier, a much more conventionally regal choice), but his confidence, his gravitas, and his understated cat-like grace as he walks through the world as if he owned it, creates a character of great authority and even greater melancholy. With the impoverished island nation of Sicily on the verge of revolutionary change and reform, Salina places his hope in this revolution to wipe away the corrupt ruling aristocracy (of which he is himself a member) and his upstart nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon), who fights for a unified Italy with Garibaldi’s Red Shirts. “For things to remain the same, everything must change,” proclaims Tancredi as he sets off to join the revolution. Salina is publicly against the war but privately sympathetic and he sees Tancredi as the future of this country, or at least of his family, which is mired in a sinkhole of decadence and irrelevance.

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