The Personal Political: Revisiting Visconti’s Opulent Universe

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Published February 22, 2011

 

A STILL FROM SENSO, COURTESY OF THE CRITERION COLLECTION

There’s a striking shot [above] in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), just before the Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) does something tragically irreversible. We’re in the middle of the 19th century, during the Austrian occupation of Italy, and the impassioned heroine is about to give the money she is supposed to be safeguarding for the resistance movement to her Austrian lover (Farley Granger). Head held erect and nostrils flared, she stands against a faded fresco inside her stately villa. Her emotions, the present, stand out against a timeworn backdrop-a likeness of a man who happens to resemble the resistance leader she’s betraying. How better to illustrate that in the heat of the moment, her sense of what is right and dutiful and good in the long run has all but melted away?

As in Visconti’s other notable epics, The Leopard (1963) and The Damned (1969), Senso enlarges a drama of a few individuals by folding it within a nation’s. One word often used to describe the fiery, cosmopolitan Italian’s films—an easy one, considering all the work he did in the opera—is “operatic.” In the making-of documentary that accompanies the new Criterion edition of Senso, the film’s cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, recalls that Visconti (who died in 1976) wanted the mise-en-scène to look simultaneously staged and real: “midway between cinema and theater.”
 
Senso was extremely expensive to make, and one of the first Technicolor films to come out of Italy. The look is opulent and swooningly picturesque, without seeming artificial; one of the director’s many blow-ups on set was aimed at a decorator who’d dared to use fake roses.
 
Visconti was a sensualist, and perhaps the only true aristocrat ever to make mainstream movies. Senso is rich with pedigreed strokes of genius, from Bruckner’s majestic Seventh Symphony to the veils (inspired by the ones Visconti’s mother wore, his colleagues suggest) the director had Valli wear to stunning effect. Visconti had a way with actors, but also with materials. Somehow, the trappings of the countess’s endangered privilege seem heavy, but not symbolically so—they just are. With Visconti insisting on getting the details right, the production dragged on. Yet when producers descended onto the set to speed things up, Granger recalls in the excerpt from his memoir that is featured in the new Blu-Ray release’s liner notes, Visconti “treated them to impressive displays of artistic temperament that sent them scurrying.”
 
Even if it meant bankrupting a studio—and it did, more than once—Visconti would not be rushed. He grew up surrounded by luxury, and he knew the ultimate one was time.

SENSO IS OUT TODAY ON BLU-RAY AND DVD. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT THE CRITERION COLLECTION’S WEBSITE.