I more often than not put in the title the name of the director as it being "Name's Project", so to speak, and it's usually done as a way of respect in some way, not just because of the usual 'auteur' thing but because the work is associated with that director consistently. And with Luchino Visconti this is no exception, nay very much he makes his films with such a personality and sensibility that is his own: lavish productions set in the 19th century (Senso and The Leopard) AND those set in modern times and black and white (Rocco and His Brothers, La Terra Trema). What at first surprised me then made a lot of sense is on a 'Making-of' documentary on the Criterion DVD recently put out for Senso - how I finally got to see what was previously a hard-to-find film (at least restored) - is that his lavish 19th century costume melodramas are the closest to who Visconti was in how he saw the world.
It helps to know that he was a Count, or at least a descendant of a Count, and was so fascinated by the period he set the film in, during the wars between Austria and what was then Italy, that he changed the novel Senso was based upon to reflect that, and to have a much greater emphasis on the Opera. In fact if one can give themselves over to it, Visconti's film is one of the great BIG melodramas of its time, like a color-lush and aristocratic 19th century Italian equivalent of what Douglas Sirk was doing in Hollywood.
It's a tale of tragic romance between a Venetian Countess (Alida Valli of The Third Man fame) and a soldier in the Austrian army (Farley Granger of, uh, oh yeah, Strangers on a Train semi-fame). She's married, he is dashing and handsome and perhaps not completely forthcoming for his interest in this cool woman in big dresses and veils, but somehow they fall in love and forces keep separating them, chiefly that, well, she's married, he's a soldier, on opposite sides. If it were any more dramatic it would be called Gone with the Wind only with Clark Gable as a Yankee soldier vying for Scarlett.
It's significant that near the start of the film, in the middle of a Verdi opera, an unsubtle nod to what the rest of the film will be like in tone, that when Countless Livia meets Franz Mahler that she says "I dislike when people behave like characters in a melodrama with no regard for the consequences." In part because, yes, this IS one big melodrama that has big sweeping movements through great big houses and through wide expansive landscapes, so there's that irony right there... but then again, there are consequences in the story that do occur. Both Livia and Mahler probably have an idea of how doomed this relationship of theirs is, but how far it goes is what counts; there's a scene where Livia makes the decision to make the break away from her way of life, and for a brief moment it feels like it's too much with the music by Bruckner as she's just walking out of a room... but then she goes down corridors, and more rooms, and Visconti doesn't cut right away as we see down about four or five rooms. What's the consequence? This way of life really.
Visconti's always been interested in that throughout his films, from Ossessione to The Damned, how a way of life can just crumble around the passion and class system. What breaks apart Livia and Mahler might be obvious for anyone looking closely enough and Granger's body language, his eyes, as he is often with this fragile-tender-strong woman, but it works. What works even better is how they move and feel for one another in this world that has been created like it's still the stage (when Mahler is first 'escorting' Livia home through Venice and we see them walking through the night it feels as if we haven't left the theater they were at before), and yet it's still in the real world with the madness of war around them and betrayal in the air (not to mention that cousin of Livia who acts for something more than his own self).
It may be hard for some to find sympathy for Livia, but with love caution is often thrown into the wind, and Visconti loves putting up such passion with such detail and energy that it works. It possibly shouldn't, it should be corny and silly like a Gone with the Wind style tragedy, and indeed some of the dialog isn;t always great (apparently co-written by Tennessee Williams(!) though that may just be its English dubbed counterpart The White Countess). When it comes time for Livia to leave everything, her husband, her home, for this man, and she has what she didn't expect - a confrontation - it's shocking, in part cause Granger eats up the scenery, but because with the kinds of emotions the film's been running with of unrequited love and the big broad strokes of passion set against dark times, it has some exceptional power.
Helping Visconti too in all of this is the Technicolor- one of the first Italy made in film - and Giuseppe Rotunno's brilliant cinematography, which creates an atmosphere often like out of paintings of the time (also revealed on the documentary on the DVD that the film is filled with references), and the vibrancy of costumes and the deeply moving music either soft behind two lovers in a room or bombastic in highly charged (given) operatic set pieces.
|What the fella once said, 'all the world's a stage' sorta thing|
Senso will bring out the romantic in a moviegoer, but it's also serious about what time it's set in (it got in some controversy at the time for its depiction of Italian armies, ironically before Italy was what it was in 1954), and probably expresses most of what Visconti liked to do in movies: operatic cinema clashing with the 'real' world, or rather the idealized set of the theater with the pictatorial naturalism of film. It may not be his best attempt at it, but it's close.
ADDENDUM: Check out the rest of the Criterion DVD (or blu-ray) if you can get a chance, as it's a) gobsmackingly beautifully restored by none other than Scorsese, and has a fantastic host of special features.