Luchino Visconti's Senso: Nitrate Diva's 2013 Italian Film Culture Blogathon

Senso (1954)
Dir. Luchino Visconti
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti

  This is my first time participating in a blogathon, so pardon any faux-pas I make - I saw The Nitrate Diva had such a wonderful offer - to take on almost any aspect of the Italian cinema, from Silents to Neorealism to Giallo, starting today -- Thursday June 6th. I chose Senso, Luchino Visconti's first film in colour - starring Alida Valli and Farley Granger - as my chosen topic. Visconti was a Marxist aristocrat whose first films helped herald in Neorealism, Ossessione (1943) and La terra trema (1948), and whose later films transplanted Neorealist techniques onto the deeply anti-realist setting of the historical costume melodrama. The fact that he succeeded so well at affixing personal drama and aesthetic realism into glorious 19th century ballrooms, villas, and gardens in 1954's Senso is quite remarkable. Andre Bazin noted that Visconti 'seeks to impose upon this magnificent, beautifully composed, almost picturesque setting the rigor, and most importantly, the unobtrusiveness, of a documentary (1).' Taking place in Risorgimento-era Venice under the occupation and eventual war with Austria-Hungary, Countess Livia Serpieri is cousin to a determined Italian Resistance fighter. When she meets Franz Mahler, a dissolute and handsome young Prussian officer, they fall into a torrid love affair which eventually promises to end in destruction, betrayal, and madness. The sumptuous, precise decor of the film is inextricably a part of the living, breathing world that its characters occupy; their decadent surroundings inform their tragically careless behaviour, and they take little notice of the power their supreme wealth allows them. Visconti's arrangement of mise en scene and lush Technicolor reek of the same sensuality and decadence as do the highly erotic post-bedroom scenes between Livia and Franz.

     The portrayal of the aristocracy as a fundamentally corruptible, ignoble ruling class suggests evidence of Visconti's political attitudes at play; Livia, a sentimental weakling of the highest order, is duped by a consummate uniformed charmer, played by Granger with a constant hint of devilish intent behind his eyes. Visconti films him with an almost scopophilic eye, the gaze of the camera lingering on his personal beauty through many scenes. Livia's ultimate act of national and familial betrayal is a choice of selfish personal interest over noble higher duty; but it almost pales in comparison to the callous manipulation Franz partakes in, leading to a confrontation scene so breathtakingly cruel as to permanently scar one's memory.

      Visconti seems both repelled by and fascinated with the dying aristocratic culture he came from; one he was opposed to intellectually but tied to by blood. In both this film and The Leopard he professes the inevitable necessity for their decline, playing their personal melodrama out against the backdrop of war. Visconti's high-class international art education certainly bleeds through in the film; the painterly tableaux of his style quite intentionally seems to resemble several works of 19th century art, from Giovanni Fattori to Francisco Goya. This is acknowledged by Gianfranco Poggi (2) in his 1960 article, 'Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema'. Although he claimed that these similarities were purely coincidental, the grandiose, novelistic style does add a further sense of the historical to the proceedings, and an air of symbolic gravity; references are never casual. 


'Soldati in Marcia', Giovanni Fattori. 

                          You can spot it again, even more closely, in the execution scene:  


'The Third of May, 1808', Francisco Goya.

      With its rich and textured visual detail a veritable mosaic of cultural references, Senso finds itself in a unique place in Italian cinema of the mid-1950's. Widely considered to be a lukewarm period after the initial burst of innovation in the late 1940's, Christian Democrat censorship and a re-treading of old cliches became the norm in mainstream Italian cinema. Visconti, much like his most talented contemporaries, continued to excel in this period, creating a work which ambitiously attempts to capture the spirit of Neorealism within the operatic melodrama of the upper classes. Critical opinions diverge on the extent to which he succeeded, but few deny the film's astounding beauty and accomplishment. As Mira Liehm writes, 'He staged the hallucinations of this world and its most devastating passions, creating a powerful impression of reality through overt melodramatic imagery and an almost operatic character. Avoiding any attempt to reconstruct the phenomena of a historical epoch, he captured its spirit. (3).' 


  (1) 'Bazin on Post-Neorealistic Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti: Three Original Reviews', Andre    Bazin and Bert Cardullo. The Massachusetts Review. Vol. 43, No. 1 (Spring 2002) pp. 89-103 (102)

  (2) 'Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema', Gianfranco Poggi. Film Quarterly. Vol. 13, No. 3. (Spring 1960) pp. 11-22. (19) 

 (3) 'Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to Present', Mira Liehm. University of California Press, 1984. (148) 


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