Though his body of work was sparse and his revolutionary politics flew in the face of his expensive tastes and artistic sensibilities, one could make the case for Luchino Visconti being the quintessential filmic muse of Old Europe. Born into a Milanese family of feudal nobility, the rebellious and openly gay Visconti embraced Communism and the unrefined art of film as a young man, and by the late 1940s he found himself at the forefront of Italy’s neo-realistic scene. But, to be a neo-realist meant one had to make small, inexpensive films about universal topics.
Visconti craved a much bigger stage on which he would create films about the scorned and disenfranchised souls who populated the crowded cafes, opera houses and Mediterranean villas he frequented in his youth. Though deeply influenced by the blood and thunder pyrotechnics of grand opera, Visconti was not an artist of “warm” temperament. He directed with an aesthetic distance that lent a beguiling, and often baffling, ambiguity to much of his later work.
As out of step Visconti was with the swinging 1960s, his studied, ornamental takes on the gilded aristocracy look all the more profound as the people and culture he adored recede from memory.
Young Luchino possessed a restless spirit which saw him take a cavalier approach to his schooling and ultimately led to his running away from his Milanese home to the exotic streets of Rome. Visconti’s father, the Duke of Modrone, gently reproached the recalcitrant lad, but he always made sure his son had an appreciation for the fine arts. Indeed, the teenage Luchino haunted the great galleries of Italy and devoured the works of Shakespeare, Proust and Thomas Mann, but when he came of age it was the equestrian arts which seemed to interest him most.
Even after opening a successful stable, Visconti continued to run in artistic circles and during a trip to Paris he made the life-altering acquaintance of France’s greatest filmmaker, Jean Renoir. Visconti became an assistant to Renoir on his ill-fated masterpiece, A Day in the Country, and three years later when the French master was in Rome to begin work on La Tosca, he summonsed his young friend to help him out again. Complications brought on by WWII ended that dream collaboration, but important seeds were sown and Visconti had a new calling.
After a couple of false starts, Visconti is alleged to have redeemed his dead mother’s jewels to finance Ossessione, which today is generally recognized as Italy’s first neo-realist film.
Loosely based on James Cain’s gritty noir novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, Visconti’s film opens on a small country inn where Gino (Massimo Girotti), a handsome drifter, is willingly seduced by the innkeeper’s wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Unhappy in a loveless marriage to the common Bragana (Juan De Landa), Giovanna talks Gino into accepting her husband’s offer to stay on as a handyman. As their affair escalates, Giovanna pressures the increasingly wary Gino into a scheme that will rid her of Bragana once and forever.
Clocking in at a hefty 135 minutes, Ossessione lacks the tautness of American noir but it casts the same spell of foreboding unique to the genre. While the happy-go-lucky Gino floats from town to town to pick up work where he may, the clutching Giovanna sees him as her last chance to escape a life of toil and misery. The director’s naturalistic touch assures us Giovanna, unlike her American counterparts, is not a femme fatale, but more typical of a strong Visconti woman who prods her not-so willing dupe down the road to doom.
The strange passions and cynicism of Ossessione come much closer to resembling the poetical realism of Renoir than the little man polemics that would define neo-realism in the coming years. Visconti spent the next several years gathering great critical acclaim for his work in the theatre and opera before returning to the cinema to make a true Neo-realist film which offered a strident voice to his political convictions.
Tired of seeing the local workers manipulated by greedy wholesalers, fisherman Ntoni Valastro (Antonio Arcidiacono) mortgages his family’s house to buy a boat and strike out on his own. He tries to convince his friends and neighbors to help break the combine, but after some initial success Ntoni’s ship is wrecked at sea. The Valastros lose their home and with the family in peril of breaking up Antonio swallows his pride and goes back to work for the wholesalers.
La terra trema is perhaps the most utopian of the major neo-realist films, due in a large part to Visconti’s poetic humanism and his progressive politics. The first half of the film follows Antonio’s efforts to organize the skeptical community against the wholesalers and his success in securing money from the bank and a boat.
When the Valastros bring in a huge haul, the excited locals seem ready to follow their example, but nature’s destruction of their brand new vessel seems like an unmerciful act of God. The frightened villagers reject the rebellious Valastros leaving the young idealist at the mercy of the bank and the mocking wholesalers.
Though overlong, La terra trema has enough simple joys and heartbreaking pathos that make it one of the more pleasing films in an often didactic genre. Its mixed reviews and mediocre reception at the box office prompted Visconti retreat to the theatre for another extended period until he got the opportunity to make his most charming film.
In Bellissima stage mother Maddalena (Anna Magnani) enters her pretty six year old daughter Maria (Tina Apicella) into a competition for a major role in a film being made at the Cinecutta Studios in Rome. Fearing Maria’s more qualified rivals have the inside track on winning, she enlists the handsome studio employee Annovazzi (Walter Chiari) to get cut her some breaks at the studio. Obsessed with getting ahead, Maddalana neglects her working class husband Spartaco (Gastone Benzelli) and is unable to see how stressed-out little Maria has become with the whole process.
Based on a screenplay by Cesar Zavattini, Bellissima plays smaller than Visconti’s typically grandiose fare, but his earthy approach to the stage mother story helps turn the film into an unexpected screwball romp. In a warm and spontaneous performance, Magnani plays another in a long line of complex Visconti mothers who runs circles around their passive men. She is at turns wise and foolish using her street smarts to get her foot in the studio door while remaining unaware of the heavy price she pays for her daughter’s improbable ascent.
The decline of neo-realist filmmaking in the 1950s freed Visconti from the shackles of earnestness and let him embrace the Romantic themes closer to his artistic heart. Set in the Venice of 1866, Senso is an Ophulsian tale of love gained and lost during the turbulent war of Italian independence.
After insulting an Austrian officer, Italian revolutionary Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti) is sentenced to exile prompting his influential cousin, the Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Vailli) to intercede on his behalf. She befriends the insulted party, Lt. Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) and is quickly swept off her feet by the younger man’s dashing looks and charm. They begin a torrid affair, prompting Franz to desert the army and Livia to throw caution to the wind by funding her lover’s dissipated lifestyle. In a fit of self-loathing Franz flaunts his unfaithfulness to Livia, prompting her to betray him to Austrian authorities who will turn him over to a firing squad.
The lush Senso is a true delight for the senses, beginning with a choral clash from Verdi’s blood and thunder opera, Il trovatore, peaking with a voyeuristic glimpse of post-sex intimacy between the lovers, and finally climaxing in Livia’s mad dash through the streets of Verona and Franz’ impromptu execution.
While Senso is chalk-full of inspired flourishes, the shallow leads are simply not up to the enormous task. Visconti had initially considered Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando to play the ill-fated lovers, but taking into consideration the method actor’s limp take on the romantically-inclined Napoleon in 1954’s Desiree, it is hard to imagine he would have generated much more heat in a similarly-themed period piece.
Though set in modern Italy, the ethereal Le notti bianche (White Nights) feels like something out of the past. Based on the short story by Dostoevsky set along the canals of St. Petersburg, Visconti crafted a dreamy, claustrophobic mise-en-scene that ensnares a lonely man in his pursuit of a naive young girl.
On his way home one evening, Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) spots a pretty blonde crying on a bridge over a canal. The handsome, insecure man tries to comfort Natalia (Maria Schell) but she is suspicious of his intentions. Finally convinced he means no harm, she tells him her story. Natalia is in love with a lodger (Jean Marais) who was a guest at her grandmother’s boarding house. The Lodger left town a year before under murky circumstances, but he promised to meet Natalia on the bridge on this very evening.
Though smitten with Natalia, Mario offers to help contact her lover, but then in a fit of jealousy he changes his mind. He nearly succeeds in wooing the unhappy girl, but the Lodger’s unexpected return puts an end to his dreams of winning Natalia’s love.
Buoyed by the otherworldly set design by Enzo Eusepi and the gorgeous black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno, Visconti’s lovers find themselves entwined in a fairy-tale setting. But, as it’s not easy to buy the uber-sophisticated Mastroianni as the brooding dreamer, the sudden appearance of his rival and Natalia’s final rejection falls a little flat.
Marcello seems even more miscast in Visconti’s 1967 adaptation of The Stranger in which he plays Camus’ existential hero Arthur Meursault with an almost aristocratic indifference. Still, it’s hard to find much fault with Visconti’s interpretation of material which couldn’t help but come off as Impressionistic on the screen. The sordid events and unsettling crimes take on an eerie quality as soulless Arthur accepts his inevitable doom.
Having been brought up in a large and loving family, it seems ironic Visconti would plumb so deeply into tribal dysfunction in an increasingly dark series of films during the 1960s.
Rocco And His Brothers opens with Rosaria Parondi and her sons leaving the poor southern region of Calabria for a better life in cosmopolitan Milan. After the death of her husband, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou) strives to keep her family together, but after one of her boys marries into money and two others are seduced by their success in the boxing ring, life for the Parondis takes an alarming turn.
After being victimized by northern prejudice, brothers Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon) find acceptance at the local gym where they become prizefighters in training. To Rosaria’s horror, the troubled Simone begins a love-hate affair with Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute. When Simone’s star fades and he takes to drink the angelic Rocco takes his place as Nadia’s lover and the gym’s prize pugilist. Rocco’s ascendancy drives the self-destructive Simone to despair and murder.
Visconti makes little effort to make his hometown look attractive. The Parondis live in ugly projects on the outskirts of Milan, but like so many other post-war immigrants their hunger to succeed makes them blind to their bleak surroundings. Still, even after Rocco brings fame to the family name, two of Rosaria’s boys are ready to move back to the small town where their father had toiled and begin anew.
Visconti never strayed from his evenhanded touch and to his credit his visions of Italy are as distinct as Venice is from Sicily, which happened to be the location of his next film and, perhaps, his masterpiece.
Based on the surprising hit novel by Giuseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard opens during the unification years (1861) just as Garibaldi’s Redshirts invade Sicily to take the island back from the Bourbons.
In the town of Donnafugata, an influential noble, Prince Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) begins to meddle in town politics to quell any possible uprisings and keep the status quo. Stubbornly rejecting change, he even turns down an offer to an offer to become a senator for the new government in Turin. But Salina knows his family’s privileged days are numbered as evidenced by the rise of the merchant class and the upcoming marriage of his monetarily-challenged nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) to the daughter of the common mayor, Angelica Sadara (Claudia Cardinale).
The larger than life Prince Salina spends his days discussing philosophy and science with the disapproving Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) and his evenings in town with his mistress. He has little use for his silly daughters, but takes a shine to the headstrong Tancredi even when the boy runs off to fight with the Garabaldini in the streets of Palermo. At the grand ball the Prince feels out of sorts. He withdraws into an empty room to meditate when the beautiful Angelica breaks his reverie and asks for a dance. The Prince looks upon his lovely partner with a wistful longing and tenderness during the ensuing waltz, an elegiac passing of the torch from the dying aristocracy to a new Sicily.
Shot almost exclusively on location in Sicily in glorious, widescreen color Techniscope, the breathtaking film proved too sprawling and elitist for most audiences. Nevertheless, Visconti was truly hitting his stride as a filmmaker and next up was one of his most elusive and haunting chamber works.
Vaghe stelle dell’orsa (Sandra) is the tangled story of a young half-Jewish woman returning to home with her American husband for a tribute to her martyred father. She meets with resentment from members of the community and resistance from her bitter stepfather who would like to wash his hands of the whole family. Sandra (Claudia Cardinale) has an uncomfortable relationship with her disturbed, soul-mate brother Gianni (Jean Sorel), who threatens to expose their incestuous past in a tell-all novel.
Filmed in stark black and white, the plot’s initial murkiness gives way to several transcendent sequences between Sandra and Gianni as they try to recapture the innocence of their youth amidst the ruins of their hometown (the old Tuscan city of Volterra). Vaghe stelle dell’orsa is fraught with a lilting ambiguity, but in his next film Visconti would leave no stones unturned in what would turn out to be a complete vivisection of the family unit.
The Damned is the terrifying story of the Essenbecks, a quarreling band of German industrialists who plot against one another during Hitler’s rise to power. Sophie Von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin) schemes to take over her grandfather’s munitions factory with the help of her lover Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde) and Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), an influential friend in the SS.
After the old baron is found murdered, a conscientious in-law Herbert Thallman (Umberto Orisini) is framed by Aschenbach and Sophie and narrowly avoids arrest. During a bizarre orgy sequence that replicates the infamous Night of the Long Knives purge Aschenbach arranges the killing of the last Essenbeck standing in their way, giving Sophie and Frederick free reign over the family.
But they rule unaware of the family cancer festering in the person of Sophie’s pedophile son Martin (Helmut Berger), whose blind hatred of his mother and sickening perversions bring the Essenbeck empire to its knees.
In The Damned Visconti uses camera zooms and garish color to a shocking effect and coaxes lurid performances out of both Thulin and Berger in what often seems like a celebration of gay Nazi chic. But, under the director’s cool eye this savage film never veers out of control as the twisted Essenbecks prove too fascinating a bunch to dismiss as campy poseurs on the fringe of Hitler’s Reich. The Damned was the first of a trilogy about Germanic people; a fascinating and occasionally frightening tribe of geniuses and warriors.
Devastated by the death of his only child and suffering from the after-effects from a total nervous and physical breakdown, controversial composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) takes an extended holiday at Venice’s exclusive Lido Beach to regain his health. The irritable musician runs roughshod over the hotel staff until the day he lays his eyes on Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), an angelic adolescent who is staying at the hotel with his family.
Against his better judgment, Aschenbach begins a flirtation with the bored boy. In Tadzio, the artist in Aschenbach thinks he has found the lost chord and he is soon compelled to follow the teasing boy around the diseased streets and canals of Venice. As Aschenbach and the haunted city crumble and succumb to pestilence, the graceful Tadzio dances on the beach, seemingly unaware of the death all around him.
Death in Venice is Visconti’s most experimental and ecstatic film. Using sparse dialogue and employing the endless melody of the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony to represent Aschenbach’s dormant spiritual longings, the tone becomes almost unbearably tense as the musician willfully humiliates himself just for a meaningful glance from Tadzio.
Visconti follows the sad plight of another lonely aesthete, grappling his sexuality in a cold, cold world in Ludwig.
After the passing of Maximilian II of Bavaria young prince Ludwig (Helmut Berger) takes the throne, woefully unprepared for the tumultuous upheavals of Europe in the 1860s. Now installed as Ludwig II, the adolescent places his trust in his beautiful, worldly cousin Elizabeth (Romy Schneider). Sensing the sensitive King will need the sort of support she cannot give him, Elizabeth encourages Ludwig to propose to her pretty sister Sophie (Sonia Petrova).
Ludwig enters the engagement with little enthusiasm and strikes up a dubious friendship the composer Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard). The greedy Wagner and his mistress Cosima Von Bulow (Silvana Mangano) take advantage of the King’s generosity, creating great scandal in conservative Munich. After nearly bankrupting Ludwig’s coffers, the monarch is forced to ask the Wagners to leave town.
Slowly descending into madness, Ludwig breaks his engagement with Sophie and further depletes the royal resources by building a series of pointless castles where he engages in debauchery with the handsome young men in his court.
For Ludwig, Visconti took the impressionistic style of Death in Venice to its extreme and while some critics found the resulting film meandering and plotless, it’s hard to deny it also one of his richest works, filled with unsurpassed physical beauty and deep pathos. The muted cinematography of Armando Nannuzzi lends melancholy to the King’s long decline, and by film’s end the shadowy darkness of the mise-en-scene renders the frail Ludwig a pathetic ghost of his former princely self.
Approaching seventy, Visconti reunited with Burt Lancaster and returned to his favored theme of family dysfunction in the underrated Conversation Piece. Like King Ludwig and Gustav Von Aschenbach, the film’s protagonist, the grizzled Professor (Lancaster), is an aesthete and an outsider looking in. Unlike his predecessors the Professor initially has no desire to make contact with the outside world.
The retired academic has turned his musty Palazzo into a mini-museum; his only friends are old paintings and the huge volume of books he has collected over the years. His peaceful world is turned upside down when an attractive stranger, Marchesa Brumonti (Silvana Magano) demands to be let the apartment on the floor above him. The wary Professor buckles to Marchesa’s aggressiveness and the Brumontis move-in.
Soon, Marchesa’s lover Konrad (Helmut Berger) begins a noisy reconstruction of the apartment driving the old man to confront his new tenants. Oddly enough, the Professor warms to the beauty and free-love philosophy of the decadent Konrad, Marchesa’s daughter (Claudia Marsani) and her fiancé (Stefano Patrizi) and finds himself involved in messy human drama for the first time in decades.
Conversation Piece opens as a sort of existential comedy with the humorless Professor ceaselessly tormented by a band of selfish, empty-headed aristocrats. But, the need to sort out his own dark family traumas motivates the stand-offish Professor to become a father-figure to the strange people who live upstairs. Conversation Piece neatly tied together Visconti’s penchant for deconstructing the family unit and taking Romantic journeys into the great unknown.
Visconti’s final film, L’innocente was a return to the illicit Romanticism of Senso with the decadence of The Damned thrown in for good measure. Based on a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio and set in late 19th century Italy, the film opens with aristocratic atheist Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini) informing wife Giuliani (Laura Antonelli) that he no longer loves her and he has become infatuated with Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O’Neill), a notorious woman of society.
Blinded for his lust for Teresa, Tullio is unaware beautiful Giuliani has fallen in love with the popular author Filippo d’Arborio (Marc Porel) who, unlike her chauvinistic husband, is a caring, sensitive man. When Tullio learns of their liaison he tries to win Giuliani back but news she is pregnant with d’Arborio’s child makes their reunion a living hell.
Hoping to protect her newborn child, Giuliani offers to go away with her husband but Tullio misinterprets her suggestion and leaves the baby on their balcony to brave the wintry weather. After the child dies, Giuliani comes clean about her feeling for her dead lover (d’Arborio) and her hatred of Tullio. The guilt-ridden Hermil reignites his dormant affair with Teresa but after she offers her low opinion of him he forces her to witness the final, deadly act of his life.
It seemed fitting for Visconti’s swan song to resemble a tragedy out of Grand Opera but the passion plays in L’innocente only simmer where they should ignite. Considering Antonelli’s well-deserved celebrity as a screen sex goddess it’s difficult to believe any husband would leave her bed for bland Jennifer O’Neill.
Visconti’s protagonist, the macho-progressive Tullio Hermil, turns out to be one of his most complex and autobiographical creations. As a non-believer and sexual adventurer Hermil is reigned-in then finally rejected by his trophy wife who is the one person who could offer him the earthly redemption he so desperately seeks.
Books on Visconti:
Luchino Visconti – Claretta Tonetti **** Tonetti brings a much needed Italian point of view to this most Italian of filmmakers in a concise and excellent book. Visconti’s perplexing politics, his distrust of women, and passion for the lively arts provide good fodder for the author, who proves to have excellent critical chops. Out of print.
Visconti – Geoffrey Nowell-Smith **** Nowell-Smith’s intensely analytical take on Visconti digs deep beneath the surfaces of Visconti’s splendid aristocrats and their faded old world.
Films by Visconti:
1942 Ossessione ****
1948 La terra trema ***1/2
1951 Bellissima ****
1953 Siamo donne (Of Life and Love – segment Anna Magnani) ***1/2
1954 Senso ****
1957 Le notti bianche (White Nights) ****
1960 Rocco and His Brothers ****
1963 The Leopard ****1/2
1965 Vaghe stelle dell’orsa (Sandra) ****
1967 The Witches (segment La strega bruciata viva) ***
1967 The Stranger ***1/2
1969 The Damned ****
1971 Death in Venice ****
1972 Ludwig ****
1974 Conversation Piece ****
1976 The Innocent ***1/2