Director: Luchino Visconti
Writers: Luchino Visconti, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Carlo Alianello, Tennessee Williams, Giorgio Bassani, Paul Bowles, Giorgio Prosperi
Cinematographers: G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Heinz Moog, Rina Morelli
Studio/Runtime: Criterion/123 mins.
Arguably the first movie that could be called Italian Neo-realist was Luchino Visconti’s Ossesione, which he then followed up with two more features in the same tradition. But as the war that fostered the movement faded into the past Visconti radically shifted his style with Senso. Where neo-realism focused on the poor, here he brought his spotlight to aristrocrats. Where neo-realism featured non-professional actors and location shooting, here were international stars in a production so over budget it bankrupted its studio. And where neo-realism sought to take in the nuances of everday life, Senso was a work of extreme melodrama. This shift resulted in a more personal work, that’s also more complex than most of the neo-realist movies that preceded it.
Senso was loosely adapted from a novella focused on the love affair between a countess and an officer that proves to be both their undoings. Visconti’s version heavily rewrites the story and its characters, keeping only the central conflict and surrounding it with the tumultuous political circumstances of Italy circa 1866. Alida Valli stars as the countess Livia, who’s working with the Venetian underground to help overthrow its Austrian oppressors. But while attempting to save her cousin, the leader of the rebellion, from being caught she meets a charming Austrian lieutenant and falls madly in love. Even when she’s forced to leave Venice their affair continues, although there are signs that he’s not nearly as interested in the countess as she is in him.
This is quite obviously the stuff of melodrama and tacky romance, with dialogue that really does the material few favors. But that’s intentional, with Visconti attempting to heighten every aspect of the film so as to make more clear the film’s allegory to the Italy he knew in 1953. That doesn’t excuse Senso’s cliches, but it does explain them. Like Douglas Sirk or Rainer Fassbender, the ridiculousness of Visconti’s melodrama is a conscious choice. It threatens to collapse the entire film under its weight, but never quite succeeds, especially when the movie begins to shift modes during its second half into something approximating a war movie.
Senso isn’t the subtlest picture and its writing is frequently cringe-worthy. But as a work of pure film artistry it’s wonderful, especially in its less motivated sequences. The film’s opening set piece, in which an Opera turns into a political protest, is an instant classic, a bit of cinematic grandeur that’s unforgettable. More important, though, may be the little things about the picture, the obvious attention lavished upon every detail of the mise-en-scene. Much of this comes off as theatrical and over-determined, but it’s well choreographed all the same. The film’s determinism in every aspect makes it interesting to watch, and while it’s a very closed off method of filmmaking it’s still powerful.
Of course, other films are as beautiful or more so than Senso. Its control is exacting but less stunning than for instance Kubrick’s, its technicolor is brilliant in portions but at other times a tad sterile and while it is personal, Senso never gives us more than surface examinations of its characters. That’s not to say it’s bad, just that it’s not as unique as it once was and anyone watching it today needs to be prepared to take in a lot of bad with its good. The film has aged not because it lacks its original potency—if anything its recent restoration makes the film’s craft more impressive now than it has been for 50 years—but because what it does well has been done again even better, and what it does poorly is difficult to overlook.