How Luchino Visconti’s Senso heralded the slow opening-up of Italian neorealism
Visconti’s first few films followed the tenets of neorealism, but Senso is a fascinating departure.
When we think of Italian neorealism, the films that spring to mind are all of a certain kind. We think of films about the poor or the working class. We think of non-professional actors and shooting on location. The movement shot to fame when Rome, Open City won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but the films we typically name are Bicycle Thieves, or Paisan, or Shoeshine. But the first film (Obsession, 1943) identified with the movement is by a filmmaker (Luchino Visconti) generally known for spectacles like The Leopard. Obsession was Visconti’s first film, and it is based on James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which became one of Hollywood’s most classic noirs.
Can the label of “neorealism” be applied to films that don’t immediately seem to be, well, neorealistic? Visconti’s first few films followed the tenets of neorealism (unglamorous and real-life characters, shooting on location, tackling social issues), but Senso (1954 -- set during the 1866 Italian-Austrian War and based on a nineteenth-century novella by Camillo Boito -- is a fascinating departure. It is wholly melodramatic -- or perhaps the right word is “operatic”. The married heroine, Livia Serpieri, is an Italian countess, and she falls for an Austrian officer named Franz Mahler -- and they meet at an opera performance, which sets the tone and pitch of the film. (Trivia note: The actors playing Livia Serpieri and Franz Mahler are Alida Valli and Farley Granger, both of whom are largely known for their films with Alfred Hitchcock. Valli was in The Paradine Case, and Granger was in Rope and Strangers on a Train.)
At the performance in a gilded opera house, Livia asks Franz if he likes opera. He says he does. She replies, “Yes, I like it very much. But I dislike it when it’s performed out of the stage. I dislike people who act like heroes from a melodrama, who don’t think about the consequences of an impulsive act...” She’s referring to the rumours that Franz has been challenged to a duel by her cousin, a revolutionary fighting to free Italy from the Austrians (Franz is, thus, “the enemy”, which makes the plot even more operatic). But little does Livia realise that she could be talking about herself. Her soon-to-ensue affair with Franz is the “impulsive act”, and she’s the “heroine from a melodrama”.
Visconti, who’s known as much for his staging of operas as his cinema, frames this stretch exquisitely – that is, non-neorealistically. Livia and Franz are sitting in a box (the small, private area that seats the crème de la crème), near the stage. In the foreground, we see Franz and Livia. A soprano is in the background, mirroring Livia’s inner turmoil, and Alida Valli’s performance slowly turns as heated as an aria. Thereon in the film, every single thought is mimed out through extravagant gesture. And the gorgeous colour is another sinner against the ideals of neorealism. Three great cinematographers worked on Senso -- GR Aldo (who shot Orson Welles’s Othello and Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D.), Robert Krasker (Carol Reed’s The Third Man), and Giuseppe Rotunno (Fellini’s Amarcord, Visconti’s The Leopard) -- and they unleash scene after breathtaking scene. Peter Cowie, the film historian and author (he wrote Ingmar Bergman’s biography), called Senso “probably the finest colour film in the history of cinema”.
And yet, there are traces of Visconti (and post-War Italian cinema’s) roots in neorealism. The various characters stand for something apart from their participation in the operatic melodrama at the story’s centre. Livia’s cousin is an idealist who wants a free Italy. Her husband, the count, is apolitical -- he is only interested in a comfortable life, and if that means making peace with the Austrian occupiers, then so be it. Franz is a deserter, a hedonist whose only “cause” is himself. One of the principles of neorealism is fidelity to the milieu, and if this is a milieu of jewels and palaces, then can a faithful representation of all this not be considered “neorealism”? Visconti said, “I shall not abandon the line of cinematographic neorealism I have followed to this day, nor lose contact with my characters just because they wear 19th century costumes.”
In an undated interview out on YouTube, Visconti is asked about the young filmmakers who violently criticise the cinema he represents. He says criticism is par for the course, “But I want to see results… When these new directors present movies like [De Sica’s] Shoeshine, [Visconti’s] La Terra Trema and [Rossellini’s] Rome, Open City, I will compliment them. But not now, no way! They must pay attention to what’s happening in the world, and not what’s happening between an aunt and her nephew. Those are unimportant autobiographical facts. There are problems in Vietnam, in Czechoslovakia …” This spirit is evident in Senso, for even the “aunt-nephew” drama between Livia and Franz is opened out to reflect the Italy of the time. In a way, it still is like Rome, Open City. Only, these people have money.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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