by Sam Juliano
Italian director Luchino Visconti began his career in the theater, directing works of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller in his home country, before moving on to film and opera. As to the latter form he achieved a well-earned reputation as one of the greatest opera directors of his time, and worked closely with “La Divina” Maria Callas in La Vestale, just after completing his fourth film Senso (1954), a work of exceeding operatic scope, and melodramatic essence. Like a number of the greatest operas, Senso was a disaster upon its release. It was critically savaged in Italy as a betrayal of neorealism, and stateside it was mutilated, dubbed into English, and re-titled as the lurid The Wanton Countess. It took Italian film aficionado Martin Scorsese and the Criterion collection to gloriously return to film to visual splendor with a terrific 2011 restoration for DVD and blu-ray.
It can be persuasively argued that Senso has an operatic structure, offering up doomed lovers, posturing soldiers, clandestine nocturnal meetings, brazen adultery and extravagant demise. Appropriately enough, the very first scene of Senso takes place in an opera house – the historic Teatro La Fenice in Venice, which stands today still as a major operatic venue, as it was back when the film was made and even when the story was set, nearly hundred years before that in 1866. The opera being staged is one of the great classics, Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and the rousing aria “Di quella pira” is being negotiated by the work’s main male protagonist, Manrico, who in effect is urging a call to arms to his compatriots who are fighting against Austrian occupiers in a bid for Italian Risorgimento (reunification). At the close of the aria, gallery revolutionaries drop leaflets that are colored like the Italian flag to the orchestra section, inhabited mostly by Austrian officers.
Franz Mahler (named by Visconti after his favorite composer, Gustav; the character in the novel was known as Remigio Ruz) chides the Italians by mocking their “colorful” means of resistance. From that point the opera overflows into the lives of the characters. In Romeo and Juliet mode the Countess and Italian patriot Livia Serpieri and the Austrian Mahler assume a clandestine affair inside the boundaries of a tumultuous, occupied country. The film was loosely adapted from an 1866 novella by Camillo Boito, which is substantially altered by Visconti. Boito presented Livia as vain and self-centured, albeit beautiful and elegant. Though on the surface Senso tells the story of the degradation of a noblewoman by someone undeserving of her passion, it more provocatively examines the conflict between duty and passion, and the needs of the individual even if at odds with national loyalty. The center of these conflicts of course is Livia, who almost from the very first time she meets Mahler is hopelessly smitten; she briefly hates him when he sends her cousin into exile after he is spotted as the one who masterminded the leaflet “distribution” at La Fenice, but she soon enough pretends she doesn’t know anything about this after a night together walking the streets of Venice.
In any event though it is clear enough that Franz is taking advantage of her social status and wealth, Livia recklessly pursues her man with sexual abandon, caring not an iota of what society thinks of her. In this sense one may recall Immanuel Rath, the smitten schoolteacher in Joseph Von Sternberg’s 1930 Der Blau Engel, who went head over heels for the slutty nightclub dancer Lola Lola, in firm defiance of society’s scorn. Predictably – but this is hardly the point- Franz stops showing up for their trysts, inducing Livia to be consumed with envy and paranoia. Then the war intrudes and forces a separation, with Livia’s stuffy aristocratic husband retreating to their country house to avoid the carnage. Then comes a crucial turn in the story, one that will have deadly ramifications for Livia’s Italian soldiers. Franz appears at the estate, sneaking up to Livia’s room to ask for money to bribe army doctors to keep him away from the battlefield. As smitten as ever Livia hands over the money she was intending for Roberto, who would have used it to help the Italians against the Austrians. This monstrous betrayal leads to the defeat of the out-manned Italians.
Livia is soon beside herself over the inability to meet up with Franz, but a letter is soon enough sent from Franz, who thanks her for her financial support that kept him away from the front lines, perhaps saving his life. He further more urges Livia to stay clear of him for several reasons, but she takes flight to Verona armed with the letter to see her lover. She finds the apartment -one she actually rented herself for Franz- and is shocked to find him in a drunken stupor, sarcastic and self-loathing and living with a young prostitute. He applies further humiliation onto his bewildered ex-lover by having her sit and drink with his new female companion, and then he throws her out of the apartment. Dazed and losing her sanity she passes through a lot of drunken and amorous Austrian soldiers. She enters the headquarters of the Austrian army and hands over the letter to a General, a sure conviction of treason. The General realizes Livia has been cuckolded and is seeking revenge and tries to talk her out of pressing forward with a charge that is tantamount to murder. She refuses to relent, and walks out into the night calling her lover’s name. We next see Franz being apprehended and shot by firing squad.
The melodrama of how the two central roles wound up going to Valli and Farley Granger is in keeping with the tone and essence of the film. Visconti wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando, two stars that surely would have prevented this film from slipping into obscurity, but Bergman’s husband, director Roberto Rossellini saw Visconti as his competition, and convinced his wife to turn down the role. Brando, fresh off his work on On the Waterfront, failed to impress with a screen test, but producers felt Farley Granger was a more popular star at that point, and were further buoyed by his excellent work in Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. Farley Granger was originally seen as a dashing hero, but slowly his demeanor tuned course and shifty. Granger delighted assistant director Franco Zeffirelli (another artist who became one of opera’s greatest luminaries a decade later) by agreeing to have his hair dyed blonde, though there reportedly was some burning pain during the process. Granger was physically transformed into an Austrian, and like many films of that time his work was dubbed into the appropriate language, in this case Italian.
As the Countess, Valli of The Third Man fame was cold and unsympathetic throughout, but that is precisely what Visconti wanted in her performance. The fact is with her perfect frame and trademark glare she was as perfect fit, and her Livia is her best career performance.
Long known as a tyrant when it came to set design and details, it somehow is no surprise that Senso was shot by four different men, all under the guiding eye of the maestro. Fate intervened when the gifted cinematographer Aldo Graziati (De Sica’s Umberto D) was killed in a car accident midway through the film’s shoot. He was replaced by famed cameraman Robert Krasker (Olivier’s Henry V and Reed’s The Third Man) but they did not work well together. This led finally to the renowned Giuseppe Rotunno (who later shot Visconti’s Palme d’Or winner The Leopard in 1963) who finished up. It would be fair enough to assume that Graziati did most of the shoot, though Visconti’s visual style, regarded my many as Manet-like unified the enterprise. in any case this is an lush, opulent and elegant film, certainly one of the most beautiful ever filmed.
Though Nino Rota is listed as the composer of Senso’s music, Visconti ordered that the score be dominated by classical music, especially Anton Brucker’s magnificent Seventh Symphony, a work that alternates between romantic, foreboding and tragic emotions. This is not the first time the director placed such an emphasis on classical music; he used the same strategy successfully in The Leopard and Death in Venice.
Sumptuously filmed in Techicolor in and around a scenic paradise, replete with florid emotions and theatrical artifice, acted provocatively by its two stars in a passionate romance, scored by a towering classicist and directed by a Renaissance man using every inch of a grand canvas, Senso redefines the term ‘operatic.’