Senso (1954): Visconti’s Lush Period, Starring Alida Valli and Farley Granger

Italian director Luchino Visconti made the elegantly shot period piece, “Senso,” with international cast, starring Italian Alida Valli as a countess married to a Venetian nobleman, and American Farley Granger as an Austrian military officer.

During the Austrian empire’s evacuation of Italy in 1866, the two fall in love, but the countess realizes that the officer is interested only in her status, wealth and prestige.

The transition from Visconti’s earlier neo-realistic films to an operatic grand cinema style is evident in this striking shot color production of flamboyant proportions, which many consider to be a classic of postwar Italian cinema.

Initially, Visconti had wanted Ingrid Bergman (who was in Europe at the time, blacklisted by Hollywood) and Marlon Brando for his leads, but when Bergman’s husband Roberto Rossellini would not permit her to appear in the film, Brando also bowed out.

Originally running 166 minutes, “Senso” was butchered for its U.S. release, in 1968, and poorly titled as “Summer Hurricane.”

It’s one of the favorite films of Marti Scorsese, who encouraged restoration and rerelease of the picture according to its director’s intent.

About Visconti

In the late 1930s, Visconti came briefly to the U.S., but, like other foreign directors, he felt uncomfortable in Hollywood and returned to Italy quite disappointed.

After working as an assistant on Verdi’s opera “La Tosca,” Visconti set out to make his first film. He wanted to adapt to the screen a work by Giovanni Verga, a Sicilian novelist idolized by the Italian leftist underground for his naturalistic style, known as “Verismo.”

Visconti’s project met with strong resistance from Fascist censors, he changed his mind, and, to allay their suspicions, submitted a script adapted from the hard boiled writer James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The resultant film, “Ossessione” (1942) was ostensibly a drama about the destructive powers of sexual passion and betrayal, but its realistic depiction of the proletariat life under fascism enraged the authorities, which mutilated the film. “Ossessione” heralded the Italian neorealist movement in its naturalistic setting and earthy texture, three years before Rossellinni made his neorealist masterpiece, “Roma, Open City.”

For many years, Western critics couldn’t see “Ossessione” and thus considered “Roma, Open City,” as the first major work of the worldwide influential Italian movement neorealitsic cinema. Textbooks had to be changed in the wake of discovering “Ossessione.”

Visconti’s second feature, “La Terra Trema” (“The Earth Trembles,” 1948), a sprawling drama of the Italian South, Visconti moved away from pure realism toward the elaborate decorative style that was to characterize his later films. “La Terra Trema” is a masterful work combining such documentary elements as local dialect in the sound track and a nonprofessional cast, combined with elaborately structured compositions and movements and stunning lighting effects.

Visconti’s international reputation was established early in his career and remained undiminished, despite occasional misfires. Though in the 1960s and 1970s, his films became increasingly infrequent, each picture was an “event,” eagerly awaited by his international admirers.

All along, Visconti also gained much prestige as an innovative theater and opera director, and was credited with the development of Maria Callas into an operatic superstar.

A recurrent theme in Visconti’s films is the moral disintegration of a family, ranging from the tragic transplantation of southern proletariat to Milan in “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) to the decadence of the wealthy Krupp family in “The Damned” (1969), which boasted an international cast, headed by Brit Dirk Bogarde, Swede Ingrid Tulin, and German Helmut Berger.

In 1963, “The Leopard,” considered to be Visconti’s most accomplished film, which stars American Burt Lancaster and Italisn Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. “The Leopard” was butchered by American distributors when it first played stateside, but in 1983, the picture was restored and re-released theatrically to unanimous critical acclaim. (See my reviews of the film and the special DVD edition)

Visconit’s “Sandra” (aka as “Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa”) won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1965.

In 1971, Visconti’s personal interpretation of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” lost the top prize at the Cannes Festival to Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between,” but Visconti was compensated with a Special 25the Anniversary Award for his cumulative work

Running time: 125 Minutes.
Directed, written by Luchino Visconti