(1906 - 1976)
Three Key Films: Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971)
Underrated: The Earth Trembles (La Terra Trema )(1948). Visconti’s great salt-of-the-earth fable. Adapted from Giovanni Verga’s novel I Malavoglia (“The House by the Medlar Tree”)(1881), Visconti’s film follows the lives of a family of fisherman on Aci Trezza, off the eastern coast of Sicily, where the way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. Shot in black-and-white, the mise-en-scène has a gritty, brooding timbre, with the sense of impending doom about to befall people who try to defy an entrenched system. This is the Neo-Realist answer to The Grapes of Wrath. Visconti’s socialist convictions comes through in this film which depicts a family where the men live a precarious existence on the seas, fishing and selling fish through wholesellers, who reap most of the profits themselves. Certain scenes having a haunting quality, like the image of the fishermen’s wives, clothed in black hoods standing on the rocky cliffs with the wind blowing in their faces, waiting for their husbands to return, that’s epic and Greek in its sense of tragedy.
Unforgettable: The final waltz in The Leopard. Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) dances with his nephew Tancredi’s new-money fiancee, the ravishingly beautiful, albeit, slightly coarse and lusty, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The ball that is been taking place, in endless rooms of mirrors and chandeliers, served as a moving tableaux for Prince Don Fabrizio to reflect on the fragility of his own life, aging, the changes in a new, independent Italy with the end of its old, aristocratic order and the rise of its new-moneyed, unscrupulous class of merchants. As the Prince takes up Angelica in his arms, he has come to terms with the fate of these events and he takes whatever pleasure he can from what’s around him. The waltz is stately and graceful, but all throughout it, he is eyeing Angelica lustily. He’s admiring her brazenness, and envying Tancredi for what he’s about to enjoy. The Leopard is Visconti’s greatest film. Its significance lies in its sensuality and its palpable sense of surfaces and sensations—glistening shine of cream silks and taffetas, the smell of lemon groves, the burning white heat of the sun in Southern Italy. It’s an iconic Italian movie in every sense of the word.
The Legend: Count Luchino Visconti di Modrone was a film director of an entirely different era, like Jean Renoir and Erich von Stroheim. Aristocratic, vaguely decadent, and a bit of a tyrant on set. His career has been varied, ranging from gritty Neo-Realist films in the 1940s, to sumptuous costume dramas during the 60s, and finally to his lurid, somewhat Eurotrash, German-themed soap operas of the 1970s. Visconti always had a sharp eye for operatic drama and scale, where costumes, sumptuous interiors, and classical music coalesce with heaving emotion. The Leopard, Death in Venice, and The Damned all work as “operatic” cinema. Visconti’s “Italian-ness” is one that emphasizes his need for boldness and melodrama, somewhat of the opposite of Bertolucci (one can only wonder what Visconti might have thought of the deliberate disjointedness of Last Tango in Paris).
Visconti was a notorious perfectionist, like David Lean, and was known to micro-manage every detail of production from the actor’s staging and expressions, to floral arrangements, to the type of wine served during a dinner scene, to the precise trickle of blood across a corpse (Coppola was known to do the same in The Godfather films). The movie existed already in Visconti’s mind and he had merely to recreate every minute detail for the camera. In spite of this exacting nature, Visconti was said to be very attentive and accomodating to actors. Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Dirk Bogarde, and Charlotte Rampling, gave some of their best performances for Visconti, and the maestro seemed to know, intuitively, how to coax something out of the them that was poignant and fleeting. Visconti believed that, more than being an Italian, or a European, that he was a man-of-the-world, making large films of the spirit. His best work, The Leopard and Death in Venice, both meticulous adaptations of literary masterpieces, are nuanced and beautifully modulated through the actor’s performances, which brings the material to life in ways that the source material can’t always do. The same can also be said of Senso (1954) and Rocco and His Brothers.
A Visconti film has come mean the sophisticated cinema of longing and suffused passion. It’s paved the way for the sort of European films made over years with Jeremy Irons and Ralph Fiennes. We probably wouldn’t have The English Patient if it weren’t for Visconti, and last year’s I Am Love with Tilda Swinton was utterly Viscontian. His great films are rich and full of unexpected new turns, and even his more “uneven” problematic films, like The Damned and Ludwig (1972) give us a sense of his remarkable thought-process, and his fascination with riveting, doomed characters. Farisa Khalid