‘Senso’ Is an Operatic Post-WWII Coda to a Story of War, Nationalism and Societal Decay

[20 April 2011]

By Matt Mazur

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Italian auteur Luchino Visconti was known for a certain sense of aristocratic decadence that flowed from his real life and permeated his filmic canon. A member of one of Italy’s richest families, the director was no stranger to privilege, and that the particularities of his blue-blood, refined lifestyle found their way into his work is hardly a surprise. Legend has it that on the set of Senso, the master insisted that fresh cut flowers be supplied to the production daily, even if there was no filming to be done. The scale of Visconti’s patrician personality almost always synced with the scale of his chimerical productions, and Senso is no exception, bringing an operatic post World War II coda to a story of war, nationalism, and the decaying upper crust of society being brought to it’s knees by romantic obsessions.

In the scope of his entire career, Senso, despite an eye-popping production design, gloriously effete milieu and thoroughly stunning, bright Technicolor photography, should probably still be considered minor Visconti. The simple story of La contessa Livia Serpieri (a mannequinesque Alida Valli) falling hard for Austrian soldier Franz Mahler (the recently departed Farley Granger), provides an interesting lens through which to look at both the state of the Italian film industry in the immediate post-war years and the concept of loyalty, yet despite the richness of the production, Visconti’s vision still feels not fully realized.

When stacked against such bonafide masterpieces such as Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), or The Damned (1969), Senso fails to match the heights of the other films in terms of their rapacious skewering of the upper echelons of Italian society. There is a sharpness that can be found in Visconti’s other films that is missing in Senso, which does feel more conventionally Hollywood in style than his other work, more conventional, at least in terms of the lack of emotional complexity and a force-fed over-emphasis on political complexity and mis en scene.

Senso‘s visual grandeur, however, is nothing to sneeze at. If Visconti’s attempt at raising political consciousness through a damning portrait of a spoiled, irrational woman’s fatal attraction to a soldier doesn’t always work, his meticulous eye for artistic construction does. In adapting Camillo Boito’s short novella (first published in 1882), which was virtually unknown to both Italian and international audiences, Visconti prefers to focus on aesthetic more so than story and character development, and departs from the original source material’s intricacies to go for the visual drama rather than the personal or political.

In designing such a lush, sensual visual production, and then linking the film’s visual sexiness to the carnality of the Contessa and the Lieutenant, Visconti endows the entire production with a bold, lusty sexuality not often found in films of this period. Yet, despite the physicality of the characters and the sweeping scope and spectacle, Senso remains oddly detached for a film that is about passion and tragedy.

In addition to the Italian-language version, which offended censors in Visconti’s country due to the unflattering portrayal of Italy’s servicemen as drunken, lecherous pigs, a dubbed English version of Senso was also commissioned. Christened The Wanton Contessa, the new version featured dialog by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles and is featured on the second disc of Criterion’s new edition of the film. One of the key features of Criterion’s new edition is the digital restoration by Film Foundation/Cineteca di Bologna, created in consultation with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and Martin Scorsese. The opening opera scenes of Senso obviously had a lasting influence on Scorsese, their impact on the director can be quite directly seen in his own opera house set pieces in The Age of Innocence, which pay loving homage to Visconti in every respect.

Senso‘s lasting influence on international cinema can be found in the work of Scorsese, but also in melodramas about doomed romance such as Francois Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975) and Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes (1955), where love drives the leading ladies mad. Tilda Swinton, one of the most cinephilic actresses on the planet, cited Visconti’s film, and particularly Valli’s performance as the Contessa, as a key inspiration for her own wanton woman in last year’s I Am Love, which took a more modern approach to critiquing the aristocratic class.

Still, for all of the pomp and grandiosity of Visconti’s film, and it’s lasting, legendary influence on filmmakers and artists, the erotic, intoxicating kiss of Senso, surely an important achievement, still left me wanting something more overall despite it’s impressive cinematic size. Perhaps bigger is not always better in the world of film after all…

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/139341-senso/