L’innocente (The Innocent, 1976) was not the film Luchino Visconti initially set out to make and certainly was not intended to be his last. Even as the director, by then in his late sixties, grew increasingly infirm from a stroke, he had more than one iron in the fire as a director must if something is going to finally be accomplished. He had two long-gestating projects: adaptations of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924), a companion to his 1971 film, Death in Venice, which is also how the author had originally conceived the story, and even more tantalizing, Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1914), which filmmaker Mark Rappaport called “one of the greatest films never made.”1 For his follow-up to the multiple-award winning Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974), Visconti wanted to adapt 1889’s Il piacere (The Child of Pleasure) by the once revered poet (and, later, Fascist bombast) Gabriele D’Annunzio, but another filmmaker held the rights and was unwilling to let them go.

Visconti turned instead to a different novel by D’Annunzio, which like The Child of Pleasure had become part of the “Romances of the Rose” trilogy by way of a publisher’s conceit.2 The Innocent is centred on Italian aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini) who fancies himself unaccountable to any kind of morality whether prescribed by gods or by men. Under this cover he commits some rather routine if despicable offenses – arrogance, hypocrisy, adultery – until finally he commits murder in order to free himself of a vexing inconvenience, a child born to his wife but sired by her lover, and the innocent of the title. In D’Annunzio’s original telling he gets away with it, a reflection of the author’s whole-hearted embrace of the Nietzschean ideal. It also drew on the author’s own situation at the time he wrote the story as he was carrying on an extended and complicated affair with a married Neapolitan countess that had yielded two children. He in fact rather brazenly dedicated this novel to her.

In Visconti’s version, Tullio also gets away with it, at least in a criminal sense, but the director and his co-screenwriters (Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Enrico Medioli) deliver emphatic comeuppance, along the way stripping the main character’s philosophy of any possible virtue. He is rejected by his wife (Laura Antonelli) whom he tries to make feel complicit in the murder, his younger brother (Didier Haudepin) who can no longer abide Tullio’s increasingly sinister air, his mistress (Jennifer O’Neill) who had so hotly pursued him, and even his devoted mother (Rina Morelli) turned devoted grandmother. In the end he shoots himself in the chest after making sure his erstwhile lover is awake and within hearing distance. Not out of any remorse, but simply because he cannot have his way. Giannini portrays Tullio as so monstrously self-centred that you almost wish there were some eternal damnation awaiting him in an afterlife as his wife has threatened.

Ever since he shocked (and appalled, by many accounts) critics with 1954’s Senso, a period film (in lavish colour, no less) about a countess who betrays propriety and homeland by having an affair with a lieutenant of the Austrian occupying army in 19th century Venice, Visconti often dissected the hypocrisies of a class he knew well, his ancestors having ruled Milan for nearly two centuries during the Middle Ages and hanging on to their titles and wealth for more than eight. Pauline Kael once aptly described the nobility depicted by Visconti as “protected against almost everything in their lives except their own emotions.”3

The Innocent is another period piece set among Europe’s decadent aristocracy having something of a last hurrah before modernism, urbanism, and, finally, a stupid war of their own making brought it all crashing down in the early 20th century. But the film is not so far removed from Visconti’s supposed neorealism with its depictions of the woes and wants of the underclasses. Shot in rich Technicolor, The Innocent, of course, shares neither their milieu nor palette, but its emotions undulate, as theirs do, in operatic measure. It’s hard not to see a kind of perverse rhyming, for example, between Simone and Nadia’s deadly entangling in the riverside mud in Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) and that of Tullio entangled with his wife’s naked body in bed, both men professing a love the audience recognizes as something else entirely. The Innocent is also set in a narrowly delineated world whose socio-economics severely limit the characters’ existence, a reflection of Visconti’s political beliefs, which had earned him his “Red Count” moniker and which stood diametrically opposed to D’Annunzio’s libertinism. 

In that sense, Visconti’s realism never left him. Like Erich von Stroheim’s silent-era exposés of upper-crust European counts, cads, and conmen of the Belle Époque in films like Blind Husbands (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), and The Wedding March (1928) with their exacting authenticity, Visconti portrayed spheres so foreign to most of us, whether measured in distances of time or wealth, that they can’t possibly represent a tangible reality. Yet some people did (and, I guess, do) live in Titian-dotted palazzos handed down through generations and actually did attend evening piano recitals dressed as if sitting for a John Singer Sargent portrait.

Famously as much of a stickler for such details as Stroheim was, Visconti was a strict overseer of costumes and settings, from the paintings on the walls and flowers in the vases to buttons on uniforms and just how tightly a veil is stretched across a face, making sure we saw how they lived as a way to know who they were. The Innocent’s cloying drawing rooms and lilac-glutted gardens populated by those with no other purpose except to amuse themselves proves to be as suitable a crucible for economic determinism as a trattoria on a roadside in the middle of nowhere or a frigid basement apartment in Milan with garlic hanging over the kitchen sink. 

Whatever the setting, Visconti is always reminding us that history marches on. The Innocent doesn’t simply fade out after Tullio’s suicide. The final shot is taken up by the witness to his death, his former lover, Teresa Raffo, who has tried to live a life as free from moral constraints as her male counterparts. She is seen from behind, dishevelled, her cloak dragging beside her 19th century skirts as she hurries down the garden path away from the scene of Tullio’s final crime. 

L’innocente/The Innocent (1976 Italy 129 mins)

Prod Co: Rizzoli Film Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Enrico Medioli, and Luchino Visconti, adapted from Gabriele D’Annunzio’s eponymous novel Phot: Pasqualino De Santis Prod des: Mario Garbuglia Set decoration: Carlo Gervasi Cos des: Piero Tosi Music: Franco Mannino Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni

Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli, Jennifer O’Neill, Rina Morelli, Didier Haudepin, and Marc Porel


  1. Mark Rappaport, “Senso and Sensibility,” The Current, 20 February 2011.
  2. The trilogy also includes 1897’s Trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death).
  3. Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema,” The New Yorker, 12 February 1979, p. 91.

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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