b. 2 November, 1906, Milan, Lombardy, Italy
d. 17 March, 1976, Rome, Lazio, Italy
Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone was born to a life of respectability, authority, and affluence. This noble upbringing, and what it could afford, had an undeniable, everlasting impact on his life and career. His early exposure to art, literature, music, theatre, and, perhaps most of all, opera, befit the highbrow pursuits of a well-bred northern Italian. Beyond that, he had an early passion for horse training and breeding, and from 1926 to 1928, he served in the Italian military. His move to Paris in 1936 activated an interest in left-leaning politics and a more accepting climate for his generally unexpressed homosexuality. All the while, he maintained his devout Catholicism. With the outbreak of World War II, Visconti become an active anti–fascist, opening his palazzo to members of the Communist resistance. He engaged in armed opposition to the Germans and endured a brief period of Gestapo imprisonment in 1944. Having already tried his hand at writing novels, Visconti advanced his flowering artistic vocation after the war by directing what would amount to more than forty plays and more than a dozen operas.
The details of this cursory sketch are more than enough to comprise the life entirety of an average man. But such was the insatiable drive and passion of Luchino Visconti, that this résumé does not even consider his most enduring legacy, as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. What this outline does indicate, however, is the breadth of stimulus that informed his cinematic output, aspects manifest, to one degree or another, in almost every film he made. Visconti’s body of work is therefore noteworthy for its impeccable quality and technical precision, but also for its unrelenting adherence to individual artistry, and to all the challenges and contradictions that emboldened the vision of an Italian master.
While an early, amateur movie no longer exists, a Buñuelian work he made under the guidance of photographer Horst P. Horst, Visconti’s documented initiation into the world of feature filmmaking came by way of no less than Jean Renoir. Aside from having political sway over the aspiring director, Renoir enlisted Visconti as an assistant on such films as Toni (1935), A Day in the Country (1936), and the doomed Tosca (1941), from which Renoir was removed when war broke out. It was also Renoir who gave Visconti a copy of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which would serve as inspiration for Visconti’s first film as director, Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), written by Visconti and a group of his colleagues from the Milanese magazine Cinema. With cinematography by Domenico Scala and Aldo Tonti, Visconti’s debut is a gritty picture of poverty, carnal eroticism, and simmering tension, all revolving around the garrulous blowhard Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), his unfulfilled, unfaithful wife, Giovanna (Clara Calamai), and a wayward drifter, Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti). The combustible, three-pronged affiliation grows from shared despondency and blind lust, and no sooner are Giovanna and Gino swept up in romantic whimsey, then they are faced with almost instant regret, guilt, and paranoia. Befitting the film’s title, obsession infuses everyone, even an itinerant artist whose motives are kept purposefully ambiguous (he is likely the first gay character in Visconti’s work). Ossessione exudes a palpable angst, where the strains of survival and solidarity are continually flouted by the fickle fates of life. It is an ideal primer for one of Visconti’s core character themes, of individuals “caught in the mesh of their past, dissatisfied with their present and unable to assume responsibility for the future.”1 Its torrid constitution outraged political and religious factions, though, and when the film premiered, Benito Mussolini’s film executive son fled the cinema screaming, “This is not Italy!” The picture was banned by the Fascist government and all prints were nearly destroyed.
Nevertheless, the impact of Ossessione was significant, paving the path for some of the most affecting and instrumental Italian films of the immediate World War II era. It is a visceral depiction of Italy during wartime, even if there are only slight traces of the ongoing engagement. Instead, more prominent is the film’s instinctive illustration of yearning, earthy desperation, and inequitable social disorder. For these reasons (save for the first), Ossessione has been widely regarded as the preeminent precursor to Italian neorealism. “The term ‘neo-realism’ was born with Ossessione,” states Visconti. “From Ferrara, I sent the first shots of the film to my editor, Mario Serandrei. After a few days, he wrote to me saying how much he liked the scenes and he added: ‘I don’t know how to define this kind of cinema other than as ‘neo-realistic’.”2
While the war’s effects were felt behind the scenes of Ossessione, less in the film itself, Visconti’s documentary successor was wholly definite in its intent. Giorni di gloria (Days of Glory, 1945) centres on partisan resistance fighters and the show trials conducted after the war. Spearheaded by Mario Serandrei and supported by the Allies’ Psychological Warfare Branch, the film is a hearty reportage on how these underdog operatives were able to execute their assignments, with peasant brigades traversing the mountainous terrain and a clandestine press to help spread the word of defiance. Most striking about Days of Glory is its intense climax, a brutal execution preceded by the July 4, 1945 trial of Pietro Caruso, former head of the Fascist Police of Occupied Rome, his aid Roberto Ochetto, and Pietro Koch, head of the Pensione Jaccarino,3
Visconti’s second feature was also political in its origins, even if the result transcends dogmatic limitations. Solicited and funded by the Community Party, Visconti was to make a series of three documentaries, each dealing with underrepresented members of the working class: fishermen, peasants, and workers in a sulphur mine. Fascinated by the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, and inspired by the work of novelist Giovanni Verga, Visconti eschewed the idea of filming the latter two social groups and abandoned a strict documentary form. La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), which still bears the episodic subtitle, Episode della mare (“The episode of the sea”), incorporates non-actors to appreciate a populace dependent on the inconsistent bounty of “the bitter sea” and subject to marketplace manipulation. There is a prevailing discord between encroaching modernity and a reverence for the age-old process of their respective occupation, and to illustrate this variable livelihood, Visconti rewrote Verga, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith puts it, “in the light of Marx.”4 A generational focus turned from the elderly and staid to the young and the radical, and a situational revision made the film less about subsisting domesticity and more about demanding exertion. Both alterations correspond with Visconti’s evolving political ambitions and his repeated implementation of attractive rebel-outcast figures. But there is a pragmatic divergence to this romantic revolt, for if one is to strike out against injustice, one must also accept the downside of such independence, the risk and the ensuing snowball of despair. It’s a lesson learned by more than one Visconti idealist.
Visconti’s vision of La terra trema is as a roving bystander, revealing a rich, detailed portrait of convincing, boisterous authenticity. Without condescending the ingenuousness of the region, his interaction with the material is complex, utilising the inherent naturalism but also crafting a stylized narrative, exposing the purity but also a sometimes-heightened reality. It is, in other words, “an anthropological cinema in which the anthropologist sets the scene and comments on its significance, but retires for the picture when it is actually being taken so that his presence is no longer felt.”5 Set against the humming of the residential dialect, so distinct subtitles were added within Italy itself, the film stresses camaraderie and liberation, romance and toil. The people of La terra trema appear impassioned, singing and laboring with great gusto, and the film is as devoted to the back-breaking drudgery at sea as it is the anxieties of those waiting at home.
If Visconti favored self-effacing amateurs for La terra trema, for Bellissima (1951) he retained one of the most revered and electrifying of all professionals. Having almost collaborated with Anna Magnani before, when she nearly appeared in Ossessione, Visconti presents the star in an immediate state of maternal panic. Briefly losing her daughter in a crowd of eager stage mothers, all of whom have answered a casting call for budding child stars at Cinecittà, the initial edginess of Magnani’s Maddalena Cecconi never wanes. Written by Cesare Zavattini, Bellissima is an acerbic, satirical look at the film industry and the precarious nature of show business. The idealised concept of glitz and stardom, reinforced by the outdoor movie screen that practically graces Maddalena’s backyard, is countered by the economic hardships that drive the resolute mother’s overriding determination. Seeking a better life for her daughter, living vicariously through her potential success, the motivated, dreadfully naïve Maddalena opens herself up to abuse and disappointment.
A straight comedy, a sentimental drama, or something in between, the story of Bellisima was, as far as Visconti was concerned, a pretext. “My whole subject was Magnani,” he said,6 and indeed, this vigorous prima donna gives a formidable performance. Rarely has Magnani been more animated and magnetic, with a seething, manic energy and a delicate emotional grasp, evinced most achingly when she observes a group of derisive executives having a mocking laugh at her daughter’s expense. Though Gaia Servadio argues Bellisima is the “least ‘Visconti’” of all his films, and that it was not one of the director’s favorites,7 Visconti nevertheless reunited with his feisty leading lady for the 1953 portmanteau, Siamo donne (We, the Women, also known as Of Life and Love). Visconti’s favored tactic for directing some of the most famous stars in international cinema was to employ long takes allowing for a developing rhythm. In We, the Women, the rhythm of Magnani is hilariously concerted. The whole point of this compilation was to have five different directors make a short film about the personas and private lives of five different actresses, and to that end, Visconti and his chosen muse masterfully exploit the traditional view of Magnani the compelling powerhouse. (On the far other end of the tonal spectrum, also in 1953, Visconti directed the documentary short, Appunti su un fatto di cronaca, based on the murder of a child in an impoverished Roman borough.)
Visconti had so far remained relatively firm in the neorealist tradition, but just because he was a formative figure did not secure his commitment to the movement. He was, on the contrary, “obstinately impervious to changes in intellectual fashions,”8 preferring his own fluctuating interests and formal pursuits. With that said, purists were left reeling after Senso, Visconti’s 1954 adaptation of Camillo Boito’s novel. Set in 1866 Venice, Senso begins inside the city’s La Fenice opera house, where combative Austrian forces are in prickly theatrical and national proximity to the embittered Italian nationalists. The conflict is personified by the Austrian Officer Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) on one side and Venetian Partisan Marquis Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti) on the other. And between the opposing services, torn by national loyalty and romantic fidelity (the two are essentially one and the same in Senso), there is Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), the married aristocratic cousin of Roberto and soon-to-be lover of Franz.
In this time of revolutionary upheaval, where the gamble of illicit romance is only amplified by war, Senso’s strength hinges on parallel themes of treachery and hysteria. Acting within a construct of mannered behaviour and precious posturing, Valli in particular displays remarkable range, humanising a constant flux between vengeance, vulnerability, and amorous agony. The romance rising from this diplomatic predicament is front and centre, providing the emotional core of the picture, but where Senso pushed the boundaries of Visconti’s productivity is its sweeping chronological context and its eye-catching colour. Cinematographers Robert Krasker, Giuseppe Rotunno, and G. R. Aldo (the last of whom passed away during production) contribute to what would be the most distinct visual turn of Visconti’s career, a melodic assembly of grace and vivid sensory flourish.
From the tri-coloured flyers that shower down upon the opulent opera house, to the abundant regalia, the conforming military protocol, and the scope of the battle scenes, Senso boasts an endlessly embellished atmosphere, stirring debate amongst die-hard neorealist advocates who decried Visconti’s drastic transformation. But that was just part of the film’s controversy, which started when a star was required to meet studio demands and continued when Visconti’s original conclusion was prohibited by Italian censors, who objected to a negative portrayal of the nation’s servicemen, even those from decades past. Furthermore, in what would be an unfortunately common routine for Visconti, international versions of Senso were recut and released with alternate, often misleading titles (the American version, re-titled as The Wanton Countess, contained new dialogue written by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles).
Visconti’s dramatic pictorial evolution continued with Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957), a visually stunning adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1848 short story of the same title. Written with Suso Cecchi D’Amico, this starry-eyed tear-jerker transfers Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg to a fabricated rendering of the Tuscan port city, Livorno. It is here that wandering loner Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) has his brief encounter with local introvert Natalia (Maria Schell), who is plagued by the potential love of a man (Jean Marais) existing only in her memories and dreams. The fleeting ardor between Mario and Natalia takes a continual two steps forward and one step back; it’s a genuine, staggered momentum that keeps their courtship concentrated and intimate. Mastroianni is delightful, downright giddy at times, which is a charming contrast to Schell’s sweet, timid reserve. Both give subtle, spirited performances, accentuated by her effervescent smile, inviting with the utmost delicacy, and his physical exuberance, dancing to Bill Haley’s “Thirteen Women” with unabashed jauntiness.
As opposed to nearly every other Visconti film, though, even his methodically reconstructed historical dramas still solidified by valid locales, White Nights is the ultimate in soundstage artifice. “It must look as if it were fake,” Visconti said, “but when you start to think it’s fake, it must look as if it were real.”9 To meet this criterion, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno deploys an abundance of intricate lighting formations, layers of shadow and texture, reflective surfaces, and a flurry of luminous snowfall. Similarly accented by Mario Chiari’s exhaustive set design, and Nino Rota’s quixotic score, Visconti cultivates White Nights at a wholly unique pace, engrossing and immersive like a dream. From his neorealist roots to these back-to-back stylisations, Visconti’s aesthetic advancement proved to be one of diversity, confidence and competence. “Unlike Roberto Rossellini or Michelangelo Antonioni, he has no room for hesitancy or doubt,” writes Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. “Everything Visconti shows he affirms as being real, emphatically present rather than just a glimpsed possibility. … [I]n Le notti bianche, the balance is perfect. The fine detail of the settings and the steady buildup of the characters give substance and consistency to what could have been a very flimsy story, without sacrificing the magical, dreamlike atmosphere of the original.” 10
With this formal and narrative balance in mind, Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers 1960) is a return to the topical terrain of modern-day, unadorned Italy, grounded in a hard reality concerning the socioeconomic divides that demarcate Italian culture. As models for the migration of rural southerners to Italy’s industrial cities in the north, the Milan-bound Parondi family is led by mother Rosaria (Katina Paxinou), and consists of five sons, including the titular Rocco (Alain Delon) and another, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), who is already established in the city and is about to marry when the rest of his family arrives. The move generates one clash after another – cultural, economic, and romantic. It is a shock transition for Rocco and his family, and each are in their own way susceptible to corruption, gullibility, and earnest, if heedless, enthusiasm. Perhaps most significantly, there is the appearance of a prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot), who enraptures more than one brother and represents an unapologetic figure of the modern metropolis, expressing a stimulating allure than is vexing and exotic. Through the course of its multilayered chronicle, Rocco and His Brothers achieves what would be the fullest realisation to this point of Visconti’s defining refrains, namely the divisions between families and generations, between burdens and responsibilities, and between acquiescence and a refusal to submit. Out of place and of another time, like many a Visconti protagonist, Rocco is a saint, says brother Ciro (Max Cartier), “but this is the real world.”
Rocco and His Brothers has a gritty, stark, and kinetic validity, showcasing contemporary characteristics both good and bad. It is a vast and dense illustration of necessity and sin, but it also harks back to neorealist material; some have legitimately seen it almost as a sequel to La terra trema, a what-happens-next for that film’s fishing kin.11 Its locations are tangible, and its fundamental concerns are relatable issues of morality, sacrifice, and tender, twisting family dynamics. A shocking rape and murder, however, were enough to raise the ire of governmental officials who condemned the film, subsequently seized the picture, and demanded cuts to objectionable content. Whatever the constitutional outcry may have been, and wherever one situates the film, as a neorealist re-working or operatic tragedy – it can be more accurately seen as an enlightening happy mid-point between the two – Rocco and his Brothers is in many ways, as Gaia Servadio observes, “Visconti’s most difficult child.” “Likewise,” she writes, “he loved it best: too much went into it, too many ideas and material to make it into a totally successful film, but it is a grand statement.” 12
Before returning to the same antique arena as Senso, Visconti took part in another anthology. Il Lavoro (“Work” or “The Job”), his contribution to Boccaccio ’70 (1962), concerns a scandal-prone count, played by Tomas Milian, and his jaded wife, played by Romy Schneider. The short submission was shot in a single location (and was still the most expensive of the collection’s three titles according to producer Carlo Ponti).13 On the one hand, it is a shameless showcase for the banter between two attractive people in an ornate environment, but it is also, Bacon notes, like most of Visconti’s films in that “sexuality and material possessions are depicted in a hopeless tangle. […] But this time even the illusion of love is shattered.”14 Unfortunately, this jaundiced chamber drama feels soulless. Even most of the comedy, in the words of Nowell-Smith, “arises from the grotesque seriousness of the negotiations. Both the couple and their advisors act with an inhuman and humorless solemnity throughout.”15
Infinitely more satisfying is Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963), based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa and adapted by a team of Visconti’s regular co-writers. It begins in the Sicily of 1860, when the prayers of a titled family are interrupted by the discovery of a corpse in their garden, a royalist soldier who reached the villa grounds of Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster). War has broken out between the king’s army and insurgent redshirts led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, but how this struggle hits home – how the outside world invades an insular existence, how an antiquated presence responds to revolutionary fervor – is the more prescient and profound premise of the film. Welcoming the changing times with youthful dash and indecision to match, the prince’s nephew, Tancredi (Delon), eagerly joins the resistance, while the prince, who identifies with the objective of his relative and supplies monetary and moral support, remains hesitantly and thoughtfully resigned to the status quo. This generally innocuous tenacity, more figurative than it is disruptive, places scenes of disorder and fiery furore against scenes of holiday retreats and romance amongst the wreckage.
After Visconti was told he again needed a star, producers chose Burt Lancaster without the director’s consent. The imperious ruling caused some initial friction on set, but the discord was swiftly alleviated by what turned out to be ideal casting and a performance for the ages. Lancaster exemplifies dignified confidence. His character has an amiable wry humour (particularly with his priest confidante) and he expresses one of The Leopard’s pivotal keynotes, that of involvement versus passivity. Don Fabrizio is not simply caught up in a time of national crisis, he is cognizant of its implications, with a savvy understanding and a notable ambivalence. He sees the eagerness of Tancredi and his cohorts, but he still accepts (and expects) exceptions to the consuming radicalism. Fabrizio’s existential quandary reaches its zenith during The Leopard’s sumptuous ballroom conclusion. Compared to the film’s erstwhile open-air elegance, this sequence is stuffy and oppressive, but symbolic in the highest order. What was originally an interior monologue in Lampedusa’s novel, and just 28 pages out of 270, is here a vital expression of Visconti’s artistry and the prince’s transitional temperament; if nothing else, its importance is suggested by its own ratio of 46 minutes within a 185-minute film. As the embodiment of The Leopard’s dying age – the film’s most insightful line is Tancredi’s claim, “For things to remain the same, everything must change” – Fabrizio recognises the frivolity of his social circle but laments its dwindling survival. “I belong to an unfortunate generation,” he states, “straddling two worlds and ill at ease in both.”
The past and present also collide in 1965’s Sandra, Visconti’s loose retelling of the Electra story, though here it is the past that seizes the present. The social circle that opens this picture, showing the swanky bearing of Sandra (Claudia Cardinale) and her husband, Andrew (Michael Craig), is transient and soon upset by a scenic shift and a problematic ethical and cultural severance. Sandra is almost instantly stricken with emotion when she arrives at her ancestral home in Volterra, a quaint departure from the film’s introductory modish hub, but it is the reunion with her brother, Gianni (Jean Sorel), that prompts an entrenched psychological transition. The two are united to memorialise the Nazi-sanctioned death of their Jewish father, soon to be commemorated by the community. One layer of underlying conflict revolves around Sandra and Gianni’s mother (Marie Bell) and stepfather (Renzo Ricci), who supposedly conspired and denounced the deceased, while a second layer rehashes the dormant, dubious bond between the two siblings.
Setting, so imperative to every Visconti film, takes on reflective significance, with the family’s furtive castle home becoming almost like a living, breathing entity. Seeming to feed the unease and literally concealing secrets, it is resonant and foreboding; there is, Sandra says, a “phantom in this house.” Sandra, also known by its original title, Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa…, and the more salacious Sandra of a Thousand Delights, is rife with small-town scandal and the upsetting of bourgeois convention, all of which is bolstered by the details of the holocaust and the awkward incestuous intimacy. The picture’s focus on preserving memories while others are best left forgotten, enacted within this residence of repression, comes to a fitting head when the long-gestating animosity leads to a brute showdown in one of the dwelling’s great halls, a symbiotic collision of place and people.
Cardinale is sensual and fierce, and after having already appeared in Rocco and His Brothers and impressing in The Leopard, her star was irrefutably on the ascent. This makes for a fitting transition to Le streghe (The Witches), a 1967 Dino De Laurentiis production and another anthology of short films from different directors. Not unlike Bellisima, Visconti’s contribution, La strega bruciata viva (The Witch Burned Alive), concerns the form and function of a movie star, in this case played by Silvana Mangano. And in a continuation of this earlier feature, celebrity becomes commodity, a product compared to canned meat and produce, and Visconti’s film is itself a similarly envisioned construction: gaudy and glitzy, emphasising banality, fragility, and pretense.
For his 1967 adaptation of Albert Camus’ 1942 novel The Stranger, Visconti reunited with another star on the rapid rise: Mastroianni plays Arthur Meursault, a middle-class clerk in 1930s Algiers. The critical events that shape his destiny are the death of his mother, which occurs before the film begins, and his curiously indifferent killing of an Arab man. The former fails to generate from Arthur the requisite sympathy, and his apathy after the murder proves fatal. A change in family relations is the ostensible impetus for what occurs in Il straniero (The Stranger), which supports a classic Visconti motif, but more meaningful and equally in tune with his recurring thematic foundation is the confounding representation of an unreceptive outsider failing to acknowledge, adhere to, or simply care about established views and customs. Arthur lives at an empirical remove, appearing callous and not meeting the perceived expectations of a son, a member of society (his atheism earns him the moniker “Mr. Anti-Christ”), and, though less ardently, as a lover (his hasty relationship with Anna Karina’s Marie Cardona is likewise grounds for scorn in the court of law and public opinion). And yet, though hardened and out of step with reigning behavioral norms, Arthur is true to himself and sure to the end.
At the strict behest of Camus’ widow, The Stranger was an intensely faithful adaptation of its source, and Visconti efficiently conveys the author’s central struggle to find meaning in a world where there may not be any, and then to accept that fact. But what Visconti contributes more perceptively is an intoxicating ambiance, a stifling pressure cooker enhanced by shrewdly-suggested political enmity. Such a tonal tautness would not only be magnified in Visconti’s next film, but any sense of subtlety would be roundly removed. The Damned (1969) takes the lavish ornamentation seen elsewhere in Visconti’s work and drenches it in debauchery and decay. In a familiar allegorical mould, the film follows emblematic figures in a time of tremendous cultural shift, and like The Leopard with its representative types in religious and political circles and in the disparate realms of the traditional and the modern, the Essenbecks of The Damned are distinct personalities of German industrialism, living under the sway of a burgeoning Nazi party.
Under the opening credits, smelting steel plant fires singe the screen in hellish shades of things to come, foreshadowing the furious vehemence that will illuminate the film: the Reichstag burning that occurs as the picture begins, the cooperation and murderous conspiracy of its midsection, and the monumental bloodbath that was the Night of the Long Knives. The Damned bristles with dynastic power struggles and a familial cohesion breached by selfish infighting and political persuasion. Featuring a host of acting luminaries like Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Charlotte Rampling and, in an auspicious early role, Helmut Berger, The Damned submits voracious, contagious power, where the promise of authority is all-consuming and overwhelming, where wealth is tainted by fascism and professional and personal alliances are routinely subject to deceit. This contention assumes global repercussions when the Essenbeck family becomes, like The Leopard’s Salina clan was for 19th century Italy, localised paradigms of national turmoil. 16
Permeated with paedophilia, incest, orgies, and bloody massacres, The Damned initially received an “X” rating by the MPAA (and inadvertently helped spur on a string of lurid, far less accomplished Nazi-themed exploitation films). And yet, not only was the film widely acclaimed, even earning an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, as critics have pointed out, something about the decadence is hard to resist; it has, as Henry Bacon observes, a “sinister beauty”.17 The cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi transfers the horror and hostility by way of vibrant, saturating reds and oranges, and ashen exteriors that exude an atmosphere of devastation and endangerment. The Damned combines garish concentration with the delirious hues of fear, suspicion, and irredeemable hate. By the ghastly end, the “heightened naturalism shades into expressionism. The characters, having lose their autonomy, become masks, and what began as tragedy ends as grotesque.”18
As gloriously excessive as The Damned is, Morte in Venezia (Death in Venice), Visconti’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, is subdued, somber, and elusive. Bogarde stars as composer Gustav von Aschenbach, who travels to the eponymous city to recuperate from a recent illness. He is withdrawn and meek, but a young boy with golden locks stimulates something deep within the ageing musician and there is an instant infatuation. Aschenbach is haunted by the child’s periodic presence, and what he believes to be his teasing provocations, but rather than interact directly, he is left to furtively observe. Decorum and decency prompt his inaction and his unspoken fixation, based as much on the boy’s youthful buoyance as any physical attraction, gives way to anxious, meditative longings.
Death in Venice is a painstaking realisation of Aschenbach’s distraught deterioration, and Bogarde performs the process with patient diffidence. Ensconced in effusive period detail and the melancholic accompaniment of Gustav Mahler, Death in Venice proceeds with extended passages of little to no relevant dialogue, and within this stately encasement, Bogarde’s interpretative performance is astonishingly gripping; so many single shots are dependent on the subtle impression of Aschenbach’s increasingly disorienting perception, his inability to articulate or engage with this enticing, forbidden desire. Softhearted and pathetic, his internalised passions are further hampered by his frail condition, a vulnerability that coalesces in the film’s devastating conclusion.
The physiological disposition and dissipation of a single character carries over to Ludwig, Visconti’s ambitious 1973 feature about the life and death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Starring Berger, who was quickly becoming a favourite companion of Visconti’s (both on screen and off), the epic begins in 1864, with the newly-crowned 18-year-old monarch. Less interested in his sovereign duties than his support for composer Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard), his exorbitant lifestyle, and his uneasy relationships with two key females characters – the Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), and her sister, Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) – Ludwig’s short-lived rise is precipitated by a protracted descent into madness and physical collapse. By film’s end, while others remain steadfast in their unyielding loyalty, many who are bothered by his “unsound mind” have systematically conspired to usurp Ludwig’s command, and ultimately do so, moving beyond his capacity.
Clocking in at nearly four hours in its complete version (like other Visconti titles, multiple edits exist), Ludwig forms the final part of Visconti’s “German Trilogy,” along with The Damned and Death in Venice. It is like the former in its multifaceted plot and decorous design, particularly Visconti’s characteristically detailed rigour, but is rather like the latter insofar as its deliberate pace is marked by periods of evocative silence and caustic behaviour. In many ways something of a greatest hits for Visconti, Ludwig is likewise based on thematic consistencies concerning individual liberation, the detachment from a certain social set, and the refusal to tolerate a public or political façade. Within an accustomed regal framework of political intrigue, Ludwig is an extravagant portrait of a great man in the making and unmaking, blessed with wealth and plagued by debilitating debt.
During the filming of Ludwig, Visconti suffered a stroke that left him nearly paralysed. At times confined to a wheelchair, logistical concerns played a part in the consideration of his next film, Conversation Piece, based on a story by Enrico Medioli. Taking place almost entirely in a single apartment, this 1974 film stars Burt Lancaster as a solitary academic who inadvertently becomes embroiled in the affairs of an Italian marchioness (Silvana Mangano), her lover (Berger), daughter (Claudia Marsani), and her daughter’s boyfriend (Stefano Patrizi). Convinced to rent them an apartment above his, the routine existence of this nameless professor is relentlessly thwarted by the family’s chaos. The “conversation piece” of the film’s title refers to a genre of painting in which a group of individuals are shown in their customary surroundings, fitting enough for Visconti and his penchant for the interplay between people and setting, but ironic for the professor, who remains in willful isolation.
The refinement ruptured by audacity and rudeness is not merely a brash affront to the sophisticated backdrop, meticulously planned by Visconti and his team of designers; it is a substantial blow to the professor’s way of life, and yet he can not help but be spellbound by the family’s taboo-breaking imprudence. This sensation is encapsulated in a scene where Lancaster (who agreed to the role without reading the script and agreed to take over direction should Visconti’s health fail) sits alone and wistfully listens to the noises of others around him. It is the dawn of his revitalisation, when he is taken out of his position as pensive spectator and becomes a reluctant participant.
Based on the Gabriele d’Annunzio novel The Intruder, Visconti’s final film, Innocente (The Innocent, 1976), follows the inflamed engagements of Roman aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini), his wife, Giuliana (Laura Antonelli), his mistress, Teresa (Jennifer O’Neill), and Giuliana’s own lover, Filippo d’Aborio (Marc Porel). Tullio’s chauvinism engenders him as a most unlikable protagonist; he is pompous, hypocritical, and reckless, and when Giuliana’s affair results in her pregnancy, and the child signifies tormenting infidelity, he defers to an act of unfathomable cruelty. The heady tragedy unfolds in an arena of splendid refinement, with capricious emotions to equal the decorative trimming. This congruence is key, for as Bacon notes, “The persuasive power of Visconti’s rethinking of The Innocent derives from the sensitivity and nuance with which the characters are realised through their acting and their relationships with the décor.”19 That association is made explicit when Teresa says Tullio’s house “looks like him,” that it has everything there is in him that is good and, he interrupts, bad. The same scenic import applies to Sandra, it applies to Conversation Piece, and it certainly applies to The Innocent. Indeed, in most of Visconti’s films, writes Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “the precise geographical and historical setting is as significant for our understanding of the work as the kind of themes that emerge from the story and way it is told.”20
Proceeding at an unhurried measure, The Innocent also typifies the way Visconti could be romantic without being overblown, demonstrative without being histrionic, immoderate without being extraneous. Comprehensive in conception and narrow in narrative application, Visconti’s work can at times attain a daunting length and overwhelming scope, but that structural window affords him time to amplify the picturesque vitality of each film, to construct a picture in severe blacks and whites or dazzling colour, and to present a world teeming with volatile juxtapositions: individuality and inevitability, ruin and renewal, gravity and humour, familial allegiance and moral degeneracy. To express these recurrent disputes, Visconti seldom opted for what could be termed sheer entertainment, though he did profess a preference for full-throated melodrama, which he located “at the borders of life and theatre.”21 That position allowed him a perspective ideal for the scrutinization of imperial society, doing so with a degree of personal validation and elegiac sincerity. “His ivory tower always had all its doors and windows wide open,” writes Monica Stirling, “and he himself was as conscious of what was in the air as an animal before an earthquake.”22
It was a sense of history that inspired Visconti’s “poetic realism,” as Stirling puts it, 23 as well as his fastidious attention to wholesale nostalgia. And it all comes back to influence. What informed the cinema of Luchino Visconti came from an immense European catalogue of inspiration, taking shape in a cinematic hybrid of music, theatre, and opera. But when asked which of these forms he preferred, the answer only affirmed his proclivity for aesthetic variation. “When I’m directing an opera, I dream about a film, when I’m working on a film, I dream about an opera, and when I’m doing a play, I’m dreaming about music. Working in another field is a change, a rest.” More than anything, though, there should be contentment. “You must always work with pleasure,” he said. “The work is bad if you do not do it with pleasure.” 24
Ossessione (Obsession, 1943) also writer
Giorni di gloria (Days of Glory, 1945)
La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) also writer
Bellissima (1951) also writer
Appunti su un fatto di cronaca (1953)
Siamo donne (We, the Women, 1953, segment Anna Magnani) also writer
Senso (1954) also writer
Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957) also writer
Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) also writer
Boccaccio ’70 (1962, segment Il lavoro) also writer
Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963) also writer
Vaghe stelle dell’Orsa… (Sandra, 1965) also writer
Le streghe (The Witches, 1967, segment La strega bruciata viva)
Lo straniero (The Stranger, 1967) also writer
La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1969) also writer
Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971) also writer and producer
Ludwig (1973) also writer
Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974) also writer
L’innocente (1976) also writer
Bacon, Henry. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.)
Düttmann, Alexander García. Visconti: Insights into Flesh and Blood. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.)
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Luchino Visconti. (London: The British Film Institute, 2003.)
Servadio, Gaia. Luchino Visconti: A Biography. (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983.)
Stirling, Monica. A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
To Shoot at the Impassive Stillness: Marcello Mastroianni in Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger (Lo straniero, 1967), by Joanna Di Mattia http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/cteq/the-stranger/
The Contiguous World of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), by John Edmond http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/cteq/the-leopard/
Chrono-Maps: The Time of the South in Antonio Gramsci, Luchino Visconti, and Emanuele Crialese, by Lorenzo Fabbri http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/feature-articles/chrono-maps-the-time-of-the-south-in-antonio-gramsci-luchino-visconti-and-emanuele-crialese/
Visconti Revisited Take 2: Luchino Visconti by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, by Benjamin Halligan http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/book-reviews/visconti_bfi/
“I’m No Lady” and the Tramp: Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas http://sensesofcinema.com/2016/cteq/ossessione/
Visconti’s Cinema of Twilight, by Maximilian Le Cain http://sensesofcinema.com/2001/feature-articles/visconti/
Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland – Luchino Visconti and White Nights, by David Melville http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/29173/
The Incompossible Language of Natural Aristocracy: Deleuze’s Misreading of Visconti’s The Leopard, by Lucio Angelo Privitello http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/feature-articles/leopard/
- Henry Bacon, Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.), p. 2. ↩
- Gaia Servadio, Luchino Visconti: A Biograph (New York: Franklin Watts, 1983.), p. 78. ↩
- Servadio, Visconti, op. cit., p. 109. ↩
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti (London: The British Film Institute, 2003), p. 36. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 40. ↩
- Monica Stirling, A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 87. ↩
- Servadio, Visconti, op. cit., p. 130. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 7. ↩
- David Melville, “Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland – Luchino Visconti and White Nights”, http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/cteq/29173/ ↩
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Le notti bianche,” Criterion Collection, July, 2005, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/374-le-notti-bianche ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 123. ↩
- Servadio, Visconti, op. cit., p. 167. ↩
- Bacon, Visconti, op. cit., p. 144. ↩
- Ibid., p. 144. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 58. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 154. ↩
- Bacon, Visconti, op. cit., p. 155. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 150. ↩
- Bacon, Visconti, p. 219. ↩
- Nowell-Smith, Visconti, op. cit., p. 11. ↩
- Bacon, Visconti, op. cit., p. 62. ↩
- Stirling, A Screen of Time, op. cit., p. 36. ↩
- Ibid., p. 159. ↩
- Quoted in Servadio, Visconti, op. cit., p. 182. ↩