Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Luchino Visconti & Suso Cecchi D’Amico (based on the novella by Camillo Boito; dialogue collaboration by Tennessee Williams & Paul Bowles)
Stars: Alida Valli (Countess Livia Serpieri), Farley Granger (Lt. Franz Mahler), Heinz Moog (Count Serpieri), Rina Morelli (Laura, the maid), Massimo Girotti (Roberto Ussoni), Christian Marquand (Un ufficiale boemo), Sergio Fantoni (Luca), Tino Bianchi (Captain Meucci), Ernst Nadherny (Il comandante della piazza di Verona), Tonio Selwart (Colonel Kleist), Marcella Mariani (Clara)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1954
Country: Italy
Senso Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
SensoYou wouldn’t know it from Senso, a Technicolored visual feast in the grandest tradition of historical-epic melodrama, but director Luchino Visconti was one of the principle architects of Italian neorealism in the 1940s. In fact, his 1942 film Ossessione, an unauthorized adaptation of the American novelist James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, is generally considered neorealism’s most important forerunner (its dark, earthy sensuality and focus on human corruption earned it Mussolini’s ire). He also directed La terra trema (1948), which was shot entirely on location in a small Sicilian fishing village with local nonactors and is generally considered one of the finest of the neorealist masterworks.

Yet, when we think of Visconti today, neorealism is not the first word that springs to mind. Rather, it is decadent, lavish, operatic, or melodramatic, all of which could be used to describe Senso. A multi-million-dollar epic of great historical pageantry, Senso was Visconti’s fourth feature, but his first one in color and also one of the first color features made in Italy. Ever the perfectionist, Visconti went substantially over budget and over schedule in composing the film, creating a series of visceral, beautiful images that burn in the mind long after the film is over, whether it be the gorgeous blue-and-gold interiors of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice or lines of soldiers advancing in tandem across a field (Visconti’s two assistant directors were Francesco Rosi and Franco Zefferelli, both of whom would emerge in subsequent years as powerful artistic voices in their own right).

Thus, for many Senso is the very opposite of neorealism’s technological minimalism and narrative focus on the lives of ordinary Italians in the postwar years. Yet, it is precisely Visconti’s roots in neorealism that makes Senso work so well, for beneath its gorgeous surfaces and sumptuous production design, it is at heart a profoundly moving story about the war between political commitment and romantic yearning. In other words, it is profoundly human. Visconti is clearly working in a different register, one that is arguably more attuned to his aristocratic background and work as a theater and opera director (it is not incidental that he begins the film during a production of Verdi’s Il trovatore). And, while his melodrama is certainly pitched high, it still transcends formula and cliché with the sheer ferocity of its emotional punch. The worst melodrama allows you to sit back and observe the interpersonal turmoil; the best makes you feel it in your gut.

The story takes place in and around Venice during the Risorgimento, a decades-spanning political and social revolution that culminated in the unification of Italy in 1861. The protagonist is Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), whose husband, the much older Count Serpieri (Heinz Moog), happily collaborates with the occupying Austrians. Livia, who is very much her own woman, does not share her husband’s political expediency, and instead helps her cousin, Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), one of the leaders of the underground resistance. However, Livia’s commitment to the cause is tested when she finds herself falling in love with Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), a handsome young Austrian lieutenant who, ironically, was likely responsible for Roberto being exiled. She and Franz fall into a torrid affair (whose ironic echoes of Romeo and Juliet are enhanced by regular references to the nearby city of Verona), one that is not stayed even when full war breaks out between the Italian resistance and the Austrian army and Livia and the Count must flee Venice and take refuge in a country villa.

Senso was not particularly well received by Italian critics and audiences when it was first released, and it was not seen at all in the United States until the late 1960s because Visconti’s association with communism made his work virtually impossible to distribute during the McCarthy era, which essentially nullified the purpose of casting Farley Granger, an American star who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray, as Franz, as well as Visconti’s hiring of playwright Tennessee Williams to help pen the English-language dialogue. Many critics saw the film as too consumed with material surfaces, as if there were no actual hearts beating beneath all those gorgeous ballroom gowns and sharp military uniforms. The film critic John Simon, who was one of Visconti’s harshest detractors, summarized this view with a particularly succinct nastiness when he described Visconti as “a clever poseur exuding a certain type of homosexual sensibility--all gorgeous costuming, lush décor, melodramatic attitudinizing, and very little substance or depth.”

The problem with such critiques of Visconti’s work, especially his later films, is that they tend to confuse the subject with the technique. As the film scholar Guido Aristarco has noted, there is a difference between a film being “decadentist” and a film being “about decadence.” As he argued, “The film’s refined elegance, much vilified for appearing to idealize and mourn an oppressive class, underscored the decadence of that world,” which makes Visconti both a “poet of decadence” and also one of its strongest critics. It is not without great meaning that decadence in Visconti’s films frequently leads to his characters’ demise (we see this in its most lavish form in 1969’s The Damned, which is the Visconti film that comes the closest to being pure camp).

Visctonti’s tortured feelings about the decadence of the ruling classes is put into sharp relief in Senso, as Livia’s obsessive, amorous relationship with Franz undercuts her more rational side, leading to increasingly selfish decisions that put others in danger and imperil the cause of Italian freedom. The decadence in Senso is not so much the material wealth that surrounds Livia and the other characters, but rather her emotional decadence, the manner in which she throws all caution to the wind and sets herself on a direct road to personal destruction. The manner in which Visconti leads us to believe that his film is celebrating such headstrong romanticism makes the tragedy in Senso all the more devastating. The rug is pulled out from under us along with Livia, forcing us to reconcile that thin line between love and death, commitment and insanity.

Senso Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Senso is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioItalian Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • The Wanton Countess English-language version of the film
  • “The Making of Senso” retrospective documentary
  • “Viva VERDI” documentary
  • Visual essay by film scholar Peter Cowie
  • Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti, a 1966 BBC program
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker and author Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from actor Farley Granger’s autobiography Include Me Out
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 22, 2011

    For decades now, viewers have been unable to fully appreciate the visual power of Senso because the three-strip Technicolor negatives had shrunk and warped, resulting in significant registration problems that even the best chemical restoration was unable to fully fix. However, a few years ago Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation collaborated with Cineteca di Bologna under the supervision of cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno to enact a full digital restoration using a 1954 positive print and a print made from the 2001 photochemical restoration, which corrected the registration errors and brought the film back to its fully glory. The 1080p high-definition image on Criterion’s Blu-Ray was taken directly from this 2K digital restoration, which allows us to fully appreciate the scope of the film’s beauty. The gaudy Technicolor looks gorgeous, if slightly more muted that you might expect, and the image is quite sharp and well-detailed, although by contemporary standards it will still seem a bit soft, especially in long shots, an unavoidable consequence of trying to line up three negatives. The digital restoration has also produced an incredibly clean image, with virtually no signs of dirt, age, or wear. The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm positive print made from the original soundtrack negative. Despite the limitations of a single channel, it still sounds as lush and full as the film itself, with virtually no ambient hiss or aural artifacts.
    Criterion has included a number of short documentaries in lieu of a feature-length commentary, the most interesting of which is a 28-minute visual essay by film scholar Peter Cowie. As always, Cowie provides a great deal of aesthetic insight and historical background to help put the film in its proper context. “The Making of Senso” is a new half-hour documentary that is primarily composed of interviews with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (who was actually the third man to take the job), assistant director Francesco Rosi, costume designer Piero Tosi, and Caterina D’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico and author of The Life and Work of Luchino Visconti. “Viva VERDI” is yet another new half-hour documentary, this one focusing on the interconnections between Visconti’s work on Senso and his work as an opera director. From the vaults Criterion has procured Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti, a 50-minute BBC program from 1966 that explores Visconti’s work in cinema, theater, and opera. And last, but certainly not least, Criterion has included The Wanton Countess, a 90-minute, English-language version of the film that apparently played in British theaters and also possibly on American television. The image quality of the film is nowhere near Senso’s, especially after its restoration, but the opportunity to see this rarely screened version of the film is a real treat, especially since it allows us to hear Alida Valli and Farley Granger’s English dialogue as it was originally recorded during production.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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