Senso: Criterion Collection
February 18, 2011
Despite the presence of Hollywood actor Farley Granger and European movie star Alida Valli, Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) was not given a proper theatrical release in the United States until 1968 – more than ten years after it was made and given a bad review by The New York Times. Originally, Visconti wanted Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in the lead roles but she was unavailable and the producers rejected him. The film was supposed to shoot for three months but this stretched into nine and ended up bankrupting the production company that backed it, much like Visconti’s later film The Leopard (1963). Senso was not well-received by critics in its native country who felt that it went against the neorealist tradition. Like all great films, it has endured and is now widely regarded as a classic of Italian cinema.
It is the spring of 1866 and the last months of the Austrian occupation of the Veneto. Prussia and the Italian government have made a pact and the war of liberation is at hand. The film begins in an opera house and right away we are immersed in its opulent architecture brought vividly to life in Technicolor. During the intermission, Italian nationalists shower the place with leaflets and proclaim their independence. Amidst the chaos, Countess Livia Serpieri (Valli) witnesses her cousin challenge an Austrian officer by the name of Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Granger) to a duel.
Hoping to save her cousin from the duel, Livia meets with the handsome Mahler and tries to change his mind. He is attracted to the beautiful aristocrat but the married woman spurns his invite to another night at the opera. They soon meet again and she rebuffs his charming flirtation. They walk through the deserted city streets late at night and she finds herself drawn to him the more they talk, both letting down their defenses. They soon begin a secret and very passionate affair.
Livia and Mahler epitomize the kind of doomed lovers that are the hallmarks of historical melodramas. They know that their forbidden love cannot last but they are consumed by their passions anyway. They live in the moment. Alida Valli, who rose to international stardom with The Third Man (1949), is excellent as the headstrong Countess. She carries herself as someone of royalty would but Valli also conveys the passion and vulnerability she feels while in Mahler’s presence. Livia knows that their affair is wrong and fleeting but she does not care because of how he makes her feel.
Senso is a classic historical drama with sweeping romance at its center. The actors are clad in fantastic period outfits and the attention to detail of the time is excellent. It doesn’t hurt that this is all accompanied by melodramatic classical music that swells during dramatic moments. Visconti’s film juxtaposes an intimate affair with the concerns of an entire country – what is one relationship compared to the fate of a nation?
The first disc features “The Making of Senso,” a 33-minute retrospective documentary that traces the film’s origins, from Camillo Boito’s novella to its hostile reaction by Italian film critics. Originally, the screenplay was very faithful to the source material but after going to the opera, Visconti radically changed the script. Surviving crew members tells filming anecdotes in this excellent featurette.
Also included is a visual essay by film scholar Peter Cowie in which he analyzes the film’s themes, the look and the soundtrack. He also provides fascinating biographical details on Visconti. Cowie even reads from the novella with clips from the film to illustrate how it was translated.
The second disc starts off with “The Wanton Countess,” the rarely seen English version of the film with translation by literary giants Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.
“Viva Verdi: Visconti and Opera” features film scholars discussing the influence of Visconti’s career as an opera director on his films. Senso starts with an opera and features heightened operatic emotions. He grew up with opera and it was integral part of his life.
“Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti” is a 48-minute BBC documentary on Visconti that explores his careers in film, theater and opera. There is some great vintage footage on the set of a film and clips of him at the Cannes Film Festival. This doc paints an excellent portrait of an intriguing renaissance man.