Classic of the week – Senso

Luchino Visconti  1954

Operatic is the only word for this stunning film, Visconti’s first in colour. If its flamboyant world of high melodrama, luscious colour and unbridled emotion takes a little while adjusting to, it’s amazing how soon one is swept up in its febrile charms.

Set during Italy’s struggle for independence and unification the 1860s, it’s grand opera without the songs, beginning appropriately in La Fenice in Venice at a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. From the patriotism on stage – Verdi’s name was taken up as a clarion call for a united state, standing for Vittore Emanuele Re D’Italia (Victor Emanuel King of Italy) – nationalist fervour breaks out in the auditorium. How impossibly gorgeous the opera house looks – when the burnt out building was being rebuilt in the 1990s, architects consulted this film to help in its restoration. The magnificent Alida Valli is Contessa Livia, a fervent nationalist, who falls madly, destructively in love with an officer of the occupying Austrian army, and betrays not only her dull as ditchwater husband but her family, her country, and her own beliefs. Farley Granger plays Franz, the unprincipled officer, and, two years after Strangers on a Train, excels again as a weak character, here adding a wheedling slyness and eventually a self-hatred. He doesn’t half look good in uniform, too. It’s a credit to both their performances that this preposterous amour fou convinces against all the odds.

The music of Bruckner accompanies the action, providing a throbbing background to scenes of highly charged emotion, rising to heart-stopping crescendos at dramatic points. Outside the baroque drapes and glittering corridors of the grand interiors, location work in the countryside around Verona, where under-equipped Italians desperately try to hold out against the Austrians at the Battle of Custoza, shows the strength of Visconti’s neo-realist roots. Zeffirelli and Francesco Rosi were both assistant directors on the film, and how much they must have learnt that contributed to their very different subsequent careers.

Just as in Gone with the Wind, personal tragedies are played out against public disaster, and self-centred passion against political ideals. The treacherous behaviour of Livia represents the betrayal and self–interest of the aristocracy over the decent and idealistic lower classes, says the communist Visconti, while his high-born roots make us nonetheless enter into the sensual and luxurious world she inhabits and feel drawn into her crazy passion, even while clearly seeing the despicable nature of her lover. You know only bad can come of it, and it certainly does, for idealists and sensualists alike, both on the battlefield and in an anarchic post-battle Verona where the abandoned Livia, taunted by drunken soldiers, wanders the dark streets seeking a love she knows she cannot ever find. Then vengeance.

Abandon yourself to the film’s voluptuous charms and the sensory delights of its colour, music and passion, either at home with a glass or two of red wine, or better still, if you can track it down somewhere on the big screen, where it can engulf you.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, 26 April 2009




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