Ok, here’s my totally un-academic review of the Luchino Visconti classic Senso. Now this was one of those films which I felt a certain obligation to watch in order to broaden my knowledge of Italian cinema, but it was a task which I approached with as much trepidation as enthusiasm. I have ambiguous feelings about Visconti, who I find has a habit of making critic-friendly films that are often rather ponderous and lethargically paced. Some of his work is unquestionably exceptional – Rocco and his Brothers, for instance, is a brilliant piece of state-of-the-nation cinema – but all too often his undoubtedly beautiful looking films are something of an endurance test. Death in Venice, for instance, steps over the line between being stately and simply being boring, Ludwig is a challenge and even The Damned, which has all the ingredients of being a great film, has large stretches where your mind wanders to other matters.
As with many of his films, Senso is set against a backdrop of conflict, the dog days of the Austrian occupation of Venice during the 1860s (a similar time period to the setting of his highly respected and way too long The Leopard). The plot is essentially a romantic drama, very much in line with the operatic introduction which opens the film. When the headstrong Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti) challenges an Austrian officer, Mahler (Farley Granger) to a duel, his cousin, Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), tries to use her husband’s political position to prevent him being punished. He is sent into exile nonetheless. Despite wanting to hate Mahler, who she holds responsible, she finds herself falling in love with him instead, and before you know it the two of them are sneaking off to consummate their affair on a regular basis. After a while, though, Mahler stops replying her calls and simply disappears, so it looks very much as though he’s been taking advantage of her.
With the outbreak of war, the Serpieri’s move to their villa in the country and Livia slowly seems to be getting over her broken relationship. But then Mahler reappears, turning up on her balcony and blabbering on about how he’s only just realised how much he really loves her. For some reason she falls for this baloney and decides to let him hide out in the granary. And when he mentions a plan to bribe a doctor and be declared unfit for military service, she hands over all her jewels without a second thought to finance his cowardly scheme.
As you’d expect, Senso looks absolutely wonderful. It has that immaculately colourful look of many 1950s productions, and the cinematography is faultless. It does retain a slightly stagey feel, revealing Visconti’s theatrical and operatic background and marking him out as a very different, more classical (but old fashioned director) than the likes of Federico Fellini and Pietro Germi, who were taking the advances of neo-realism and using them in new ways. Apart from a couple of exterior shots, some technical advances and a higher budget, this could easily have been filmed twenty years earlier. There are some fabulous moments: the night-time walk through the Venetian streets taken by Livia and Mahler; the sequences in which Ussoni tries to reach the Serpieri’s villa (possibly the slowest-paced battle sequences ever film, Visconti could never be accused of being an action director); Livia stumbling through a Verona full of drunken soldiers (which resembles your average English town on a Saturday night). And, fortunately, the running length of just under two hours is just about manageable. It drags at times, of course, but nothing like as much as most of Visconti’s later films.
Although it’s a tragedy rather than a melodrama – the genre of the day in Italy – it shares with the melodramas a similarly heightened style; it’s full of exaggerated performances and extreme emotions, as well as a sense that the characters are drifting towards some kind of pre-destined fate. The script, however, does have some problems. The dialogue is occasionally too verbose, more appropriate for a play than a stage, certain plot elements are tossed aside with abandon and the central love affair is never entirely believable. Mahler is such a cocksure, arrogant tosser that it’s hard to believe that anyone could actually fall for the guy, and the fact that Livia does so makes it all feel rather manipulative, as though it’s merely a way of the scriptwriters propelling her towards her unhappy ending.
Partly, however, that may come out of the performance of Farley Granger. Granger’s not a bad actor, and from a technical perspective his performance is pretty good, but he is in no way a romantic lead. There always seems to be something perverse about him, which may have been perfect for the part on paper, but it doesn’t quite work; a more traditional, heroic type performer may have worked better. Alida Valli is great, if sometimes rather over the top, and this was her last appearance before her career was temporarily destroyed by scandal.
And Valli wasn’t the only person involved with the film to suffer from serious misfortune: Cinematographer Aldo Graziati died in a car crash during the shoot, while actress Macella Mariani, a former Miss Italy who plays one of Mahler’s floozies, died in an airplane crash 1955, at the age of 19.