Released in 1954, Senso was Visconti’s fourth feature and is recognised as a milestone in the director’s career. Not only did it mark a decisive move away from the neo-realism of Ossessione (1942) and La terra trema (1948) but it was also the first work with which the director was able to combine his three main fields of artistic endeavour: theatre, opera and film.
In Leggere Visconti, Giuliana Callegari and Nuccio Lodato discuss Visconti’s work in the early 1950s, noting that the three-year period between the release of Bellissima (1951) and Senso marks the highpoint of his theatrical career (1). He mounted productions such as Goldoni’s The Mistress of the Inn in Venice and Chekov’s Three Sisters at Rome’s Teatro Eliseo but found that censorship problems stifled potential film projects. Screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico introduced Visconti to Senso, an 1883 novella by architect and writer Camillo Boito. Boito’s work (as well as that of his younger brother Arrigo) was often aligned to the “scapigliatura” movement of the mid to late 19th century. A group of bohemian artists and writers who rebelled against prevailing artistic modes and conventions, they favoured an experimental approach inspired by writers such as Heine, Poe and Baudelaire.
Senso is the story of Countess Livia Serpieri and her torrid affair with an Austrian lieutenant during the Italian Risorgimento. “The choice of Boito’s novella is, at first sight, surprising” notes Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “the tone of the story is cool, neo-classic and detached. The character of the Countess as revealed by interior monologue is inconsistent and lacking in depth.” (2) Visconti was however well aware of the novella’s scant literary worth and completely reworked it (3). He chose to widen out Boito’s narrow focus and put greater emphasis on the turbulent historical setting, offering a highly critical view of the Third War of Italian Independence while giving the film greater immediacy and drama. The director observed that:
In Ossessione, the love affair of the two protagonists led directly to the murder, a fatal solution to a conflict of interests and to a clash of two personalities. Here it is the military defeat, the choral tragedy of a lost battle that triumphs over the sordid outcome of a love affair. (4)
Historian Pierre Sorlin, in his discussion of filmic representations of the Risorgimento, has remarked on how Visconti’s adaptation of Senso sees “[a separation of] historical data (dates, partitions, treaties) from the particular destinies; the individuals are swept along by circumstances they do not understand, moving in the opposite direction to the one they intended” (5).
Senso was conceived as Visconti’s first colour production, and Mira Liehm has claimed it to be “the first Italian film to use colour to convey human emotions and to colour the landscape as these feelings change” (6). Cinematographer G. R Aldo had shot La terra trema as well as Vittorio De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951) and Umberto D. (1952), but was tragically killed in a road accident before he could finish work on Senso. The film’s cinematography was completed by Robert Krasker (who shot the remarkable opening scene in Venice’s Fenice Theatre) and Giuseppe Rotunno (who shot the final scenes and would go on to work with Visconti on four other films including Il gattopardo [The Leopard, 1963]).
The film uses colour expertly to articulate a series of moods and tones. From the operatic grandeur of the opening sequences to the fiery red interiors of Franz’s home in Verona to the more muted browns, blues and blacks of the film’s final scenes, Aldo, Krasker and Rotunno’s work is as much a masterclass in Technicolour as Russell Metty’s work on contemporaneous Sirkian melodramas such as Magnificent Obsession (1954).
Despite not being first-choices for Visconti (who had earmarked Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando for his lead roles), Alida Valli and Farley Granger deliver career-best performances. Valli, known as “Italy’s Sweetheart” after appearances in several white telephone films such as Max Neufeld’s Mille lire al mese (A Thousand Lire a Month, 1939), had reached an international audience thanks to David O. Selznick who cast her in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and – memorably – as the ballerina girlfriend of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Through Visconti’s direction, the Austrian-born actress brings a tormented elegance to the role of the Countess, adding depth to Boito’s self-absorbed protagonist (7). Granger’s performance as the pusillanimous, gleefully duplicitous Franz surpasses earlier roles in films such as Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).
Upon its release in 1954, Senso was heavily cut both in Italy – where the film’s depiction of the Italian army led to the intervention of the Ministry of Defence – and in the US where it was re-titled The Wanton Countess and featured dialogue by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. In recent years, it has been restored to its full glory and remains both a key film in the Viscontian oeuvre and a landmark of post-neo-realist Italian cinema.
- Giuliana Callegari and Nuccio Lodato, Leggere Visconti, Amministrazione Provinciale, Pavia, 1977, pp. 11-12.
- Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Luchino Visconti, Viking Press, New York, 1973, p. 80.
- Visconti was renowned for his literary adaptations but his relationship with literature went deeper than the slavish rendering of existing texts. His best films always took literary work(s) as a starting point. His process was one of re-writing, of re-imagining, rather than strict adaptation, Senso being a strong case in point.
- Visconti quoted in Laurence Schifano, Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion, Collins, London, 1990, p. 275.
- Pierre Sorlin, The Film in History: Restaging the Past, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1980, p. 131.
- Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy From 1942 to the Present, University of California Press, California, 1984, p. 150. Although this can certainly be argued about, it is interesting to note that it would take other Italian maestri such as Antonioni and Fellini another decade to make their own first colour films – Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) and Giulietta degli spiriti (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965) respectively.
- “I am one of the first ladies of Trento” the Countess reveals in Boito’s Senso, “I have no lack of admirers and, far from lessening, the envy of my dear women friends is ever mounting […]. They say that the purpose of philosophy is to know yourself. I have studied myself with such trepidation for so many years, hour by hour, minute by minute, that I believe I know myself through and through, and can declare myself an excellent philosopher.” Camillo Boito, “Senso”, Senso and Other Stories, trans. Christine Donougher, Dedalus, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 18-19.
Senso/The Wanton Contessa (1954 Italy 118 mins)
Prod Co: Lux Film Prod: Claudio Forges Davanzati Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Luchino Visconti, based on the novel by Camillo Boito Phot: G. R. Aldo, Robert Krasker Ed: Mario Serandrei Prod Des: Ottavio Scotti Mus: Anton Bruckner Assis Dir: Francesco Rosi, Franco Zeffirelli
Cast: Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti, Rina Morelli, Marcella Mariani, Heinz Moog, Christian Marquand