Luchino Visconti's "Senso" (1954) is a tale of mad love. And when I say mad, I mean bugs are crawling on my flesh, my dog keeps staring at me, they're stealing my magic bag, bat guano insane.
The year is 1866 and the Austrians occupy Venice, but freedom fighters are poised to drive them out in the final stages of the century-long movement now known as the Risorgimento, the gradual unification of Italy. Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli, best known from "The Third Man") is married to a dullard who collaborates with the Austrians, but she considers herself a patriot and a clandestine booster of underground soldiers like her cousin Roberto Ussini (Massimo Girotti). She is devastated when Ussini is sent into exile after an altercation with an Austrian officer. When she confronts the officer, fate has a nasty surprise for her. On a late evening stroll, she falls head over heels in love with him. The officer in question, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) returns her affection and their torrid affair threatens not only to destroy their films, but to undermine the resistance effort itself.
From its opening scene, filmed in the Teatro La Fenice in Venice during a performance of the Verdi opera "Il trovatore," this Technicolor spectacle situates itself on a grand stage. This sweeping melodrama is filled to overflowing with lavish costumes, meticulously decorated sets, and heated emotional confrontations. Valli's performance is described on the DVD blurb as "fearless" which is usually a synonym for "big," and indeed it is. The deeper her obsession with Franz grows, the more hysterical she becomes, her eyes threatening to burst out of her skull as if she had been thrust into the vacuum of space. Livia, against her better judgment (and even her worse judgment), sacrifices everything to please her lover and her concern for her courageous cousin and her devotion to her country are charred to cinders by the flames of passion that burn even hotter as Franz grows more aloof and self-absorbed. If you're betting on a happy ending, well, congratulations on watching your first film!
Visconti adapted the work loosely from a novella by Camillo Boiti with a screenplay co-written by the legendary Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico and with the odd credit: "Dialogue collaboration by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles." Both Americans were brought on board to write the English dialogue for Granger and Valli who were then dubbed in Italian (though a condensed English-language version of the film "The Wanton Countess" was released in America, and preserves their original dialogue.) Apparently, Visconti and his team preserved only the bare bones of the 50-page story, and the director adapted the work to suit more personal concerns. The result was not well received by Italian critics at the time, and was barely seen in America. This was Visconti's fourth feature and he was, until then, generally identified as a neo-realist, although that's hard to believe today as the director is now remembered primarily for historical epics like "The Leopard." The operatic "Senso" is most definitely not a neo-realist film, and it was punished for not meeting expectations.
"Senso" is gorgeous (even under the auspices of three different cinematographers) and technically perfect, so perfect that I find little life in it. I admit to a terrible prejudice against the European parasite class (nobility), and my tolerance for films with rich people prancing around in villas is limited, but I acknowledge this as a personal failing rather than a valid criticism of the film. Visconti was a filthy rich nobleman himself, and the material was quite personal to him. Valli's histrionic performance is a turn off for me, but it's perfectly suited to the style and subject matter. As a chronicle of doomed love, the story gains quite a bit of steam as it bulldozes towards its tragic ending. The tragedy is obvious, but the precise way it unfolds far less so and quite devastating.
The source print for this Criterion release is from a restoration conducted at the Cineteca di Bologna. The insert booklet included with the DVD described it thusly:
"Working under the auspices of the Film Foundation, L'Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna created this new digital restoration of ‘Senso' from the original 3-strip Technicolor camera negatives and the film's surviving master positives. The original 3-strip negatives had suffered extreme shrinkage and decay and, as a result, could no longer be properly aligned, a defect that had been impossible to fix when the film was previously restored by photochemical means. By scanning each of the three negatives separately on an ARRISCAN Film Scanner in 2K resolution and aligning the images digitally, the restorers were able to correct the registration problems that had plagued the film for decades. The resulting images were then color corrected in consultation with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and Martin Scorsese. The key references were a 1954 positive print as well as a print created from a 2001 photochemical restoration. Finally, DaVinci's Revival system was used to improve frame steadiness, reduce flickering, and manually eliminate thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps and jitter."
I am always amazed by the dedication that film restoration experts will put into a single project. The Herculean efforts required to restore a single film print are a testament to the lengths film lovers will go to in order to preserve film history.
The results were certainly worth it. This is a very clean high def transfer with sharp detail in most scenes; check out the design work on the balconies in the opera house. Unlike another recent Technicolor restoration, "The Red Shoes," the colors here aren't overwhelmingly vivid and I'll hazard a guess that they're not meant to be quite as vibrant or as showy as in "The Red Shoes" but I can't say for sure. The reds don't quite "pop" but they're still fairly rich.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The Blu-Ray is presented with a lossless PCM Mono track. It's not a particularly dynamic mix, but the music (opera and classical) sounds good, and all dialogue is clearly mixed. This won't blow anybody away, but it's quite solid. Optional English subtitles support the audio which is mostly Italian with some German mixed in (both get subtitled).
In a great service to film buffs, Criterion has included "The Wanton Countess" (94 min.), the pared-down English-language version of "Senso" that was apparently released in America, though its actual release history remains unclear. You get to hear Farley and Valli's original English dialogue (they were dubbed in Italian for the release of "Senso") which is certainly of interest.
"The Making of ‘Senso'" (34 min.) is a new documentary featuring interviews with assistant director Francesco Rosi, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, costume designer Piero Tosi, and Caterina D'Amico, a Visconti biographer ("Life and Work of Luchino Visconti") and daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico. It covers all the bases from the adaptation of the novella to the film's poor reception in Italy.
"Vive Verdi: Visconti and Opera" (36 min.) is another new documentary in which film scholar Peter Brunette, Italian historian Stefano Albertini, and author Wayne Koestenbaum discuss the influence of opera on Visconti's films (he directed opera and grew up with it as a major part of his childhood) and the operatic themes that play out in his work.
Peter Cowie offers a Visual Essay (28 min.) which also covers the adaptation of the novel before delving into more scene/shot analysis.
"Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti" (48 min.) is from an episode of the BBC show "Sunday Night" originally broadcast on April 24, 1966. It addresses Visconti's extensive work in three mediums: film, theater, and opera.
The insert booklet includes a gushing appreciation by author and filmmaker Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from Farley Granger's autobiography "Include Me Out: My Life from Goldwyn to Broadway."
Visconti remains in the (burgeoning) category of indisputably great filmmakers who just don't engage my interest, mostly because of their subject matter. With few exceptions, I'm rarely absorbed by lavish historical pieces about the sufferings of European nobility. But most viewers don't share this distaste, and "Senso" has recovered from its poor initial reception to be hailed as a masterpiece, and certainly one of Visconti's major works, eclipsed (only?) by "The Leopard" (1963).
The elaborate restoration of "Senso" has provided home viewers an opportunity to see the film in a lovely high-def transfer, and the handsome and extensive collection of extras on this Criterion release would be difficult to top, especially the inclusion of "The Wanton Countess."