All entries for Saturday 09 February 2008
February 09, 2008
Senso, 1954. Dir. Luchino Visconti
(Original run-time 121 minutes)
Links to Visconti's historical films The Leopard and The Damned
Senso was the first feature film Visconti made after Bellissima (1951). Already Bellissima had been accused of breaking with the precepts of neorealism but this was nothing to the criticism which Senso received. Senso has been seen by noted critics such as Richard Dyer and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith as extremely important film. Despite this the film was beaten by the more commercially 'art' oriented La Strada at the Venice Film Festival that year. Richard Dyer voted for it as a top ten critics choice film for the BFI and Nowell-Smith (2003) when introducing the film comments that:
... Senso is beyond question one of the greatest, and also the most Viscontian, of all Visconti's films.
As with much of Visconti's work there was a battle with the censors. The film was a critique of the dominant discourse and creation of the triumphalists myths surrounding the Risorgimento fight for unification of Italy. A key scene which would have helped show that the Risorgimento was a also a popular movement was cut. As a result as Marcus (1986) notes this "succeeded in removing the film's true revolutionary sting". The currently available Optimum DVD is only 116 minutes long whilst the original running time of the film was 121 minutes long. The original version shown in the UK was little more than 90 minutes long! In order for the film to be able to represent its main thrust the missing scenes are crying out for restoration.
Senso is the first of three films which deal with European nationalism very directly the others being The Leopard (1963), and The Damned (1969). By linking these three films together based upon analysing their underlying theme of European nationalism and its effects upon the social structure of modernity it is beginning to read Visconti's ouevre differetly to Bacon (1998) for example who categorises Senso along with The Leopard as straightforwardly films of the Risorgimento. Whilst this is self-evidently the case Visconti was too powerful a thinker to stop there. Much of the rest of his work was concerned with various elements of exposing the various power structures within society and there was a continual level of conflict and tension expressed between the nation state and the rise and decline of older empires and newer governmental forms.
Senso explores the myth underlying the unification stories of the Risorgimento in the years leading to the the removal of the Austrian Empire from its control of much of Northern Italy. The Leopard goes back to a slightly earlier time in 1860 when the Bourbons are ejected from Sicily. In 1866 when the events of Senso are taking place a revolt in Palermo is crushed on orders from the government of Italy based at the time in Turin. In Senso the potential for a popular movement is effectively denied by those in command of the Italian forces although a key scene is censored which clearly shows this. Both these films show the complicity, compromises and collusion and processes of hegemony taking place amongst the fractured ruling elites. Nationalism can still be seen as progressive in the Marxist sense of modernity ushering in a more dynamic social order. By comparison The Damned can be seen as a closure on Visconti's artistic explorations into European nationalism which as I argue elsewhere can clearly be seen as Visconti's critique of the limits of nationalism and the dead end which it ultimately leads to at a structural level within society.
The plot is very different from the book which it is nominally based upon by the writer Boito. The opening scene takes place in La Fenice the Opera House in Venice in 1866 just a few months before the Veneto is freed from the control of the Austrian Empire.
The opera being enacted is Verdi's Il trovatore where the third act is coming to a climax. The mounting tension on stage and the the declarations of being prepared to fight to the death are enhanced by the chorous shouting All 'armi, All 'armi (to arms, to arms). This defiance is mirrored in the audience as the audience is shown bundles of leaflets being passed forwards to those wanting to resist the Austrian occupation.
Suddenly a rain of green, white and red leaflets flutter down from the balconies onto the Austrian officers who are sitting in the best stalls. Small sprays of flowers of the same national colours are thrown or warn by the women on their dresses. an Austrian officer makes a disparaging remark about that was the way the Italians like to resist occupations- through bunches of flowers and leaflets. He is challenged to a duel by an Italian. The officer is Franz and the Italian spectator Ussoni who is a leader of the underground resistance.
In the opening scene at La Fenice the Austrian officers have the best seats at the opera whilst the Italian elites are at the back and in the balconies. They are soon to rain down leaflets on the unsuspecting Austrians
The Marquis Ussoni is the cousin of Livia the Countess of Serpieri who is in a loveless marriage to a man much older than her. Serpieri it turns out is just an aristocratic opportunist happy to change sides from Austria to Italy when it becomes increasingly clear who is going to win control of the Veneto. Franz uses his position to ensure that Ussoni rather than fighting a duel is exiled for Franz has no interest in duelling: like Livia he prefers his melodrama onstage rather than offstage.
Livia is with Ussoni at La Fenice after he has made a challenge to a duel to Franz. Here he is looking for a way out. Livia has told him how foolish he was to raise his head above the parapet. Here it is obvious that Livia's personal concerns are not reflected in Ussoni's mindset. Any desire is inevitably a chaste one.
Livia has professed an interest in meeting Franz who has a reputation for being very handsome, ostensibly this meeting is to help out Ussoni but one can sense an ambivalence. Soon after Ussoni is exiled Livia and Franz become lovers. However the war is coming increasingly nearer. Franz is posted to the front and the Count Serpieri takes Livia to their summer villa to avoid the fighting. Before they leave Livia is summoned to an address where she meets up with Ussoni who is planning an uprising. Ussoni charges her with the safekeeping of some funds in order to supply the rebels at a later date.
A while later Franz breaks into the villa and seeks refuge with Livia who hides him. The discussion is moved around to the possibilities of Franz being able to bribe a doctor to get himself discharged from the army. To do this Livia betrays the nationalist cause and gives Franz the money and jewels intended for the rebels. In the process of this the audience is shown what Livia cannot see; the expression on Franz's face is one of pure opportunism. He has enjoyed Livia, but love isn't part of the equation for him.
Franz then manages to bribe his way out of the army and sends a note to Livia. Livia can't bear to be emotionally imprisoned in her marriage any longer and makes a dangerous journey to find Franz. When she arrives she is greeted by a decadent and dissolute Franz who is drunk and with a prostitute. Franz regales her with unpleasantries forcing her to leave. Livia reports him for desertion to the Austrian army. Franz is arrested and summarily executed. The last we see of Livia is her slowly walking in the shadows shouting Franz out loud.
A Gramscian History of the Risorgimento
The plot outline tells us little of the importance of the film which seeks to historicize the Risorgimento in an entirely different way to the official hisories of the period. this also opened up the possibility for audiences to mount a critique of the postwar situation in Italy which had failed to enact any genuine transformation in the class relationships of society. With its main target audience being Italians often with a lot of basic knowledge about the Risorgimento this was an ambitious film. The film was a target of the censors and had many critics from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. Whilst the criticisms from the Right were to be expected the ones from the left showed up the limitations of the left-wing imaginary of the time.
Key critical opponents of the film were Zavattini and Chiarini who took a fundamentalist approach to the neorealist ethic. For them Senso was a total betrayal of neorealism as it eschewed the harsh moments of the present in a return to the past. As Marcus notes:
...neorealism constitutes the absolute standard against which Senso is measured and found wanting, by Chiarini and Zavattini who fault Visconti for abandoning the modern subject matter and stylistic transparency of the postwar school. (Marcus 1986 p 171)
The left-wing critic Aristarco on the other hand defended the film arguing that Senso represented an extension and evolution of neorealism. Rather than negring neorealism it marked the return to realism proper in the 19th century sense of the term. In reality Aristarco is effectively accusing neorealism of being a surface aesthetic rather than an aesthetic which is probing below the surface to explore the social forces which shape society throwing up various social forms which can be either recorded or analysed. This was a return of the old argument between the French Naturalists (Zola for example) and the Realists.
Chiarini however took the position that neorealism's immediacy contained a moral imperative which raised public consciousness about social conditions and could help formulate policy change. Both neorealism and the sense of postwar social solidarity which welcomed Rome Open City(1945 ) was long since past. The reality was that neorealist films had frequently failed in the box office and failed therefore to capture the popular imagination. In the meantime a right-wing government supported by the Americans and the British and the promise of Marshall Aid had been installed some time before the release of Senso. Chiarini and Zavattini were seemingly driven by a head in the sand idealism.
It is here that Visconti's Marxism comes to the fore because Senso in its very essence is a recognition of the importance of history and who controls and owns history. History for Visconti was a powerufl ideological tool in the control of the intellectual elites. It was Gramsci's recognition of the importance of creating working class or organic intellectuals who could challenge the hegemonic ideas of the elites which was one of the factors driving Visconti. At the level of aesthetics and how it worked with politics he had been increasingly convinced by the Lukacsian arguments about the realist and its role in exposing class relations.
Visconti's relationship to Lukacsian thought is crucial when it comes to the construction of his characters. Here it is important to develop a 'type'. Lovell (1980) notes that :
The most appropriate type of character, for purposes of typicality, is neither the statistical average nor the great hero, but an unexceptional individual caught at the centre of conflicting social and political forces. (Lovell, 1980 p 71)
Lovell cites Lukacs directly and whilst we can think about this in relation to the novel it seems pertinent to suggest that this is the problematic that Visconti was wrestling with when he reinvents the character of Livia in quite a different way to the character originally envisaged by Boito who wouldn't fit the 'type' very well:
The problem is to find a central figure in whose life all the important extremes in the world of the novel converge and around whom a complete world with all its vital contradictions can be organised. (Lukacs: Writer and Critic cited Lovell 1980 p 71)
The Role of Women in the Age of Bourgeois Nationalism
Feminist historians have noted that in the 19th century rise of nationalism women were ususally excluded from the bid for more democratic rights based upon the nation state for those who could be classed as citizens. Women in the rise of Greek nationalism were largely chattels and baby-bearers of potential new citizens (women got the right to vote in 1952 in Greece and in Italy in 1945). Of course in the 19th century no women had a vote anywhere except New Zealand in 1893.
Franz (Farley Granger) meets Livia (Allida Valli) for the first time at La Fenice. Livia wishes to negotiate with him over thefate of Ussoni who has challenged him to a duel
Bearing this in mind it is worth thinking about this in relation to the character of Livia the Countess. Livia by being a woman is largely sidelined from the great political and social causes of the day. She is in a typical arranged aristocratic marriage to a much older man, which is loveless and even childless. As a woman she is little more than a chattel, after all the progressive nationalist movement of the day says nothing about the position of women in society, why should she care? Rather she is at the mercy of emotional whims. Her admiration of her cousin might well be sexual as much as it is based upon someone who is an ideological doer. But at heart it is an nationalist ideology which effects her little. She has no great antipathy towards Austrians otherwise why after the protest in the opera house would she wish to meet a handsome Austrian officer, and with her husband she is continually in the company of Austrians. She is part of a more internationalist aristocracy.
On their first meeting Franz quickly establishes that he isn't an idealogue, melodrama on the stage is best kept where it is not extended into real life he points out. Livia is quickly attracted to him becuase of his easy going ways and his attentiveness to her. By comparison the only times we see Ussoni with her he is proclaiming in a melodramatic way that it is the nation and if necessary death which must come first. Franz is a romantic of sorts but not a Byronic one, for courtly love as Marcus points out has a strong code in which the male must:
...be a warrior as well as a suitor, spurred onto deeds of military prowess by the desire to please his lady. (Marcus 1986 p 177)
In this sense there is a sense of decline and decay between the lovers and when Franz exempts himself from the virile world of the military he loses all the things in life which structure his identity, romantic love cannot exist outside of time and reality it is based in a materiality which is income based and class based. Franz has lost both. Unlike Boito's original novella which is an 'ahistorical love story' (Marcus 1986), Visconti's version lives up to Lukacs' definitions of the historical novel where suggests Marcus:
the personal destinies of a number of human beings coincide and interweave within the determining context of an historical crisis. (Marcus, 1986 p 178)
The issue of gender and nationalism has been effectively highlighted in this this film although perhaps at an unconscious level. Livia as a synechdoche for women as well as a de facto member of the aristocracy through father and then husband is counterpoised to the the nationalism of Ussoni who fits in with the description of nationalism provided by Anthony Smith:
The concept of nation, then, is not only an abstraction and invention, as is so often claimed. It is also felt, and felt passionately, as something very real, a concrete community, in which we may find some assurance of our own identity and even, through our descendents, of our immortality. But transcending death is what the world religions sought in their different ways; so, we may ask, does this not make of nationalism some latterday religion in secular disguise? (Smith 1998p 140)
Compare Smith's analysis with the comments of Ussoni in the scene where he unceremoniously places the funds raised for the partisans into Livia's care. Livia, please note, wasn't overkeen but wasn't given an opportunity to refuse:
...we must forget ourselves...Italy's at war...It's our war...our Revolution
Above. After breaking into the country villa Franz is opportunistically throwing himself on Livia's sense of love and fear for him.
Livia is torn between a betrayal of trust and her own individual desires, for events have unfurled in a way which she could not have imagined. But in the end she undergoes little in the way of personal risk for she is a member of the aristocracy and she is allowed to pass by both sides to reach her lover. Franz has an historical premonition of the passing of the Austrian elite to which he belongs, also a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. By comparison Livia effectively survives the chain of events because we are always given a voice over. We can assume that she goes back to her husband chastened by the course of events at least at the level of the emotions. Serpieri of course has switched sides, at no time is the position of Livia fundamentally threatened in the film. Her romantic gesture of running away to her lover was flung back in her face. She is embedded in a social structure as much as Franz. Marcus points this out very effectively:
...the primacy of the Livia-Franz plot over the Livia-Ussoni one constitutes a Gramscian criticism of the Risorgimento in melodramatic terms. (Marcus 1986 p 185)
In Marcus' estimate Livia is introduced to the audience 'on a moral pedestal so lofty that her decline occasions surprise as well as distaste'. (Marcus p 181). However on reading the film more closely this is perhaps being overly judgemental of Livia for as stated earlier her position is a weak one, she is dependent upon men and is married to one who is uninterested in her. Marcus here seems to be almost identifying with the nationalist cause because Livia really her 'fall' only comes when she uses the monies for her own purposes. But as a woman she has no money of her own.
When Livia asks for an introduction to the officer on the grounds of the fact that all the young women are talking about Franz. At this point given that she has kissed a nationalist bouquet we can imagine that this is a cover in order to get her cousin out of trouble but we could take it as a sign of ambivalence. Ussoni is told off by her for being entirely foolhardy jeopardising his own position and others by his over-reaction to a trite insult. In contradisinction to Anthony Smith's almost impassioned plea Livia doesn't feel the nationalism of her cousin passionately at all, it is the attraction to her cousin which is the dominant concern as Nowell-Smith makes clear:
Her (Livia's) devotion to the cause is personal, and she betrays it becuase sexual passion has more power over her than devoted admiration and friendship. But her attraction to Franz has its own social motivation. Through it she realises a nostalgic longing for the lover to whom as a member of her class she was entitled, but never had. Against this patriotism has nothing to offer......It is not a cause which can fully satisfy her aspirations or appease her regrets. (Nowell-Smith, 2003 p 70)
Here we see a marked difference in approach between Nowell-Smith and Marcus. Livia is rebellious but there is nowhere to go she cannot escape history or society as an isolated individual. As the film progresses her uneasy position between all the conflicting male elements which is apparent in the opening theatre scene becomes more apparent. Gradually she becomes more and more isolated with the acardian villa leaving her only with the complicit maid to support her. Stealing the money means that she will become totally isolated from the partisan struggle and physically she will become isolated from her lover. In this scene she is faced with the core contradiction which the film is building up to: she must sacrifice herself for the nationalist cause and betray her lover who it appears is the only person ever to have brought her true joy. The alternative is that she must sacrifice Franz to a likely death or serious injury on the battlefield. It is here that Visconti turns to melodrama in ordr to highlight the importance of the scene, there can be no turning back from here: which must she reject?
Nowell-Smith importantly points out that one cannot legitimately equate the position of Franz with that of Livia. Franz knows that his Austrian Empire is teetering and on the wane: his tirade against Livia is as much a bitter recognition of this passing, a Byronism turned sour suggests Nowell-Smith. Franz is genuinely a decadent he argues. Nowell-Smith points out that the poitiions of Livia and Franz aren't comparable, however his comment about Livia having 'a freedom to abuse' rather goes against the structured role as a woman caught between patriarchal forces:
He is quite clearly seen as a representative of a dying class. she represents nothing so simple. Her character is all her own, and the conflicting external determinations that work on her are not sufficient to fix her in any mould. At least she has the freedom to abuse, which Franz never has. (Nowell-Smith 2003 p 69)
The representation of women in Visconti's films is seriously underwritten: instead critics focus on Visconti's homosexuality and his aristoctratic background. It would of course be foolish to ignore Visconti's homosexuality and there is little doubt that it played a role in his filming and also in his understandings of sexual politics in general, an area in which more work needs to be done. Nowell-Smith (2003 p 214) points out that almost all of his films are about the family and that only in Bellissima does the family emerge in strengthened form. Senso is one of those films which can be read as a critique of the bourgeois family.
Visconti's representations of women are extremely important. On the grounds that critics have endlessly discussed Visconti's aristocratic background one might well ascribe his representations of women to his relationship with his mother which was a very positive one. His mother came from a bourgeois industrialist's background and marriage to Visconti's father brought the wealth necessary for him to carry on with his aristocratic ways including his philandering. It would appear that Visconti's mother was a vehicle for the transfer of money just as Angelica was in The Leopard.
Visconti fequently represents prostitutes and prostitution. For Visconti sexual relations frequently centre around money and power. Just as Livia gets to hold the purse strings -albeit temporarily- in Senso so does Giovanna in Ossessione. Franz in Senso and Gino in Ossessione both then turn to prostitutes to assert their masculinity and illusory control. But the women are punished for breaking the male codes. Visconti is clear that under capitalist society women are extremly repressed. Certainly prostitution is seen as something which women have little choice but to turn to occasionally, as did Giovanna before she married Bragana in Ossessione. There is a Marxist analysis of family relationships which runs through Visconti's work as well as more straightforward themes of class and history, nationalism and its historically determined failures. It is a theme which will be returned to in the future.
Demythologising the Risorgimento
A core preferred meaning for Visconti's Senso was to demythologise the Risorgimento and to draw parallels to present day Italy. Several projected scenes were censored because Visconti was going far too close to the bone of the official versions of history. Coming at a time when the Italian right had managed to reimpose their political control an influential film-maker such as Visconti wasn't going to be given much leeway. Whilst the position of the Serpieris explains the opportunism of many of the aristocrats as well as some of the issues around the relationship of women to the nationalist project it is in the figure of Ussoni that many of the most poignant political issues revolve around.
A question posed by Nowell-Smith was whether Visconti was posing a double question, suggesting on the one hand that the attempts to change Italian post-war society had failed in a similar way to those of the popular movement of mythology around the Risorgimento. An alternative take was even more radical: whether the failure of the Risorgimento to install a proper popular government which concerned all the people was a direct result of the ability of the new and old elites to create a hegemonic position which ensured that the working and peasant classes were largely left in the same poverty stricken position. The position of poverty is amply represented by later films such as Olmi's Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978) set in 1898, and also Bertollucci's 1900 (1976).
In Senso the position of the peasantry is made abundantly clear during the battle scenes based upon the Battle of Custoza. Whilst the peasants are going about their business transporting what appears to be hay on their carts the Italian army is racing about, forcing gun carriages past the carts of the peasants who are oblivious to the proceedings. It is a clear denial of the myth of a popular movement espousing all members of the 'community' who are according to Smith impassioned by the 'very real concrete community'. It was a point that Aristarco made in Visconti's defence as Bacon (1998) points out:
Politics of power continue but it doesn't bother them. It is as if they were saying: ' you do what you want gentlemen, it doesn't concern us. It's not our war.' (Aristarco in an interview with Bacon. Bacon 1998 p 81)
Aesthetic objections to Senso and also Visconti's thorough way of working
But the Gramscian argument fails to address the most troublesome objection to Senso - that of its spectacular elements, which ally it with the more retrograde examples of prewar production... the criticism is hard to refute because it rest on the assumption that aesthetic form determines thematic content and that a luxurious , self-congratulatory style full of extracinematic conventions will necessarily compromise any aspirations the artis may have to revolutionary meaning. Marcus 1986 p 187)
Marcus notes that despite the scepticism from many on the left side of the critical establishment Visconti's insistence that the mise en scene must be appropriate to the position of the class being represented eventually allowed a better critical reception for a newer generation of film makers such as Wertmuller, Bertollucci and Cavani.
It is difficult to think of any director who has had so many complaints about the expense and details of the sets. Whilst those who tried to adhere more strictly to what they understood as the fundamentals of neorealism which was closer to an ethnographic mode of filming the poor, Visconti had much greater artistic ambitions. Those who took on board Brechtian Marxist ideas would also have been less concerned with the verisimilitude of the sets for Brechtianism is a deliberately ascetic aesthetic approach. Visconti's Marxism based upon Lukacsian realism was concerned with verisimilitude in its mise en scene indeed the precision demanded by Visconti in his sets was legendary, whether it was the dinner plates in The Leopard or the parquet flooring in The Damned. to try and get away from this sour and fruitless so-called critique of Visconti it is worth dwelling for a moment on his aesthetics and the poetics of his oeuvre.
Viscontian Aesthetics & Poetics
It is isn't popular to discuss the poetics of cinema or even its aesthetics yet these are fundamental aspects of cinema. Some aspects of Visconti's can be equated to that of Angelopoulos that other great film maker who has embedded his film making as a conscious effort to historicize and thus politicize the present, yet just as Visconti began to do later in his life so Angelopoulos became more distanced from politics. Later works in both directors take up elements of nostalgia. Here it is important to come to some definition of nostalgia for Visconti is frequently accused of being nostalgic about former aristocratic times.
In an interview with Andrew Horton "What do our Souls Seek?" Angelopoulos explians how one night he was in the same building as Tarkovsky who was shooting the film Nostalgia at the time. Tarkovsky argued that it was a Russian word but in fact it comes from the Greek 'homecoming'. Angelopoulos then puts the notion of 'home' within a national context nevertheless he points out that home:
...is a place where you feel at one with yourself and the cosmos. It is not necessarily a real spot that is here or there. (Angelopoulos in Horton 1997 p 106)
Although Angelopoulos is usually associated with the modernism of Antonioni in particular the link to nostalgia is interesting:
...almost all the films, and the later ones most particularly, are suffused with a nostalgia for the family as an institution. (Nowell-Smith, 2003 p 214)
Although the historical projects are different for Visconti explores particularly the mechanisms of history in a period of transition on the 1860s the search for 'home' is crucial for Visconti's leading characters live in a world of the unheimlich. Visconti is not at home in life any more than his characters are. Livia in Senso is plainly not at 'home'. In the conversation in the bedroom of the Venetian boarding house at the begining of the relationship Livia wishes to step outside time which is very significant:
In their different ways, both Franz and Livia have attempted to step outside of history and to blind themselves morally, either by decision or deception, to the way they exploit other people in dedicating themselves to hedonism on his part, to romantic fantasies on hers. (Bacon, 1998 p 80)
History, Visconti seems to be saying, is a motor of change which is impossible to evade. Frequently that change is very limited despite all the underlying political idealism represented in Senso by Ussoni. In Ludwig, Ludwig's homosexuality combined with the duties and expectations of kingship place him in an 'unhomely' position. Perhaps a key difference between Visconti's aesthetics and that of Angelopoulos is that the latter anchors much of his work within Greek culture particularly upon the myth of Odysseus. This gives his work a more spatial and geographical grounding than Visconti's which has far more interior work. The return of the old Communist in the Voyage to Cythera (1983) and the lack of recognition for him within a society which should have been 'home' plays with history in a different way but the situation is 'unhomely'. Visconti's aesthetic is more Proustian and Angelopoulos' more Brechtian in the ways they deal with time both also have an approach which is inevitably suffused with their own national cultures.
The richness of the Renaissance and the painterliness of Visconti's work is in sharp contradstinction to the distancing of Angelopoulos' camerawork and the highly stylised set-pieces which make the latter's work 'modernist' rather than 'realist', yet both are deeply engaged with historical processes. Just as Senso was a critical attack upon the canon of Risorgimento history so Travelling Players from Angelopoulos was a 'fundamental revision of Greek "official" history...' Georgakas 1997 p 29-30). Whilst the aesthetic forms are quite different, both directors chose to embed within their form an historicisation which opened up dominant discourses and also made the audience work. Angelopoulos seems to bridge the gap between Visconti's sense of aesthetics which are far more implicit compared to Godard's very explicit approach noted by Nowell-Smith again. Visconti chose to subvert the well established forms of melodrama and opera and in doing so was challenging well established audiences familiar with much of the content, for it must be remembered that in Italy even Gramsci recognised that opera played a very different role in the formation of a 'national popular' than it had in other countries. The petulant criticisms of Visconti from the left failed to understand that art has many ways of challenging dominant norms not least through the handling of history. Visconti's contribution to embedding theories of history within his cinema has yet to be fully recognised just as his determination to combine realism with other older aesthetic forms such as melodrama great works of art which perhaps will come to be appreciated above those contributions of his contempories such as Fellini and Antonioni who will perhaps come to be seen as very much film makers of their time.
In both aesthetic routes there seems to be a phenomenology of vision at work which can make many critics of all persuasions uncomfortable:
We are not usually aware that an unconscious element of touch is unavoidably concealed in vision; as we look, the eye touches, and before we even see an object we have already touched it. 'Through vision, we touch the stars and the sun',  as Merleau-Ponty writes. Touch is the unconsciousness of vision, and this hidden tactile experience determines the sensuous quality of the perceived object, and mediates messages of invitation or rejection, courtesy or hostility. (The Architectural Review | Date: 5/1/2000 | Author: Pallasmaa, Juhani)
Interestingly Pallasmaa has completed a book on cinema and architecture The Architecture of Image: Existential Space in Cinema which includes chapters on the work of Tarkovsky and Antonioni - Having only had a very brief look at it it is something to return to. Through them we can examine the work of Angelopoulos in relation to history and also think about the existential meaning of the mise en scene in the work of Visconti for we must remember Visconti too has exterior spaces the dry dustiness of Sicily, the frozen alps and the arcadian pastoralism of northern Italy in summer. Architecture too is redolent with meaning in the work of Visconti. This could prove to be a fascinating area of comparison in terms of the social ontology of the characters who people the films. This phenomenology can also be thought of in terms of metaphor when we start to talk of "the feel" of a film or having 'the touch' of a certain director. Here we re-enter the debate about the auteur but that is for another day.
Visconti is arguably the film director who has treated history and the theory of history along with a discourse that recognises history to be an intellectual area of competing ideologies. Even Angelopoulos doesn't seem to have done that. Senso was the first of Visconti's great trilogy of films relating to history and arguably we can add his Ludwig into this a fourth historical film. Certainly all the four film: Senso, The Leopard, The Damned and Ludwig use family relations as a synechdoche for other features of societies in change. Whilst the treament may be a little different between them being more of a Verdian nature and moving towards a Chekovian one suggests Bacon (1998 pp 60-62).
This piece argues that there are great implicit depths to Visconti's work and one which I have started to tease out here is in relation to the position of women in Visconti's films and in particular there relationship to the 'great' events unfurling around them. Livia in Senso understands that nationalism will really make little difference to her. This piece also recognises the importance of realism in its Lukacian sense to Visconti's project which is one designed with an Italian audience very much in mind. The piece also cross -references Visconti's handling of history to that of Angelopoulos another Mediterranean film maker who also started his film worl in France as did Visconti. There are some similarities between the two in terms of long films and the slowness of pace use of longer shots and longer takes, yet for all that there are large aesthetic differences between the two. Both in their own ways bring out the materiality of the surroundings, both are renowned perfectionists as well. There is certainly more room for comparison here however currently this will be difficult as most of Angelopoulos' films are currently unavailable in the UK.
Of course there is much more that can be said about this film. For the interested reader Nowell-Smith, Marcus and Bacon all have differetn insights into the film and all come as recommneded reading. There is also a chapter on Senso in the Wallflower Press "The Cinema of Italy" which is a useful first stop.
Notes on the Cinematography of Senso
Senso is unusual -to say the least- in that three cinematographers were involved. Nowell-Smith (2003 p 78) provides a full explanation. G.R. Aldo (Real Name Aldo Graziati) was Visconti's chosen cinematographer; sadly he died in a car crash before the films completion. Nowell-Smith notes that according to the published screenplay Aldo shot all the scenes in and around the Villa Valmara as well as the battle scenes and the retreat.
Robert Krasker was then hired. Krasker shot most of the rest of the film inluding the opening scene at La Fenice, most Venice exteriors, interiors of the Franz's lodgings, Livia's house, Ussoni's house and the home of the Austrian General in Venice.
Rotunno who had been the camera operator shot the executions scenes and 'a few bits and bobs'.
Nowell-Smith also notes that these cinematographers all had different ways of working resulting in a different feel. Nowell-Smith defends Krasker's work in his shooting of La Fenice and the opening scenes suggesting that Krasker achieved exactly the effect needed by Visconti for these scenes:
Indeed, the use of different lighting effects, due to different cinematographers but co-ordinated by Visconti himself, is essential to the formal articulation of the film. Particular sequences and locations each have a tonality of their own, inspired often by different styles and genres of nineteenth-century painting.
Theses aspects of mise en scene in Visconti's work are incredibly important to in dpeth analysis of his multi-layered approach to meaning. Ivo Blom an art historian is currently working on many aspects of painting and its relationship to Visconti's films.
It is particularly worth noting that both:
- Franco Rosi
- Franco Zeffirelli
were assistants on this film just as they had both been Visconti's assistants on La Terra Trema (1948)
- GR Aldo
- Robert Krasker
- Guiseppe Rotunno. (Rotunno was to became Visconti's main cinematographer in the future).
- Massimo Girotti
- Heinz Moog
- Rina Morelli
- Marcella Mariani
- Christian Marquand
- Luchino Visconti
- Suso Cecchi D'Amico
- Carlo Alianello
- Giorgio Bassani
- Paul Bowles
- Tennessee Williams
Links to Visconti's historical films The Leopard and the damned
The entries below represent the best in English I could find on a Google search down to page 30. Very disappointing. It is clearly an underwritten and under watched film!
Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema Gianfranco Poggi Film Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Spring, 1960), pp. 11-22. (JSTOR article needing the readies or instiutional access)
Luchino Visconti's "Musicism" Noemi Premuda International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Dec., 1995), pp. 189-210. Another JSTORarticle with no buy option so instituional access required.
Bacon, Henry.1998. Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay. Cambridge: CUP
Horton Andrew. 1997."What do our Souls Seek: An interview with Theo Angelopoulos". In Horton Andrew E. 1997. The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos. Trowbridge: Ficks Books
Lovell, Terry. 1980. Pictures of Reality. London: British Film Institute
Marcus, Millicent: "Visconti's Senso The Risorgimento According to Gramsci". In Marcus, 1986. Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. 2003 3rd RE. Luchino Visconti. London: British Film Institute
Sellors, C. Paul. 2004. "Senso". In Bertellini, Giorgio ed,, 2004. The Cinema of Italy. London Wallflower