Luchino Visconti‘s reputation precedes him, and it is slightly terrifying. There are few directors who require quite so deep an intake of breath before discussing — his relatively small filmography spans divergent impulses that can seem so unbridgeable as to be self-contradictory. How can one auteur rise to prominence as part of the Italian neo-realist movement, alongside contemporaries Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, but become most famous for wildly decadent, brocaded period melodramas, often so theatrical as to be operatic, and sometimes so stately as to be stultifying?
It is famously a paradox embodied by Visconti himself. Born a wealthy aristocrat (his official title was Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone), he was friends with the likes of opera composer Puccini, conductor Toscanini, and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (who would write Visconti’s last film, “The Innocent“). Indeed, his entree into film (Visconti directed plays and operas prior, as he would continue to throughout his career), was on films such as “A Day in the Country” as assistant director to Jean Renoir, to whom he was introduced by mutual friend Coco Chanel.
He was openly gay and throughout his life had relationships with collaborators such as actor Helmut Berger (whom he cast as the memorably deranged and perverse Martin in “The Damned“) and Franco Zeffirelli, who started out as crew on various Visconti productions before embarking on a directorial career of his own. But Visconti was also insistently Marxist, joining the Italian Communist Party during World War II, around the time he made his first film, “Obsession,” during the filming of which he offered up his family’s palazzo as a clandestine meeting place for local communist agitators. His personal life, as a gay Marxist aristocrat often provides an irresistible template for interpretation of his more confounding directorial tendencies.
And there are practical reasons to be daunted. Many of Visconti’s films skate close to the 3-hour mark (or right over, depending on which cut you see — almost all exist in different versions). And the then-common practise of post-syncing the dialogue, often in a language other than the one the actor was speaking, can be distracting, especially when you’re watching a film in Italian in which the English subtitles more closely mimic the mouth movements of the principals than the words you hear. He often took as his backdrops period of Italian history that might be unknown to foreign audiences, and he was never afraid of a long take, or a slow, lingering shot. It’s no wonder the offputting aura of “advanced cinephilia” clings to Visconti’s name.
So why persevere? Because at his best, and in his career he only went truly off the boil a couple of times, Visconti’s scope and vision, and the fearlessness with which he tackles extraordinarily difficult and weighty topics, is breathtaking and highly rewarding. With the restoration of his seminal “Rocco and his Brothers” starting its run tomorrow through the end of October at Film Forum in New York, whether you’re a neophyte, or whether you’re hoping to expand your knowledge of a remarkable filmmaker whose portraits of doomed relationships, families and entire classes have fallen unfairly out of fashion, here’s a basic primer in eight of Luchino Visconti’s most essential titles.
If there’s a central enigma to Visconti’s career it is how a director initially associated with the grit, social agenda, and docu-drama sensibilities of the Italian neo-realist movement could ultimately become more celebrated for his lush, theatrical melodramas. But all the way back in his very first film, we can see how those apparently contradictory impulses can blend. First time out, Visconti took the pulpy noir of James M Cain‘s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and gave it an unmistakable socio-political edge, almost inadvertently birthing the neo-realist movement with its unglamorized stars, naturalist locations, and grainy, loose, black-and-white photography. Conversely, he got to slide some sly Marxist commentary (just count how pointedly often conversations between strangers revolve around one’s duty to “be good to one another”) into a genre entertainment, and thus slip it past Mussolini’s censors (not without cuts and controversy, though). The grimy little story, told twice thereafter in the terrific, more stylized noir of 1946’s John Garfield and Lana Turner-starrer and then again the overheated 1981 version starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange, is all about the pitiless workings of lust and greed in a blue-collar love triangle. A penniless drifter, Gino (the remarkably handsome Massimo Dirotti) makes a pit stop at a gas station/store/bar in a one-horse town and immediately falls into a torrid affair with Giovanna (Clara Calamai), the beautiful bored wife of the older proprietor, which ultimately leads to murder and tragedy. But while the A-storyline beats are familiar, Visconti’s spends considerable time away from the central trio, developing Gino’s friendship with a free-spirited artist, for example, and showing his later flirtation with a young dancer. It hampers the suspense, perhaps, but develops into another Visconti’s trademark: an episodic approach to pacing, where often scenes continue to play out for some time after they reach their dramatic crescendo, subtly changing the meaning and mood of the whole.
“The Earth Trembles”/”La Terra Trema” (1948)
The purest expression of the neo-realist side of Visconti’s dualism (though it grew out of a desire to adapt the novel on which it is now only very loosely based), the strikingly beautiful “The Earth Trembles” is, in its way, as magnificent, epic, and operatic as any of Visconti’s later films. Yet bedded down into its stark, unforgiving landscape like one of the immovable black rocks that dot the coastline of the Sicilian island, Aci Trezza, where the action takes place, “The Earth Trembles” is grounded by a resilient, unflinching humanism. At the same time, the non-professional cast portray the central family and the other islanders with such authenticity and straightforward simplicity that the film’s allegorical power, heightened by use of a poetic, omniscient voiceover, is foregrounded. Telling the story of one embattled family, whose men and boys have for generations earned a subsistence living as fishermen, it’s primarily concerned with clashing ideologies as the eldest son of the family, Antonio, his mind a little broadened by his time on the mainland (which is very rarely referred to otherwise in this isolated island microcosm), instigates a small revolt against the unjust prevailing social order. He mortgages the family home to buy a boat and go into business for himself, cutting out the leering middlemen wholesalers who raise or depress fish prices seemingly on a whim. But after a brief period of optimism, the small-mindedness of their neighbors, the entropy of tradition, the cruelty of nature, and sheer bad luck conspire against the humble hopes of the Valastros family. It sounds depressing, but somehow it’s bigger than that, more attuned to both the foolishness and the quixotic nobility of trying to row against the tide. It’s also, strangely for the avowedly Marxist Visconti, a little despairing about the efficacy of collective action as a means to change to status quo. But perhaps the greatest enigma of this inarguably brilliant film comes from watching the evocative yet authentic naturalism of these shots, these faces, these landscapes: why would Visconti ever work in a style other than the one he achieves so beautifully here?
A gloriously full-throated, unapologetic melodrama about ruinous love in a time of political upheaval, it’s not hard to see why the lush, extravagant “Senso” was regarded as a betrayal by Visconti fans hoping to see a return to his neo-realist beginnings. If anything, “Senso” feels like one of his most defiant rejections of the tenets of that movement, as in it, the Austrian-Italian war of Unification of 1866, and the struggle of the ordinary nationalist Italians against the occupying Austrians, is used as little more than an (exquisitely mounted) plot device. It’s a struggle eventually wholly betrayed by Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), an unhappily married Italian countess whose pronounced Nationalist sympathies are tossed aside when she falls insanely in love with handsome, fly-by-night Austrian officer Franz (Farley Granger). Franz uses Livia and casts her aside, before leaching more money out of her to spend on bribing doctors to certify that he cannot fight (he’s not only a cad and a faithless lover, he’s a coward!) and Livia, after her brief moment of delirious happiness, plunges headlong into degradation, entirely complicit in her own ultimate humiliation. As it sounds, this is not a film for the romantic melodrama-averse, but Valli’s fantastic performance as the increasing deranged yet coolly self-destructive Livia is surely one of the great turns in a genre notable for giving meaty roles to women. And the climax of the film, set in a parlor as Franz taunts Livia by making her ask his prostitute to stay to tea with them is surely one for the ages. Visconti does make a little room for outside context — Livia has a passionately nationalist cousin Roberto, whose money she eventually gives to Franz, thereby condemning Roberto’s company of men to a crushing defeat. And in the middle of all the figurative battles, Visconti also stages a literal one in a remarkably epic scene in which soldiers fall between haystacks and scramble over hilltops like so many ants. But here the dial is pushed all the way up to 11 for emotional, operatic “women’s picture” drama: it’s not the deepest or weightiest of Visconti’s films, but it’s one of his most ravishingly beautiful and one of his most lavishly entertaining.
“White Nights”/”Le Notti Bianche” (1957)
Perhaps as a direct reaction against excesses of “Senso,” Visconti returned to black-and-white stock and to near-contemporary Italy for this beautiful, bittersweet romance. But it’s hardly just a formal retreat, in fact “White Nights” adds a string to Visconti’s bow that is not much in evidence elsewhere: here the acknowledged master of the sweeping period opera and the allegorically powerful neo-realist drama pares everything back to deliver formally classic simplicity. The talky intimacy of this film, which unfolds almost like a tightly choreographed 1950s precursor to “Before Sunrise,” is possibly unique in his oeuvre, and it makes “White Nights” one of his most straightforwardly affecting films. Which is not to say it is without structural flourishes: in fact he shows a lovely command of temporal manipulation as he seamlessly hides cuts into and out of flashbacks and makes events from long ago that are being recounted feel like they’re happening contiguously. Which, of course, they are for the film’s principals, both of whom are haunted by the promise of a love that time, or timing, has put just out of their reach. Based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky (which apparently also inspired the not-at-all-similar “Two Lovers” from James Gray), it follows Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a lonely man newly arrived in a crumbling Italian city. One evening he meets Natalia (Maria Schell) on a bridge at dusk and a tentative relationship springs up between the two lost souls — Natalia’s loneliness has a different source as she is waiting for her man (Jean Marais) who may or may not ever return to her. Unfolding in glorious chiaroscuro photography on back streets at twilight, in nighttime doorways and most swooningly, during the first fall of snow on a canal boat ride, the film is really mostly a series of conversations between the two as, flawed though they are (she can seem coquettish at one point and cold the next), they build a fragile connection with touching tenderness. This being Visconti, however, we can hardly expect a traditionally happy ending, no matter how oddly classical the film feels overall, but the ambivalent note of acceptance, of happiness rented briefly rather than owned forever, feels far more truthful than a happy ever after, and it makes this Visconti film feel like maybe his most timeless.
“Rocco And His Brothers”/”Rocco e i suoi fratelli” (1960)
Perhaps Visconti’s most compellingly accessible film, surely “Rocco and His Brothers” is also his most influential: it’s impossible not to notice the heavy debt owed to it by the “Godfather” films of Francis Ford Coppola and by Scorsese‘s “Raging Bull” in particular. But its canonization as a kind of year-zero for the American independent movement of the 1970s perhaps ignores that the film itself has roots that stretch back a way and even across the Atlantic in the opposite direction: in particular Elia Kazan‘s 1954 “On the Waterfront” seems to feed into this story of five brothers from the poor rural South of Italy trying to make their way in the industrialized, booming North. It’s also the perfect midpoint between the naturalist realism of his early titles and the melodrama of the later, in which the former style adds gravitas and social relevance to the chewy, page-turner entertainment value of the latter. It even marks a distinct step forward from his debut “Ossessione,” where he also attempted this kind of synthesis: while actually running considerably longer, ‘Rocco’ does not suffer from the same pacing issues, and whips by, with individual episodes building toward a truly shocking, provocative climax. Divided into chapters headed after each of the five Parondi brothers, really the film becomes mostly about Simone (a brilliantly bullish and bruised Renato Salvatore) and Rocco (Alain Delon). Simone falls for an improbably beautiful prostitute, Nadia (Anne Girardot), who encourages him to pursue a boxing career. That brings him into corrupting company, and when the purehearted Rocco returns from military service and he and Nadia fall in love, the stage is set for escalating violence. To a modern eye, ‘Rocco’ is problematic in its treatment of Nadia, who is given a great deal of personality to begin with, but is gradually marginalized to the status of a sacrificial lamb in the fraternal tug-of-war, but outside of this issue, ‘Rocco’ is close to genius — a beautiful, scorching, shocking drama that takes on the resonance of a Greek tragedy as five brothers try to negotiate the balance between self-interest and familial loyalty in a city that doesn’t give a damn about any of them.
“The Leopard”/”Il gattopardo” (1963)
While one might disagree with the recent installation of this title as the greatest of all Visconti dramas, there’s no denying the sheer scope of its ambition and the massive, gravitational heft of its themes. “The Leopard,” based on the novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, tackles as its central motif no less a subject than the inevitability of social change over time, and the responsibility of each generation to make way for the next. It’s probably also the film in which he best achieved a synthesis of the micro with the macro, as Burt Lancaster‘s ageing Prince of Salina (the second largest of the Aeolian Islands after Sicily), faces encroaching irrelevance and infirmity at the same time as the anti-monarchist redshirts (under Giuseppe Garibaldi) begin to gain the upper hand in the campaign of 1860 that ultimately leads to the unification of a new, notionally more democratic Italy. But “The Leopard” also feels oddly personal (again the lure of Visconti’s autobiography, with its aristocrat/communist dichotomy becomes irresistible), as the Prince, in so many ways the symbol of an old guard entrenched in hierarchy and tradition, is also shown to have sympathy toward the redshirt cause. In particular, he indulges his handsome if feckless nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), who is involved with the rebels, though more for the romance of it than any native idealism. And yet by the end of the film, Tancredi has won not only the hand of the beautiful Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), for whom the old man himself nurses a passion, he has remade himself into the kind of pragmatic New Man that the Prince may not admire, but must ruefully cede the future to. With the last third of this long film taking place at one lavish ball as the Prince moves from room to room, increasingly at odds with the gossip and gaiety of the doomed class he represents, despite its position in the early-middle of Visconti’s feature career, it feels like a farewell: an extended, protracted, painful goodbye to a way of life that has its own beauty and nobility but cannot, and should not, survive.
“The Damned”/”La caduta degli dei (Götterdämmerung)” (1969)
There’s some debate as to which film we should classify as the “best” of Visconti’s technicolor dramas, but there’s a small minority — okay there’s one, me — who thinks the needle should tend away from the stateliness of “The Leopard” and point straight at the absolutely bonkers “The Damned.” In fact, there are at least two of us — the film was also the single favorite of Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s (our retro here), which, if you’ve seen any of his movies, makes an awful lot of sense. Shifting his historical focus away from the Risorgimento period of Italian history and taking in instead the pre-war rise of Nazism in Germany, Visconti again creates a parable of doomed decadence by focusing on one high-society family, in this case the von Essenbeck clan, who derive their wealth and influence from a steelworks empire. Prior to his murder and the takeover of the business by Friedrich (Dirk Bogarde), the social-climbing lover of his widowed daughter Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), the old Baron had done equitable business with the Nazis. But in the person of SS Officer Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), the Party sees an opportunity after his death to gain full control of the steelworks they need for their massive remilitarization programme. Maneuvering the family members along the faultlines of their myopic internal jealousies and deviances, Aschenbach emerges as the film’s puppeteer, but it’s Martin (Helmut Berger), Sophie’s cross-dressing, child-molesting, incestuous son who emerges as its most unforgettable character (Umberto Orsini and Charlotte Rampling also feature as the family’s only “good” members, who naturally pay the ultimate price for their relative decency). This is an extraordinarily lurid film, even brushing against real historical events by staging the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” as a gay Nazi orgy that turns abruptly into a Sam Peckinpah-style bloodbath. But the inherent camp of a lot of the imagery, and even the occasionally gaudy, crash-zoom filmmaking somehow builds to a truly remarkable piece of work, a film that embodies Visconti’s recurrent themes of self-defeat and self-loathing (especially for the reactionary, self-interested upper classes) possibly better than any other of his titles. This is a portrait of decadence leading to personal and public moral decay so absolute it’s practically apocalyptic, which might seem overwrought if we knew nothing of the absolute moral apocalypse that was to come in the form of World War II.
“Death In Venice”/”Morte a Venezia” (1971)
Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann‘s novella of doomed, unconsummated homosexual desire set against the backdrop of fading grandeur that was Venice in 1912, is such a famous touchpoint that it can’t be ignored on any list of his essential films, but that shouldn’t be necessarily taken as a ringing endorsement. In fact, the film can also be seen as the embodiment of everything off-putting about Visconti’s oeuvre. Despite weighing in as one of his shorter films (130 minutes) it can feel indulgently overlong, lingering on brief moments so heavily that a momentary glance can become ponderous and not a little precious. This is partly due to the difficulty of gaining any sort of purchase on a character as peevishly buttoned-up as Dirk Bogarde‘s Aschenbach is here: while in altering the character’s profession from writer (in the novella) to composer, Visconti was perhaps hoping to make it feel more cinematic (and certain Mahler pieces are used to good effect), actually it puts Aschenbach’s psychology further out of our reach. Or perhaps it’s more that we can understand him all too readily, but the stiff reserve of the performance and the languid pacing give us very little reason to care. Told in carefully composed static shots and pallid pans, the upper-crust Aschenbach travels to the Lido in Venice for health reasons, where he becomes erotically fixated on a young Polish boy, Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen). It seems the older man, in failing health, losing his vigor and his looks (hence the grotesque rivulet of black hair dye that runs down his deathly white face as he dies) sees in Tadzio not just everything he secretly desires, but everything he once was. Almost more interesting, though, is the background texture: Venice is in the throes of a cholera epidemic that the locals keep secret from the cash-cow tourists like Aschenbach — a fascinating detail that adds to the limbo-like sense of the man’s final days as taking place in a weird quarantine zone between life and death, between beauty and rot, between heaven and hell. It’s hardly entry-level Visconti, and it may prove just too bloodless an experience for some, but it’s probably as a study of this sort of liminality that “Death in Venice” works best.
Suggestions for further watching:
This sampler is really just that, and there are those who will no doubt argue the merits of any of the remaining six features films from Visconti as deserving of inclusion here. The two further titles, however, that I was closest to including were from either end of his career: 1952’s “Bellissima,” an unusual-for-Visconti comedy title, with a nice line in inside-baseball satire in which Anna Magnani plays a mother determined to get her daughter into the movies; and his very last film, “L’Innocente,” a period melodrama released the year of his death in 1976.
But do please let us know in the comments about your favorite Visconti films, or even moments (there are so many standout scenes and shots across all his films), or take me to task on any of my interpretations of the above titles.