Count Luchino Visconti’s main passion was breeding horses until Coco Chanel introduced him to Jean Renoir. He soon found himself working as an assistant to Renoir in Popular Front Paris. On his return to fascist Italy, he made Ossessione (1943), followed by many notable movies. His oeuvre exemplified the two unreconciled faces of Italian cinema—the realistic and the operatically lavish. A number of them involve the moral disintegration of a family, but Visconti usually seems ambivalently drawn to the decadent society he’s ostensibly criticizing.
His stylistic debt to Renoir is confined to Ossessione, which transposes The Postman Always Rings Twice to the Po delta. Massimo Girotti stars as a drifter who turns up at an inn and gets involved with the owner’s wife (Clara Calamai). If not, as often stated, the first neorealist film, Ossessione provided a blueprint for the movement. No fascist-era film had ever shown unemployment or challenged the institution of marriage. And there had never been a character like Spagnolo (Elio Marcuzzo), the gay traveling showman who picks Girotti up on a train. Visconti’s camera eroticizes Girotti throughout—like Calamai, who does a double take when she first sees him, it can’t get enough of this hunk. Ossessione‘s co-writer, Giuseppe De Santis, describes the film as “steeped in the air of death and sperm.” The Catholic Film Center condemned it. In Salsamaggiore, bishops exorcised a theater where it had been shown. The scenes with Spagnolo were cut and only restored years later.
For what became his second feature, La Terra Trema (1948), Visconti went to Sicily with funds from the Italian Communist Party, intending to make a documentary. What he saw inspired a project for a vast fresco about the Sicilian poor. Only one part was completed, concerning the dissolution of a fishing family through exploitation by market men. A somber film of rare purity, it was shot by G.R. Aldo, the most talented of post-war Italian cinematographers.
Senso (1954) marks the end of Visconti’s neorealist season. With this story, set in 1866, of a countess whose allegiance to the cause of Italian nationalism cedes to a guilty passion during the Austrian occupation of Venice, the director began to give full rein to his taste for theatricality and grandiose mise-en-scène. Senso was the first and last color film shot by Aldo, who died in a car crash during production. Alida Valli is the Wanton Countess (the film’s dopey U.K. release title); Farley Granger, as her lover, Franz, throws himself into the best role of his career, and looks great in costume designer Piero Tosi’s period underwear.
Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Visconti’s own favorite work, recounts the destruction of a peasant family from the south who finds that the streets of Milan are not paved with gold. The Leopard (1963), about the declining fortunes of a Sicilian aristocratic clan under the Risorgimento, is, understandably, nearly everyone’s favorite Visconti film. Still another work that uses the family as a template for history, The Damned (1969) is a cold allegory about the rise of Nazi Germany, a garish caricature of the most tragic era in modern history.
Visconti delves into the German psyche again in Death in Venice (1971), with almost equally dire results. This chic gay weepie jettisons the complexity of Thomas Mann’s novella—its lifeless characters seem to be posing for stills. Back on the Rhine, Helmut Berger huffs and puffs as Ludwig (1972), the mad king of Bavaria. The film is being shown here in its restored four-hour version. Full of fine scenery, but choppy and risible, it’s an ordeal at any length.
Nearly paralyzed after a stroke, Visconti directed his last two films from a wheelchair. Conversation Piece (1974), a return to form, stars Burt Lancaster as an aging American professor in Rome whose privacy is invaded to devastating effect by a family of nouveau riche jet-setters. Visconti died on March 17, 1976, two months before the posthumous Cannes premiere of The Innocent. This stately adaptation of a Gabriele D’Annunzio novel revisits familiar territory. An impeccable re-creation of European high society at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a worthy final curtain to a remarkable career.