Beautiful people, in the most beautiful places, suffering the grandest of capital-R Romantic travails: Even if Sandra weren’t alive at each moment with its director’s genius for composition and staging, and even if its mysteries of sex and blood weren’t so alluring and fathomless, this remastered re-release of Luchino Visconti’s 1965 lulu of palazzos and incest and heroically strained nightgown straps would already stand as a dessert cart for the cinema-minded. A print this sparkling, actors this gorgeous, chambers this sumptuous, courtyards this shadowed and crumbling — the movie itself could be a dog, and you’d be happy just to let it lick your face for two hours.
Of course, the brilliance of Visconti’s storytelling and the daringness of his conception make this nothing of a dog — although its heated, sometimes lurid sensuality does not preclude face-licking. A swooning cursed-family tragedy that suggests a sexed-up House of Atreus (or even, at moments, of Usher), Sandra, mostly filmed in the ancient pile of Volterra, feels like some culmination of its mastermind’s interests. His first two films, from 1943 and 1951, were titled Ossessione and Bellissima, either of which would apply to this story of a young beauty (Claudia Cardinale) returning after many years’ absence to her family estate, new husband in tow, and discovering that she remains susceptible to the one comfort she enjoyed in a troubled childhood: the pawing of Gianni, her Byronic swan of a brother (Jean Sorel, all cheekbones and needy charisma).
The longer Sandra stays home, the more she’s tempted to succumb, and the more she fears there’s some taint in her blood. The occasion of her visit is the dedication of a public park in honor of the siblings’ dead father, murdered at Auschwitz by the Nazis, possibly as a result of a family member’s betrayal. This new print (restored by Sony Pictures) makes it impossible to miss the Stars of David that Sandra and Gianni always wear — here, in the ruins of the old world, the knotted perversity of myth meets the crack-up of 20th-century Europe and the glamour of high-water Italian filmmaking.
Sandra‘s fascination with somewhat regular (albeit bella as hell) folks facing such lavish torment squares with Visconti’s seemingly irreconcilable sidelines in documenting the lives of peasants and directing the greatest of operas. Despite its colossal emotions and overtures toward global significance, Sandra‘s drama always remains human, localized to this decay-touched villa and the three points of this rotted triangle. Sorel weeps and yowls, but the real pain comes from Sandra as she fights not to let herself be ravished. Cardinale’s tear-blotted face is Italy’s most beautiful ruin.