The Operatic and Ecstatic Truth of Luchino Visconti


Burt Lancaster, star of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 masterpiece The Leopard, liked to tell a story about the production of the film. Playing an aging Sicilian prince in the nineteenth century, Lancaster once happened to open a drawer on set, and saw that it was filled with lovely, period-authentic silk shirts. None of them would be seen by the camera. When Lancaster inquired, Visconti responded, “You’re the prince. Is for you to touch.”

Luchino Visconti never abandoned neorealism, despite many accusations to the contrary. Rather, he expanded the definition of cinematic realism, while staying faithful to the essence of the film movement he helped pioneer. The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s massive new retrospective of the director’s career, which reaches from his early Italian neorealist works to his later historical epics, will hopefully make this evident. (The retro started yesterday and runs through June 28.) Though known for much of his career as a visual stylist of moody and extravagant melodramas — not to mention a domineering figure who seemed to embody the platonic ideal of a dictatorial auteur — he was at heart obsessed with capturing reality.

Visconti was a man of many contradictions — a count and a Marxist, a homosexual and a Catholic, a member of the establishment and a rebel who often ran afoul of censors and politicians. And despite being born into a noble family, he was also perhaps the first Italian neorealist. His directorial debut, Ossessione (1943), a compellingly grimy and meandering adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, was notable for its clear-eyed glimpses into the gritty life of ordinary people. It pre-dated the other titles — Roberto Rossellini’s Open City (1945), Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1947) — that introduced neorealism to the world. Visconti made Ossessione while Mussolini was still in power, and it infuriated the country’s officials and censors, who were mortified by the director’s daring to show the seamier side of life in Italy. By the time the Fascists burned Ossessione, Visconti had already joined the resistance, and saved a dupe negative. But because he had never bothered to clear the rights to Cain’s novel — there was a war on, after all — the film remained difficult to see, even as international interest in Italian neorealism took off after World War II. (Ossessione wouldn’t open commercially in the U.S. until 1977.)

After the war, the director moved on to the masterful La Terra Trema (1948), an expansive portrait of life in a Sicilian village and its fishermen’s efforts at collective action against powerful wholesalers. Starring ordinary villagers, many playing variations on themselves, and featuring improvised dialogue in local Sicilian dialect, the film imparted an authenticity unmatched by any other neorealist work. (Before its release, narration had to be added so that audiences in Italy could understand what the characters were saying.) But La Terra Trema is also visually striking in a way few neorealist titles were. Filmed often in carefully composed wide shots influenced by nineteenth-century painting, it’s replete with self-consciously mythic imagery — which, combined with the poetic inflections of the narration, lends the film a certain analytical distance.

Visconti’s eye and noble lineage made it inevitable that he would eventually move on to depicting the lives of Italy’s upper classes. Sure enough, with the colorfully operatic doomed romance Senso (1954), he was accused of betraying the neorealist cause. But perhaps more importantly, he seemed to betray the conventional mythology of Italian history. In Senso, a Venetian noblewoman (Alida Valli) falls for an Austrian soldier (Farley Granger) in 1866, during the Risorgimento, the long independence struggle aimed at unifying and liberating Italy. She winds up compromising her ideals for love, though the love appears to be one-sided; the Austrian is using her to flee military service, and she as a result exacts revenge. Senso was criticized by politicians on both sides not because of its main romance plot, but because Visconti dared to show the Italian army refusing the help of volunteer guerrillas, and because he depicted Italy’s defeat at the hands of the Austrians during the disastrous Battle of Custoza.

There wasn’t nearly as much controversy when Visconti came around to making The Leopard; the film was a massive international hit, though it was initially butchered upon U.S. release. Many critics at the time were perplexed by the sight of the macho Lancaster playing an aging Sicilian nobleman, but this remains his greatest performance (despite the fact that he’s dubbed into Italian). The actor’s athletic grace somehow translates into the ideal embodiment of a reserved, conflicted patriarch at odds with his times. (Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his regal bearing: What is a movie star, after all, if not a modern-day aristocrat?)

Like Senso, The Leopard is also set during the Risorgimento. While Lancaster’s Prince of Salina tries to keep his distance from the turmoil around him, his nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) goes off to fight alongside the Nationalist forces of Giuseppe Garibaldi and the redshirts — despite the fact that other members of the family are terrified these revolutionaries will destroy their way of life. But the impulsive and romantic Tancredi soon proves himself a social climber par excellence. His ability to latch onto the key political movements of his day winds up saving the family, as the newly emerging social order — corrupt and petty in its own ways — comes to look to the Prince for guidance.

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” Tancredi says at one point, and it’s a sentiment Visconti depicts in all its complexity, hope, and horror. Social change arrives slowly, and progress is sometimes brought about by disreputable people. The Prince knows the past — with its iniquities, its hierarchies, its injustices — is gone forever. But he also laments the passing of a way of life: “We were the leopards, the lions. Those who take our place will be jackals and sheep,” he observes. “And the whole lot of us — leopards, lions, jackals, and sheep — will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth.”

The Prince sees the death of his class in the face of his own nephew. And in the film’s most heartbreaking scene — a quiet moment of solitude in the middle of a bravura, 45-minute-long ball sequence that would go on to influence everyone from Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Bertrand Bonello and Alexander Sokurov — the melancholy Prince reflects on his own mortality as he observes a Jean-Baptiste Greuze painting of a deathbed scene. (The film tells us the painting is called The Death of a Just Man. Ironically, it’s actually called The Father’s Curse — The Son Punished.)

There are many historical films, but The Leopard is, to my mind, one of the rare movies that is genuinely about history. That is to say, it depicts, through its drama, its character interactions, and its visual style, an actual historical process, in all its messiness, contradiction, and ridiculousness: the replacement of one class by another, the consolidation of a scattered land of fiefdoms and nation-states into one country. Even the most intimate scenes seethe with a sense of change, of a society transforming before our very eyes.

Another indelible moment: The breathtaking entrance of Claudia Cardinale. Playing the mysterious daughter of a local official, she hesitantly walks into a dinner party, and every head in the room turns — including that of Tancredi, who will eventually marry her and cement his place in the emerging new class, a nobleman marrying down to preserve his status. But here, in this instance, as Cardinale enters and captures Delon’s eye, we see, expressed with the full force of cinematic style and star power, the promise of an onscreen couple presented as if it were the realization of a historical process: These are two of the most beautiful humans on Earth, and it’s inevitable that they will find each other in this room. Delon will meet Cardinale. The nobleman will meet the middle-class girl. Wealth will preserve itself. The Italian idea will survive.

Such films were a far cry from the gritty tenements and the throbbing, teeming streets of neorealism — and people like Lancaster and Delon and Valli and Granger were the diametrical opposite of the nonprofessionals who populated movies like Shoeshine or La Terra Trema. But Visconti’s restless search for authenticity was rooted in the same ideals that powered neorealism, which had its roots in French cinema and the work of Jean Renoir, as well as the literary naturalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Visconti had been Renoir’s assistant in the Thirties; from that director, I suspect, he learned the value of establishing a milieu and using it to develop his characters. By capturing true behavior in authentic settings, Visconti not only conjured a reality that both characters and audience could inhabit — he also portrayed the individual’s relationship to the world around him.

In 1969’s The Damned, the heady, twisted decadence with which Visconti films the lives of a family of German industrialists during World War II is an effort to reimagine the world that bred (and was bred by) Nazism. The behavior in the film is monstrous, with just about every imaginable sin depicted — murder, molestation, incest — and the picture fit perhaps too easily into the late-Sixties/early-Seventies fashion of Nazisploitation films. But Visconti wants to plunge us into the textures and postures of this world, however gruesome they may be, to help us better understand how it came to be.

Similarly, his notorious 1971 adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice — with its blasts of Mahler, its meticulously re-created 1911 Venice, its dreamy flashbacks to a life lived in search of beauty — is an attempt to recreate a subjective reality that will help us appreciate the protagonist’s doomed (and mostly metaphorical) obsession with a teenage boy. How can we understand such poisoned despair without being transported into that world to some extent?

What to make, then, of Visconti’s Albert Camus adaptation The Stranger (1967), one of the director’s least-seen films, starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina? Visconti was knocked at the time for turning Camus’s vital, existentialist masterpiece into a stuffy period piece set in the late Thirties — for, essentially, pulling a Visconti on it. Interestingly, the director himself wanted to make the film contemporary; it was Camus’s widow who insisted on a period setting and strict fidelity to the novel. Visconti himself, as a result, was unhappy with the finished product.

Even so, his Stranger is a surprisingly earthy experience, foregrounding the oppressive, mind-bending heat that courses through the book. Sweat constantly seeps through the shirt of our protagonist, Meursault. Fans everywhere blast away helplessly. Passion and exhaustion seem to be locked in a deadly embrace throughout. Visconti re-creates the textures of the physical world with uncommon precision, which in turn highlights the distant, disaffected nature of Meursault’s inner life. To a filmmaker for whom surface and atmosphere had always provided insights into psychology, this is a telling tension: For Visconti, the tragedy of Meursault is the fact that we can never really know or understand him.

A personal note: Visconti’s work was among my early gateway drugs into cinephilia, but when I was young, these movies were very hard to see. The Damned and Death in Venice were available on video, but almost everything else was practically impossible to find. (The first time I saw Brooklyn was when I came as a teen for a 1992 Brooklyn Museum screening of his ultra-rare 1965 film Sandra, also starring Cardinale.) Nowadays, the films — most of them, at any rate — are widely available on video. His restored film maudit from 1973, Ludwig (to which the Film Society will give a weeklong run), is now out in an exhaustive boxed set. SensoThe Leopard, and White Nights have been treated to beautiful Criterion editions. All that is great news — wonderful news — but it’s important to remember how essential the big screen was to Visconti’s whole project. These were immersive experiences, plunging us into impeccably reconstructed worlds that would help us get a grasp on history, politics, and human nature. If you’re able, don’t miss the chance to see these films on a big screen.

‘Visconti: A Retrospective’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Through June 28

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