‘Senso’ – love in a time of revolution on Max and Criterion Channel

Operatic, painterly, theatrical, musical. Senso (Italy, 1954), the fourth feature from Luchino Visconti, is all of these, but ultimately this lush, lavish melodrama of a self-destructive love affair set against the idealistic passions of the Risorgimento (the fight for the unification of Italy) is the very definition of cinema.

Alida Valli (The Third Man) plays the married Countess Livia Serpieri, a proud Venetian in 19th century occupied Venice on the verge of revolution. American actor Farley Granger (fresh from Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train) is Austrian officer Franz Mahler, a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform.

They are enemies by definition—Livia supports the revolutionaries while Franz is a member of the occupying forces—brought together when Livia begs him to call off a duel with her passionate cousin, a leader in the brewing resistance. Walking along the canals at night, she falls in love, and Visconti offers us the glow of her flame in the light of the rising sun as she steps home in the dawn. As she falls helplessly, passionately in love with this handsome but mercenary officer, the country marches to revolution, but her dedication to the cause wilts under her desire and obsession.

While handsome and tall with crisp military bearing and a way of appearing sincere (if not exactly passionate) as he woos and seduces, Granger simply doesn’t have Valli’s presence or personality. Valli tends toward the operatic expressions which would be overplayed in a realist film but seems right for a woman of impulse and emotion. What Granger captures is the confident smugness, arrogance, and vanity of this shallow, cowardly cad of an officer who uses romance for his own pleasures and greed.

Visconti frames her story with magnificent scenes of revolution and war staged on a vast scale and winds Livia’s spiral through the pageant of history playing round her. He shot much of the film on location in Venice and at a palatial estate near Vicenza and he makes magnificent use of his locations to place his characters with the larger world, and creates a grand action painting from the death and destruction of the vividly choreographed battle scenes.

You could call this romantic tragedy and Visconti certainly has Valli play it as such, her careful social composure giving way to wide-eyed expressions of panic, anxiety and ardor. But as he casts her melodramatic meltdown into grand gestures of self-destructive, emotionally-driven action against the bigger picture of a national uprising, her story becomes more pathetic and her furious revenge more motivated.

A masterpiece of Visconti’s career and a magnificent Technicolor production, this is also one of the most lavish restorations of a film classic ever. Funded by Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation and executed by the Cinetecca di Bologna, it’s a painstaking reconstruction of the damaged original three-strip elements through digital means to preserve the filmic quality of the texture, the grain, and the unique colors of this process. The image is stunning, not showy but rich in subtle, quietly expressive colors and sharp enough to see all the way through Visconti’s deep-focus shots.

In Italian with English subtitles.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Senso (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Senso (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Blu-ray and DVD release feature the shorter English language cut of the film The Wanton Countess, from a translation credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles, and two featurettes: the 33-minute “The Making of Senso” and the 36-minute “Viva Verdi: Visconti and Opera,” which explores Visconti’s love of opera. There’s also a visual essay by Peter Cowie, the 1966 BBC documentary “Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti,” and an accompanying booklet.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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