Luchino Visconti 1906–1976
Italian film and stage director.
Visconti's international reputation was established with his first film, Ossesione, and despite a relatively small oeuvre, he has remained a major figure in Italian cinema. Of central importance to Visconti's early development as a filmmaker was his association with Jean Renoir, under whose tutelage he became involved with French film production and at whose suggestion he directed Ossessione. It is considered a masterpiece of Italian neorealistic cinema, characterized by a naturalistic, documentary approach. Visconti was born of an aristocratic Italian family, yet he early became a communist, and his concern with social and political values is manifested in his neorealist approach. In their desire to achieve verisimo, or verisimilitude in their films, the Italian neorealists sought to portray characters exploited by an unremitting social system.
It was in his next film, La Terra Trema, that Visconti most fully realized the neorealistic potential of his subject. Based on a novel by the nineteenth-century Sicilian novelist, Giovanni Verga, the film portrays the life of an Italian fisherman, a victim of the static social and economic system that perpetuates his poverty and hopeless existence. His next film, Bellisima, bears the influence of the neorealist school as well, but in its depiction of a young woman torn by the economic demands of a working class existence and her eventual capitulation to a life devoid of moral values, Visconti discovered what were to become major themes in his work: the disintegration of moral values and the struggle between one's sensual, passionate nature and one's spiritual character. Increasingly in the films that follow Bellisima, Visconti portrays a society in a state of decadence: the baroque splendors of his settings often betray the emptiness and hopelessness of human relationships, as well as the disintegration of European social structure.
Visconti's acknowledged indebtedness to the German romantic tradition is also mirrored in his themes of corruption and decadence. This influence was first evidenced in Le Notti Bianche, adapted from the novel White Nights by Dostoevsky. Many critics reacted with scorn to Visconti's romantic handling of his subject, and the film indeed signalled a further departure from his neorealist origins. This tendency was also demonstrated by Visconti's continued work in the theater, particularly in opera. His films took on an increasing visual lushness and opulence. It is apparent in Il Gattopardo, Vaghe Stelle d'Orso, and La Caduti degli Dei, and reaches its apex in his film version of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Morte a Venezia. This film brought together all of Visconti's essential themes: the destructive nature of passion, the fin-de-siecle malaise of Europe on the verge of a cataclysmic war, and the concerns of an artist mired in the decadence of his age. Morte a Venezia marks the evolution of Visconti's cinematic technique as well. The early films with their documentary style strove for a veristic portrayal of human beings whose fate was determined by their social and economic milieu. Morte a Venzia, with its elaborate, exaggerated cinematic sense, confirmed Visconti's turn from social to personal, and from simple to ornate cinematic structure. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; obituary, Vols. 65-68.)