Luchino Visconti Essay - Critical Essays

Visconti, Luchino


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.)

Alain Tanner

With La Terra Trema, Visconti developed the neo-realist approach to a dramatic subject in its most extreme form: the players, the lines they speak, the places they live in, the whole social background and motivation, depart hardly at all from reality….

The basis of the story is Giovanni Verga's novel I Malavoglia—and Visconti's film remains surprisingly true to the letter of this original, however far it departs from it in spirit. I Malavoglia is a detailed and sombre study of the ruin of a family of fishermen, the disasters brought about by their own maladroit attempts to better their condition. "This sincere and dispassionate study", as Verga described it in his preface, seems to have been an end in itself for the novelist. He gives the reader a picture of a certain kind of life, but he is not concerned with suggesting solutions to the problems he raises. Many of the characters and situations of the film, as well as some of the dialogue and some passages in the Italian commentary, come directly from the novel, whose action is also set in the village of Trezza. But in Visconti's film all these elements serve another purpose. The artist is no longer content with the role of the objective, dispassionate observer: rather, he organises the facts of the situation for his own purpose, giving them their central place in his thesis.

Three quarters of a century separate the characters of I Malavoglia from the Valastro family of Visconti's film, and the two works in themselves sum up a period of historical change. Fatalism has given way to a struggle whose ends and means can now be clearly defined. The clearest example of this passage of time, from naturalism to neo-realism, can be found in the shift in the central character (in the novel it is the father, in the film the young nephew) and in the very different attitude he takes. The grandfather, who in the film symbolises the past, is an authentic Verga character. He is all for accepting things as they are; he represents a kind of antiquated "wisdom"; he talks only in proverbs which sound false and meaningless to his young relations….

'Ntoni, the film's hero, is essentially a character developed by Visconti. He is the first to understand the methods of the dealers in the fish market, to realise just how the fishermen are being exploited by these middlemen. Though he makes only clumsy efforts to break the economic stranglehold, though his revolt ends in failure, it would be wrong to regard the film's conclusion as a wholly pessimistic one. La Terra Trema is not just the story of a defeat, but of the lessons learnt from defeat; and if 'Ntoni's ultimate victory has no place within the framework of the film, it is because Visconti has been careful not to anticipate events. 'Ntoni knows why he has failed, as his final dialogue with the little girls makes apparent: he sees clearly what is at stake…. (p. 214)

[The script] defines a pattern of interlocking social and economic forces which set a series of events in motion: once this process is started, the wheels turn automatically, the dramatic devices merely accelerating the working of the machinery. Once the characters and initial situation are established—'Ntoni's revolt, the setting up of the family business, its failure after the storm—the other disasters that strike the Valastros all follow logically and inevitably. The family's slow disintegration is not something imaginatively plotted by the screen-writer; instead, it results from a close analysis of the way in which a society, in a given set of circumstances, will reject...

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Peter John Dyer

When great directors consciously set out to create masterpieces, it always seems to end badly. The result is lifeless and remote, and often a throw-back to some old abandoned manner…. It has now happened to Luchino Visconti in Notti Bianche…. (p. 249)

This conte, for it is little more, survives only as a basis for an uneasy attempt—in aesthetic rather than human terms—to fuse a new, enclosed, and formal mise en scène with an old, irrevocably lost nostalgia. Exquisite in gesture, marooned in time, Notti Bianche has had a great number of the most studied simplicities and elaborate fabrications of the pre-1925 avant-garde lavished upon it…. In its stylised, artificial settings, its consistently beautiful camera-work and effects of chiaroscuro; its arabesques of movement; its emotional bric-a-brac and abstract, idealised passions; above all in its disenchanted expression of the illusory nature of love—Notti Bianche is a ghost from the past….

After the themes of sexual fever, corruption, and fatality in Ossessione and Senso, this present exercise in "neo-romanticism" seems a natural enough development, if one bears in mind the hints of formalism and abstraction in Visconti's "neo-realism", as well as the pretty safe generalisation that the cinema's preoccupation with le destin and decay has never been more than one flight up from decadent cinema. Notti Bianche is decadent, and yet it could only have been made by a master. It moves slowly, but with complete exterior conviction. Visually it is an astonishing essay in black-and-white composition and architectural unity…. But within this assured, meticulous framework, the characters remain elusive symbols, part-real, part-dream, some eccentric, some capricious, their feelings intellectualised and their actions predestined. (p. 250)

Peter John Dyer, "Film Reviews: 'Notti bianche'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1958 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 5, Summer, 1958, pp. 249-50.

Gianfranco Poggi

Visconti's search is not for novelties or "effects," and it does not occasion improvisations. Visconti's real concern is with the theme and style of his pictures, rather than with a display of cinematic prowess. "Neorealism," he once remarked, "is first and foremost a question of content, and that's what matters." His camerawork is generally sober, his cutting measured and harmonious. The tensions of his films are usually "inside the shot." In the rock 'n' roll sequence in Le Notti Bianche, for instance, the emotional and rhythmic impact of a very fast montage sequence is created by a perfectly static and very long take—in which the feeling of frenetic cutting is given by the whirling heads of the dancing...

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Robert Connelly

Visconti has tried to encompass the whole of Lampedusa's novel in [The Leopard] and to include all its incidents and all its characters. He has succeeded in doing so. However, even three and a half hours aren't sufficient for such a task, and the result is that events and characters are sketchy. The American spectator unfamiliar with the details of the Italian Risorgimento [the movement for the liberation and unification of Italy between 1750 and 1870] is going to be a bit lost. This will not trouble the Italian spectator, who is fully acquainted with these characters, but for the rest of us they remain only puppet figures….

Many of what seem at first to be faults in the film can be...

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Tino Mendes Sargo

The disappointment of seeing The Leopard is in direct proportion to the promises of the project…. [The] film had everything to make it a smashing success, even the excellent photography of [Giuseppe] Rotunno….

[Unlike] most films made in this part of the world, [The Leopard] is not a producer's film. It is a director's film…. And, what's more, it is the film of a man with great experience in working from literary sources; also, this man is an aristocrat himself, coming from a most distinguished Italian family. (p. 35)

Visconti is a director whose films have largely derived from literary works; but he approached these works as a pretext, as it were, to make films...

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Richard Roud

[Vaghe Stelle dell'Ora] is a tragedy. Like Thebes, Volterra is a city dying, like human beings, of a mortal sickness; it is gradually crumbling away. Like Mycenae, it is perched high on a hill, surrounded by a cyclopean wall of stones, shaken by the winds of tragedy. Mycenae is very much to the point here, for it is not long after the return that the inevitable recognition scene takes place: Sandra … meets her brother Gianni … by the tomb of her father, and we realise suddenly that this is to be the story of Electra and Orestes, the House of Atreus….

[No] real catharsis is possible, and the drama is never truly resolved. Does the film then suffer from the lack of any decisive satisfying...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The sun—the Algerian sun—was an important part of Albert Camus's early being…. And it is integral to his first novel, The Stranger: the crucial moment of murder occurs when Meursault is in the grip of that same Algerian sun. Luchino Visconti has understood this essential thematic element perfectly. In his color film of The Stranger, apparently shot on location, Visconti has aimed to make the sun a benefaction, an oppression, an ambience. (p. 46)

This visual realization of the atmosphere is only the beginning of the film's achievements. Visconti has got a faithful screenplay…. However, to say that the script is faithful to Camus is both to praise it and to delimit it. It does the...

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Richard Schickel

Iconfess that I approached The Stranger with considerable trepidation. Albert Camus's novel, despite the vigor of its deceptively simple style, despite the marvelous clarity of its philosophy and psychology, seemed impossibly difficult to translate to the screen. (p. 163)

How wrong I was. Director Luchino Visconti, a team of screenwriters and, most especially, Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault have made from The Stranger a film that can only be described as excellent—thoughtful, moving and faithful. Above all, faithful, for theirs is the kind of modest, self-effacing craftsmanship that serves rather than exploits its basic material. Eschewing the temptation to overcinematize the...

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Margaret Tarratt

The kind of analogy which Visconti draws in [The Damned] between the history of the von Essenbecks and the rise of Nazism is by no means without precedent in literature. As artists, Visconti and Mann [particularly in his novel Buddenbrooks] have more than a little in common. The symbolic structure of Mann's novels in which 'characters and situations take on a representative symbolic character' incorporating a 'general human predicament' goes hand in hand with a minute attention to naturalistic detail. Both Mann and Visconti are stylists without being mere aesthetes. Mann's 'static and reflective' language and the distancing he achieves through his intrusion as a narrator might be said to be paralleled by...

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Stephen Farber

Death in Venice is "visual" in the very worst sense—stuffed with extravagantly pretty pictures that only obscure the themes of Thomas Mann's novella. This film does a disservice to cinema as well as to literature…. (p. 643)

Mann's novella, published in 1911, is probably one of the central works of twentieth-century literature, dealing, as it does, with sexual ambiguities, the moral failures of art, and some of the disturbing tensions in the German temperament—extreme rigor and discipline contending with a strong, suppressed desire for sensual abandon. Very little of this is suggested in the film, which has become a monotonous, protracted study of a homosexual infatuation…. The film...

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Pauline Kael

Ludwig II of Bavaria, the supreme childish fantasist among kings—and one of the most harmless of all kings—is such an obviously magical, gaudy subject for the movies that many people may look forward with glee to Visconti's Ludwig. But it's well to bear in mind that though Ludwig is remembered because of the pleasures his candied-rococo follies give us, Visconti's follies are grimly humorless. Of the major filmmakers, Luchino Visconti is certainly the most estranged from the audience. Sometimes, in his films, the vital connection between the material on the screen and us disappears, and Visconti doesn't seem to notice or to care—he just goes on without us, heavily treading water. This happens for almost...

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Stanley Kauffmann

Ludwig is about two mad kings, Ludwig II of Bavaria and Luchino Visconti, who made the picture. The latter is only figuratively true, of course, but along with Ludwig's disintegration, we can see Luchino's.

The first mad symptom is the choice of this mad subject. This is a historical epic without a hero (like Nicholas and Alexandra), a central figure but no protagonist. Two hours and 53 minutes, acres of scenery, brigades of actors, all to detail what is only a case history, not a drama, let alone a tragedy….

Is Visconti wreaking one-man revenge for the Axis? Or is he, as an Italian friend of mine maintains, simply jealous of German grandeur?


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Alexander Hutchison

Form as a dimension of meaning has little to do with morality, and yet as the prize of discipline it is invested with ethical character. This is the central paradox of Visconti's Death in Venice just as it is of Mann's novella. I will discuss elements of form and dissolution in the film, the discrepancies between meaning and manner, between profits of the plague and the price of perfection. I assume a knowledge of both novel and film. The novel remains the best guide to the film's structure….

In Il Gattopardo and L'Étranger Visconti worked close to respected literary texts. In Death in Venice he follows Mann's schema so faithfully at times that one inevitably attends to...

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Gideon Bachmann

All of Visconti's films, even those dealing with history more or less remote, chronicle realistically the fate of individuals thrown into conflict with societies with which Visconti himself in some manner, either directly or through class ties, identifies.

Identification, on the other hand, has always been a problem for Visconti; he has never carried it as far as recognition, inasmuch as there has really never been a character in his films that resembled its inventor. With Death In Venice the theme of loneliness begins to dominate, but one feels that his own experiences form the emotional base, not the source material. But now he quotes Flaubert's "Madame Bovary c'est moi" when asked...

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Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

Luchino Visconti's L'Innocente … opens with a shot of a book—Gabriele D'Annunzio's novel of that title—lying on a table. There is a zoom-in to get a closer look at the cover, a zoom-out, and then a gnarled and yet frail hand enters the frame and starts turning the pages. The hand is reputed to be in fact that of Visconti, but even if it were not its place in the fiction would be the same. It is the hand of the film author, an old yellowing hand on an old yellowing book, the two perhaps contemporary. What we are about to see, therefore, is not just a film of the book, but implicitly a restoration of a common past.

Nothing in the film quite fulfils the promise of the opening moment…. But...

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Michael Seitz

"The Innocent," despite a dated story, is a serious and masterfully made film, especially notable for its elegant mise en scène and visual sumptuousness….

Although it cannot be said to represent Visconti's final testament, the film does reflect a mastery of the medium acquired over the course of a long and distinguished career. (p. R18)

The film's initial sequence of credits reveals an old but sensitive hand (Visconti's own) carefully turning the pages of a first edition of Gabriele D'Annunzio's L'Innocente, the 1892 novel from which the movie was adapted. This apparent reverence for the text would seem to suggest a faithful rendering of the novel, but this is not...

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Donald Lyons

The occasion of The Leopard is the bourgeois revolution of 1860, Garibaldi invading Sicily, and the tone of the film is one of detached pity for the follies of the liberators….

The Prince's fastidious pride and melancholy valuing of past glory are Visconti's; there is no distancing…. The Prince's pride is earned in the film by sense, humor, kindness, rational authority, exemption from hysteria…. He is, the Prince, a man of the Enlightenment, a mathematician and astronomer, with a controlled intelligence akin to an artist's. But this pride must still be purged, and here is the function of the stupendous Ball that ends the film. It is a cosmic panorama of the old world and the new, as...

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Pauline Kael

Although [Conversation Piece] takes place entirely in the interior of a Roman house, one doesn't feel confined: Konrad and the Countess are such depraved beasties that when they start screaming insults at each other, who care about whether there's sun outdoors? (p. 35)

The story mechanism is much like that of those old Kind Lady plays in which a gang of schemers moves in on a helpless person, but this troupe has no ulterior motive. These intruders simply use the Professor the way they use everybody, and he's more than willing to be used. It is the theme of Visconti's Death in Venice all over again…. It's a winning movie—Visconti has come back changed. When you laugh, you...

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