Luchino Visconti

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Donald Lyons

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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 Sicily gathers to dance, the linear rhythms of the movie (driveway, battle, church, telescope) yielding to the circles of the dance….

The function of the infinitely detailed background is to silhouette the lonely, aware protagonist; the crowd of people and things exists as foil to the solitary individual. (p. 11)

The Leopard is family history as tragedy; The Damned is family history as guignol. This preposterous phantasmagoria, pretentiously subtitled Götterdammerung, is uncontaminated by any character of sensitivity or sense, except for a few vague, vestigial liberals who are effortlessly eliminated or quickly converted to wickedness. I was surprised … how emptily rhetorical it is—a work of the will, from the outside, with no heart or point. It should have been played as comedy. (pp. 11-12)

[Death in Venice] has a stately, meditative gravity—smooth, unhurried tableaux of sea, boat, gondola, hotel, beach, sun. Ripeness is a key feeling…. Like the Prince at the end of The Leopard or Meursault in prison at the close of The Stranger …, [Aschenbach] gazes up and comprehends his own death as fulfillment and transcendence.

And what had brought Aschenbach to this comprehension is, above all, Tadzio, Polish enfant de bonne famille, object of the musician's loving obsession, and fatal magnet keeping him in the diseased city. And Visconti gives Tadzio an alert, amused, inviting complicity in the obsession…. Visconti has found space in Mann's tale to show the spirit of Romantic tragedy as the begetter of music. Art, inspired by passion, has triumphed over history.

German history was to Visconti what Italian was to Shakespeare: food for melodrama. If The Damned was a kind of bad dream of The Leopard, Ludwig is the German romanticism of Death in Venice as farce, though here brilliantly successful. Ludwig is an album of the South German royal families of Wittelsbach and Habsburg in their guttering twilight. With familiar dialectical deftness, Visconti gives us at once an irresistibly seductive dying elite and a devastating diagnosis of its fatal malady. History has stranded these pretties, these enchanted children, in their playpens; Ludwig's revenge is to build larger playpens. (p. 12)

To stand outside society and its chaining relationships is the impulse of the typical Visconti hero, from his first masterpiece, Ossessione, to his last, Conversation Piece. In Ossessione, the wanderer Gino … is tempted to the road by the figure of the Spaniard …, who proffers a Whitman-esque fantasy of male vagabondage….

[Gino and Giovanna's journey] is an Orphic journey; they have passed through death into another, free dimension. The final car trip and accident are a kind of charade, a wrenching of the lovers back into an element they had left for good. Their liberation has already occurred. And so clearly, far from heralding a neo-realist apotheosis of environment, Visconti has already in Ossessione (though he encompasses it with a truly Renoiresque grace) structured...

(This entire section contains 843 words.)

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the environment as stimulus and springboard to transcendence.

Conversation Piece—really called Family Group in an Interior, as many Visconti movies might have been—is permeated by an autumn melancholy, but laced as well with something akin to slapstick…. The result is, on one level, a very Italian comedy of mayhem in an apartment house; on another, a rich and unmistakably personal treatment of an old theme, the invasion of a refined and sensitive intelligence by the anarchic-erotic forces of the Id. It is Bringing Up Baby, as told from the side of Cary Grant and civilization.

The title, evoking genre painting of the eighteenth century, is given ironic point by the black-and-white-with-chrome décor that eventually emerges from the destructiveness upstairs, a graphic visualizing of the nervy chaos of modernity. The Professor's apartment below … perfectly evokes the culture—cluttered but human, impotent but irreplaceable—which is threatened by the attractive barbarians above. The Professor's paternal love for the gigolo, exasperated tolerance becoming anxious concern, is one of the most delicate successes of the movie; and it casts a retrospective light on the protectiveness with which Visconti has treated quasi-paternal relationships, from the Prince and Tancredi to Aschenbach and Tadzio….

Conversation Piece is the quietest, the wisest, the most intimate of all the Visconti studies of the anguished solitary—the ironic visionary striving to awake from the nightmare of history. (p. 13)

Donald Lyons, "Visconti's Magnificent Obsessions" (copyright © 1979 by Donald Lyons; reprinted by permission of the author), in Film Comment, Vol. 15, No. 2, March-April, 1979, pp. 9-13.


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