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 L'Innocente is nevertheless a remarkable film, both in itself and in relation to Visconti's other work. It is first of all, it should be said, a triumph of décor—a décor beyond the dreams (or imagination) of MGM in its heyday, since so much of it is created in real locations. The concept of the décor is nevertheless theatrical, so that places become sets rather than sets being used to recreate places…. There is however no sense of enclosure, or a submergence of human figures in their setting, such as one finds in Conversation Piece, where the focus line tends to pass through the background figures and the soft—or unsharp—focus makes shadowy boundaries between person and place. Rather the settings form a concordant part of the rules of the game—a game which Tullio plays to the utmost, until destroyed by the incursion of an alien element into it.
Tullio, the central but not necessarily the most interesting character, is the empty D'Annunzian superman, a salon Nietzschean whose superiority and indifference take the form of a stylishness which masks an inability to decide his life. (pp. 123-24)
The absence of a sufficient psychology for the character is perhaps what has caused L'Innocente to be compared to Dreyer's Gertrud. But whereas in Gertrud the insufficiency is such as to undermine any sense of the film as a realistic fiction, here realism is maintained. If what Tullio does and what happens to him remain enigmatic, it is not because the film's construction refuses to the spectator evidence of the status of the events shown, but because Tullio is, simply, an enigmatic character. The character has motivations, but they are unclear to him, and unclear to us. A far more relevant comparison would be with Lo Straniero, Visconti's own 1967 adaptation of Camus' L'Etranger. Tullio is in many ways the character that Mastroianni's Meursault should have been in the earlier film, but was not. What Visconti did in Lo Straniero was to endow Meursault with a psychology—a 'character'—which Camus' text refuses to him. Meursault becomes a man who is inexplicable, whereas in the novel he is simply unexplained. In L'Innocente the form of character creation is similar, but more successful….
The construction of L'Innocente seems to me to run along dual lines. On the one hand there is the creation of an as it were autonomous fiction, with characters possessed of a certain degree of freedom and mobility and a certain degree of knowledge: characters, in other words, to be looked on as characters. And on the other hand there is an investigation of a world in which such characters are thought to exist. It is all too easy when trying to make sense of the film to elide those two lines into each other, and to see the...
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world of the film as that of a decadent society, thereby missing the point, for what is in fact at stake is not a decadent society but a decadentist literature which provides the rules of the game which Visconti then scrutinises. The film is always striving towards the real-isation of something artificial, a fiction materialised with real actors in real places, which nevertheless constantly declares itself as a fiction….
The film never really resolves itself in one way or the other—which has always been the weakness of Visconti's films but also their strength. (p. 124)
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "Film Reviews: 'L'Innocente'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1978 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 47, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 123-24.