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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 couple which appear and reappear in big close-up. The quality of the photography in all of Visconti's films has been superb but unobtrusive, and cost him endless hours of meditation.
Visconti's concern with the narrative aspects of his films is a somewhat unusual trait in the context of the postwar Italian film. The tenor of neorealism has been to reject a primary concern with the story, at least with the contriving of a self-contained "plot." According to Cesare Zavattini, the ideal neorealist movie would be shot by an unseen camera on a street corner like any other, on a day like any other; it would not be a structure which builds up and then resolves itself, but a series of logically and chronologically connected episodes. (pp. 12-13)
By contrast, Visconti's films have been conceived as "historical" constructs: a line of events develops with a coherent logic toward a destiny, a dénouement. (p. 13)
In Ossessione, made in 1942–43, Visconti undertook to tell a story of sensual love and crime derived from James Cain's novel [The Postman Always Rings Twice] but set in the flatlands around the Po River in contemporary Italy…. In Visconti's treatment Cain's cynicism and violence were toned down; sensual passion, greed, human alienation, isolation, and guilt were brought to the foreground.
Three features stand out in Ossessione. One was the unusually frank treatment of sex in the relationship between the two protagonists. This was one of the reasons, together with the general turmoil that was sweeping the country, and objections of the censors to the movie's pessimistic, defeatist mood and political undertones, why Ossessione never made the normal distribution circuits in Italy. A second feature is the unprecedented formal care the director had given to all aspects of his job: photography, acting, settings, camerawork…. The final and critical feature of Ossessione was its new, vital, uncontrived and anti-rhetorical approach, which has made critics consider it a precursor of neorealism.
The break of Ossessione with the white-telephone manner which then dominated the "contact" of the film with the reality of contemporary Italian society could not be more complete. In an almost violent way, Ossessione really reestablished such contact—with bitter contempt for the fictional, utterly false way in which that reality had been so far avoided rather than sought. The heat and the sounds and the dust of the Po flatland; the drabness, the disorder of the house interiors, of the rooms for rent; the unkemptness in the train's third-class cars; the vulgar loudness of the local festivals and singing contests; the tired pace of life in this setting, the greed and the possessiveness of the people's life in it: all these traits of the bare everyday reality of a fairly typical corner of his country Visconti perceived with pitiless sharpness. (p. 14)
On the basis of Visconti's unmistakable success in making the film medium "meet the reality of the country" arose the misconception of Ossessione as a neorealist movie. The break with the pre-neorealist Italian film is indeed neat and full…. Perhaps the conditions for Visconti's taking that direction simply were not there; the rejuvenating experience of the Resistance, for instance, which Visconti was to live through later, was not yet a source of inspiration and of hope in the years when he made Ossessione. Whatever this or other factors—such as the oppressive political climate of dying Fascism—the basic approach of Ossessione was reminiscent of prewar French director Carné: not in dialogue, certainly, but in a certain calculation and formality….
For one thing, there is none of the keen awareness of the historical, time-bound dimensions of the "human situations" found in the great neorealist films. For all the naturalism of its "geographic," "spatial" details, Ossessione could as well have been situated in another historical epoch.
Again, in the neorealist masterworks the characters derive their motivations, the logic and direction of their action from being construed as socially motivated, as members of historically conditioned and differentiated social groups…. But the protagonist of Ossessione is a marginal man, uprooted from his social couche, evolving his action only from a keenly idiosyncratic kernel of motivations and meanings. Also marginal is the only other character for whom Visconti feels any sympathy (he has hardly any for the woman, as is mostly the case in his pictures): a wandering actor called "lo Spagnolo," who bears some resemblance to Fellini's "Fool" in La Strada. But where as Fellini quite explicitly uses the Fool as a mythical semi-angelic figure, Visconti claimed for "lo Spagnolo" a full reality, but in utter contempt for what was going to be the central canon of the neorealistic conception of the character: its construction and development in terms of an identification with a wider, collective consciousness. (p. 15)
With La Terra Trema  Visconti vigorously and unmistakably joined forces with [the neorealist movement] and posed his candidature to creative leadership in it.
Indeed La Terra Trema, a picture about a fishermen's village in Sicily, was designed from the beginning with an almost paradigmatic faithfulness to some of the expressed or unexpressed "canons" of neorealism. Apparently Visconti thought of it initially as a documentary—and this early inspiration has left unmistakable marks on the style of the film…. Even when that initial design changed into that of a "social epic,"… Visconti stuck to methods which neorealism had in turn taken from the documentarist tradition…. Since "in Sicily Italian is not the language of the poor" his neorealist orthodoxy led him to put the dialogues exclusively in the local dialect…. The dialogues themselves were the actors' own phrasing, after Visconti had told them what the broad meaning of the line would have to be. The nature and content of the story, then, were meant to build into the picture that historical and collective awareness which had largely been missing in Ossessione. The social relationships of the fishermen to the fishmerchants were made the substance of the story, and each of the characters lived it as rooted in his socially determined condition. (pp. 15-16)
La Terra Trema is an almost completely successful work. It is a monumental picture, which inspires a feeling of awe. It brings to the screen, in images of splendid plastic beauty, the fullness of life of the village, the bitterness and the elation of its ever-repeated struggle with the sea. [Robert] Flaherty himself, in Man of Aran, hardly surpassed the mute sense of tragedy which Visconti gives to the waiting of the women after a storm. The social relationships whose pressure upon the fishermen Visconti wanted to reveal are made vivid in the scene of the market, where the camera finds its way on a track amid the voices and sounds of the crowd, to watch the transactions between the fishermen and the merchants. The fullness of these contacts with reality is possibly unparalled in Italian neorealism, with the exception perhaps of the last episode of Paisà. What is lacking is rather a feeling of participation: that alive, felt participation which makes DeSica virbrate along with the action in Bicycle Thief, and takes the spectator as he watches the scene of the maid in the kitchen in Umberto D. This is not to be found in La Terra Trema. It is not that Visconti only watches the action develop: on the contrary, he always construes it, step by step, and guides it unerringly toward its consummation. But his presence is always mediate, never immediate. Either a substantial "extraneity" to the drama itself, which Visconti may have felt in spite of himself, or an overwhelming preoccupation with the formal-stylistical job of making the movie (a preoccupation which was largely successful, of which Visconti was quite aware, and which he did not mind), or perhaps both these factors, make La Terra Trema a monumental picture which somehow does not get its message across….
The story, the cast, the stylistic key of [Bellisima (1951)] (one without the arduous expressive flights of some parts of La Terra Trema) appeared to express a desire to play it safe, to make [the film] into a popular picture in rather a different sense from that of La Terra Trema. But it would be a mistake to infer that Visconti had simply thrown in the sponge, as so many actual or would-be movie creators have had to do at some time in their career…. Actually Visconti's ambitions had simply become more covert and more subtle. (p. 17)
[He] produced a splendid portrait of the protagonist, Maddalena, but he did not overcharge the figure with sympathy and stood somewhat aloof from her…. Visconti looked at Maddalena's own world, her Roman working-class milieu, with a sharp and perceiving eye: he dissected pitilessly its daily miseries and its occasional attempts at evasion: the big meals all'aperto, the soccer game, the unrealizable dream of owning one's house. In Bellissima Visconti also displayed his animosity toward women; with the exception of Maddalena, he showed them as greedy, twisted, arid figures…. Visconti looked with a shudder even at the sensuous surrender to her husband with which Maddalena at the end signified her frustrated withdrawal into her own world: she had learned her lesson, but Visconti gave her little sympathy for it. Such motifs, systematically evading the expectations one might have in such situations, are played quite subtly in Bellissima. It remains a rather puzzling picture, unamiable and unappealing, although its stylistic tone is quite high, and the portrait of Maddalena is clearly an achievement.
With Senso, which he made in 1951, Visconti took up a more overt, more complex challenge…. As the plot shows, Visconti was to deal with a historical theme….
In Visconti's intentions, Senso was to prove that the reality which could be dealt with "realistically" in a film need not be limited, along one dimension, to strictly contemporary events, or along another, to lower- or middle-class milieux….
It was an important challenge that lay in Visconti's intention to deal with a historical situation in the spirit of neorealism. The cinema has always felt the attraction of the "historical" film, and many times raised the claim that it had succeeded in bringing forth History as Reality….
This is the challenge which Senso takes up. It does it through a complex strategy, not all the lines of which are successful. (p. 18)
Visconti seems to have judged that the first and major element of a realist film approach to history is a strenuous effort to recapture from inside the reality of the historical background. His was not simply a concern with exact reconstruction of settings; it was a serious philological effort to evoke the color, the feel, the proportion of the smallest detail. In his search for how the reality around them appeared to the characters of his story, he drew upon the painters, musicians, and writers of that age, as well as its historians….
Senso is by far the best color movie ever made, as far as color goes: not only because it exploited more fully than ever before the technical potentialities of Technicolor; but mainly because it inexorably bent those potentialities to expressive goals: it used the color to bring forth meanings, references, undercurrents of feeling. (p. 19)
Another line of attack taken by Visconti to the task of a realistic historical film, was his attempt to maintain a complex and delicate balance between the "private" and the "public" side of the story: the affair between Countess Serpieri and Lieutenant Mahler on one side, the development of the Venetian independence movement and the war on the other. Such a balance, if successfully struck, would have helped avoid that flattening out of history into sheer oleography or breathless anecdote to which most historical movies have fallen victim. But the attempt was not successful: Visconti's attention is mainly on that knot of shame, of reckless egoism, of reciprocal betrayal, which is Livia's affair with Franz; the "public" line of events appears and disappears in the background, but is not integrated with the "private" line. (p. 20)
Finally, to avoid another common pitfall of "historical" films, the failure to interpret their characters, rather than just idolizing them or condemning them, Visconti projected a Marxian interpretation of his figures—interpreted them in class terms…. Not even this line of Visconti's effort is completely successful: the ruinous moral features of [Livia and Franz] so clearly verge on the monstrous, on the pathological, that we refuse to accept them as symbols of a class destiny.
Behind this weakness of Senso lies perhaps a fundamental ambiguity in Visconti's own attitude toward the world of Livia and Franz Mahler. As a Marxian intellectual Visconti condemns and rejects that world, and preaches the inevitability, the historical necessity, of its ruin. Yet, because of his links of blood and culture to that aristocracy, Visconti seems to feel a morbid fascination with its refined wealth, its manners, its destiny of decadence. (pp. 20-1)
A proud, incisive statement, [Le Notti Bianche (1957)] reveals rather clearly certain traits of the "uomo Visconti"…. (p. 21)
The film derived a definite feel of irreality (in spite of Visconti's own contention to the opposite) from developing wholly at night, in a badly lit quarter of narrow lanes and steep bridges, which vaguely suggested an area in Leghorn. The set design, the lighting, and the photography were all aimed at creating a haunting atmosphere, while the drama, in a sense, went on inside the characters. There is a double remove from reality; one from the daytime reality of things and into the nocturnal reality of the selves; the other in dissolving even that reality either into a receding perspective which mixes memories and hopes (in Natalia's case) or into a frantic, self-defeating search for a response on the part of the Other (in Mario's case). The spectator—like Mario himself, in a way—is left to wonder whether the action he has seen develop was meant to have ever happened, or whether it was a nightmare to start with.
Thus, the negative side of Visconti's intention, the neat break with the neorealist formula, is fully embodied in Le Notti Bianche. But the nature of the "gate" Visconti is opening is much less clear….
Visconti has, like Fellini, never been a "typical" neorealist; though he has led, he has at the same time always stood slightly aside. And while Le Notti Bianche is no doubt a slighter film than Visconti's previous works, he remains an innovating force in the cinema, ever able to go beyond himself. (p. 22)
Gianfranco Poggi, "Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1960 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1960, pp. 11-12.