Luchino Visconti

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Richard Roud

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[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 action? Has Visconti failed, as so many others have failed before him, in the attempt to create a modern tragedy? I think not. For … he has succeeded in creating the climate of tragedy, which is perhaps as far as any modern artist can go…. Visconti has turned—as before—to opera….

Senso, of course, was operatic, but that was an easier problem to solve—19th century Venice, colour, and the backdrop of the Risorgimento. Rocco, too, was in the same genre, but there I feel Visconti came to grief by trying to ally the operatic with social realism. This time, leaving realism behind, he seems to me to have succeeded. How? The tremendous contrast between the prologue and the drama proper points the way. From the open-plan room, from the broad highways, we suddenly are confronted with a dark palace. Never have so many doors been opened and shut in a film before: opened, shut, locked, forced, half-opened. But the darkness of the house is contrasted with the light outside: this is a summer tragedy. This light is bright, blinding, even. The contrast is accentuated by the way in which Visconti has lit and shot the film….

In any case, Visconti has always gone against the prevailing fashions. (p. 40)

But sheer determination not to go along the well-travelled road has never been a guarantee of a successful work of art. What counts here is the tremendous conviction one feels behind the film, a conviction one did not always recognise in Rocco. There is also a dramatic intensity which was absent from The Leopard, a feeling that the film is all one massive whole, like the cyclopean blocks that make up the walls of Volterra. This solidity is of course contrasted with the nearly deliquescent nature of the drama; just as, in spite of the walls, Volterra is the centre of a slide area. We see the church with a gaping cleft in the façade, and Orestes tells us that slowly the whole town is crumbling away. This might be interpreted as a mild attempt by Visconti to inject an element of social comment—death of the aristocracy—but I do not think so…. (p. 41)

Richard Roud, "Film Reviews: 'Of a Thousand Delights'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1965 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 35, No. 1, Winter, 1965–66, pp. 40-1.

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