Article abstract: Visconti helped create the neorealist movement in Italian cinema, by which Italians came to grips with the post-World War II world.
Don Luchino Visconti, count of Modrone, was born to one of Milan’s and Italy’s illustrious families, a fact that shaped his sensibilities and his films. Already artistic as a boy, he studied music and set design. From 1936 to 1940, Visconti assisted film director Jean Renoir in Paris. From 1945 to 1948, he introduced many plays by young European playwrights, particularly Jean Cocteau, at Rome’s Teatro Eliseo. Thus he refined the art of directing actors to portray their characters as moving naturally through the time and place of the plot. In France Visconti adopted the politics of the French Popular Front against the Nazis, later joining the Italian resistance movement. In 1944 he escaped a Nazi death sentence for concealing escaped Allied prisoners and Italian partisans in his villa.
Under fascism (1928-1944), Italian film had leaned toward politically harmless, lavish costume period pieces and escapist comedies. The new social perspectives resulting from the fascist period and World War II fostered a national awakening to real problems that had endured since the Risorgimento, Italy’s unification movement of the 1860’s. Visconti became a leader among a group of intellectuals who wrote for the journal Cinema and who espoused a mix of realistic cinematic ideas that came to be known as neorealism. The term applies to many Italian films made between 1943 and 1971.
While neorealism dealt with Italian social problems during the immediate postwar period by means of real-life, even sordid, plots (its content), it was important, too, for its new cinematic aesthetics (its form): on-location shooting rather than studio sets and use of nonprofessional actors and documentary effects in which screen time reflected actual time. It became “a way of seeing reality without prejudice.”
Visconti was a prime theoretician and practitioner of neorealism. His films were characterized, moreover, by a visual richness often enhanced by gorgeous, evocative music. Though he outwardly espoused Marxism after World War II, he remained an aristocrat who harbored a paternalistic affection for the poor and whose most natural instinct was to enjoy their respect while assisting them in their needs and problems.
Visconti’s first film, Ossessione (obsession), based on James Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), appeared in 1942. This masterpiece helped establish the neorealist intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere. Indeed, the term was first used in the Rome review Il Film (June, 1943) to describe Ossessione . Three main characters propel the story, set in a wayside trattoria. Giovanna is tragically made to be used and cast aside. Bragana, her husband, is disgustingly unattractive but likeable. Gino, the lover, has used Giovanna without love but is full of guilt for betraying Bragana’s kindness. Now persuaded to kill Bragana, he is over his head in a relationship with a woman he does not want. After the murder, which is officially regarded as an accident, pregnant Giovanna realizes she is not loved. Ironically, when Giovanna dies in a true auto accident, Gino is accused of murder. Visconti intrudes no moral judgment but allows “the wages of sin” theme to play itself out as the inevitable end of such an affair. In Italian cinema up to that time, raw passion and sex were nonexistent; bourgeois life was staid and stable. Visconti showed restlessness, adultery, and tragedy. It was the revelation of an Italy of poverty and suffering very different from what previous films had portrayed. Yet its characters were not protestors; rather, their passion was part of the poetry...
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of real life.
La Terra Trema (1948; The Earth Trembles) was Visconti’s next film. The talk of the 1948 Venice Festival, the film is, perhaps, the masterpiece of neorealism. Set in the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, it was intended by Visconti to be the first of a trilogy (fishermen, miners, and peasants) that was never completed. In nearly textbook neorealist style, the film has a documentary mood, using for its cast only the fishermen of Aci Trezza. Visconti himself described how his film virtually made itself. Every day he would tell the peasants what events were to be filmed, then incorporated their spontaneous reactions into the script, which thus evolved as the film progressed. According to the director, “They put what I asked them to say into their own words.” Visconti kept their actual voices—and Sicilian dialect—introducing subtitles to translate the Sicilian where necessary to the plot. He also editorialized by means of an objective-sounding (but actually Marxist) voice-over narrative in Italian.
The theme of La Terra Trema is the misery of the working class, which serves an archaic sociopolitical system that does not serve it in return. The film is slow moving, but Visconti noted that this reflects the timeless ritual, the archetypal drama, the invariable slowness of life in Aci Trezza. The long takes of the men at work, of the women waiting for their men’s daily return from the sea, and of the resplendent Sicilian landscape reflect his aesthetic ideal, which transmitted a natural beauty to the difficult lives of peasant fishermen. The plot is tragic. Wishing to better his family, Antonio dares to reject traditional village social hierarchy. As Antonio protests the prices he gets for his fish, the middlemen are seen standing by fascist slogans and grinning. The family mortgages their home to buy their own fishing boat. When it is destroyed in a storm, the family is destitute, and Antonio must humiliate himself by begging for work on the boats of others. Yet the film fails as pure Marxist propaganda. As a decent aristocrat, Visconti loved the old ways and saw beauty in the hierarchical society he condemned under the Marxist banner.
As if by an inner artistic necessity, Visconti followed the bleak La Terra Trema with a fresh stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (1599-1600) called Rosalinda (1948), which used Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s set designs and Provençal choruses. Indeed, throughout his career Visconti directed numerous operas, plays with social messages, and innovative renderings of the classic drama.
In Visconti’s film Senso (1954; The Wanton Contessa), Italy’s overthrow of Austrian domination in the 1860’s—the Risorgimento—became a symbol and a historical backdrop to the Italian resistance against the Nazis in 1944 and 1945. The film’s realism was based on a mix of emotions: the war that the upper classes imposed upon the masses and the postwar Italian self-awareness that they had humbled and prostituted themselves to survive and had compromised their cherished ideal of honor. Senso was a color spectacle of undoubted visual beauty that attempted to blend theater, opera, and cinema. It opens with a demonstration by Italian patriots during a performance of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore (1852). As the chorus sings “To arms, to arms,” the crowd chants “Viva Verdi!” The letters of Verdi’s name were a nationalist acronym cheering the ruling Italian house of Savoy: “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia (King of Italy).”
The characters are Countess Livia Serpieri; her husband, the count; her cousin, the patriot Ussoni; and her lover, Austrian officer Mahler. Livia betrays her husband, her country, her cousin, and her own honor. She has used money collected by Ussoni for the war against the Austrians to get Mahler released from the military, then learns that he has been unfaithful to her. Meanwhile, Livia’s husband, Count Serpieri, aids the Austrians until they begin to lose, then turns his support to Ussoni. He is concerned only with protecting his status and property and not at all for the new nation about to be born. The refined but cowardly Austrian Mahler is as decadent as his country’s effete aristocracy. While the beginning of the film is grandiose opera, its end is simple. The intense drama is suddenly depersonalized, and Mahler’s execution by Austrian authorities is filmed dispassionately and distantly from above amid offstage singing.
In Senso, and frequently thereafter, Visconti presented a historical epic in which the lives of his characters embodied and defined the great historical events of the moment. He loved the decadent world of Livia and Mahler but knew it was doomed to pass away. The Risorgimento was the historical moment that signaled the birth of Italy as a modern nation. The victory of the resistance during World War II similarly marked the demise of the old ways and announced a kind of rebirth for Italy.
Rocco e i suoi Fratelli (1960; Rocco and His Brothers) was a violent film, almost a sequel to La Terra Trema, about the divisive effects of rapid cultural change upon a traditional southern Italian family attempting to modernize itself at the expense of ancient values and its archaic code of honor. Il Gattopardo (1963; The Leopard) was also set in Sicily during the Risorgimento. As the title implies, the plot involves one who “changes his spots” as the political climate unfolds. Burt Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio (the Leopard), Prince of Salina, Sicily, who represents the learning, grace, and culture of the old aristocracy. He permits his nephew to join Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in their takeover of Sicily. Now on the winning side, his survival in the new Italian nation is assured. However, Don Fabrizio hates the vulgarity of the middle class and the hypocrisy required for survival. In the cathedral, Visconti’s ceiling camera pans over Fabrizio’s whole family, now made up with chalk, sitting motionless like statues, symbolizing the death of an era.
Morte a Venezia (1971; Death in Venice) was an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella, Der Tod in Venedig (1912; Death in Venice, 1925). Aschenbach is a maestro who has lost his ability to feel emotion. In Venice he experiences a revival of life in the form of a harmless homosexual attraction to a beautiful boy. However, a cholera epidemic (the cholera symbolizing the decay of an elegant prewar aristocratic society) fells Aschenbach. Visconti uses an effect also seen in Il Gattopardo and La Caduta degli Dei (1969; The Damned): Characters who are about to die or who symbolize death appear chalk-faced and ghastly. Thus does Aschenbach emerge from the barber’s chair. Soon afterward he succumbs with a smile on his face while watching the boy at play. Throughout Morte a Venezia, Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s poignant music provides a leitmotif of death.
Again in La Caduta degli Dei Visconti studies the decadence of the values of prewar aristocracy. The German Essenbeck steel family, loosely based on the Krupps, produces incestuous child molesters, suicides, power seekers, and a Nazi officer while debating whether to support the Nazi war machine. The whole is a metaphor for Nazism’s moral degradation.
Luchino Visconti shared with other neorealists a sympathy for the lower classes of Italy. He had a penchant for adapting his films from books while moving the setting to Italy and altering the plot to suit his own sensibilities. His films are strong criticisms of the hypocrisy of “phony” liberalism, and they express a deeply felt regret for the disappearance of the simple and traditional times when great families like his own could exercise the role of godfather vis-à-vis the peasantry. While important for their sociopolitical messages, Visconti’s films are rich in cinematic art. They are always visually powerful, and the astute viewer will perceive both subtle and patent symbolisms.
Armes, Roy. Patterns of Realism. Cranbury, N.J.: A. S. Barnes, 1971. General discussions of neorealism as a phenomenon of the 1940’s and 1950’s in both literature and film.
Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. The best overview of the period, with excellent characterizations and summaries of Visconti’s films. Excellent bibliography for all important themes and Italian film figures.
Gray, Hugh, ed. and trans. What is Cinema? Part II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Includes André Bazin’s essays on neorealism.
Leprohon, Pierre. The Italian Cinema. Translated by Roger Greaves and Oliver Stallybrass. New York: Praeger, 1972. The best broad history of Italian cinema.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. Visconti. 2d ed. New York: Viking, 1973. An unfavorable biography that argues Visconti’s shallowness. The author finds faults where most other treatments of Visconti find praise.
Overby, David, ed. Springtime in Italy: A Reader in Neorealism. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1979. Overby presents the many faces of neorealism.
Stirling, Monica. A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979. The most complete English-language biography, written after Visconti’s death.