Luchino Visconti’s first features, Ossessione and La Terra Trema, are thought of as the very model of Italian neorealism. But Visconti always kept opera close to his heart, and by his fourth film he wears it on his sleeve and lets it billow on his cape as he whisks away into the night with the lush technicolor Senso, now available in a deluxe two-disc set from Criterion. The film was never truly released in America, and Criterion’s typically thorough treatment gives us the chance to see this lesser-known work by one of the giants of world cinema.
Set in 1866, during the waning years of the Austrian occupation of Italy, Senso pits the dashing, caddish Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger, straight from Strangers on a Train) with belle of the ball and would-be freedom fighter Countess Sapieri (Alida Valli, best known for The Third Man). But there’s little sense of an inner life to these characters whose actions and love seem like mere chess moves on the world stage. Sure, Granger has a post-coital reverie about the sound of a fly buzzing on the windowpane of the lovers’ hideaway, but the result is more maudlin than pensive. That does make sense, Tennessee Williams, in collaboration with Paul Bowles, contributed dialogue to the film. Worse, the lovers have no chemistry, and all the costume and scenery and soundtrack fanfares can’t make up for that. Granger wrote that Valli was extremely cold off-set and it carries over as her temperature barely rises on set as well. All the operatic flourishes and bombastic score that accompany the predictable passion and betrayal do not enlarge same.
As Burt Lancaster would be dubbed in Visconti’s masterpiece, The Leopard, Granger is here dubbed into Italian. You can hear Granger and Valli read their lines in English — as Williams and Bowles wrote it — in the supplemental feature The Wanton Countess, a rarely seen English-language abridgement of Senso made for the UK market. The Wanton Countess runs a half-hour shorter than Senso and comes from an unrestored print, so you can see the great leaps — proper exposure, color-correction — taken with Criterion’s restoration. Generous extras also include two new documentaries: “The Making of Senso,” which features cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and others involved with the picture; and “Viva VERDI,” which puts Visconti and Senso in context with his beloved opera. Also included is “Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti,” a survey of Visconti’s work in film and theater produced for the BBC in 1966. Print extras include an excerpt from Farley Granger’s memoir of his time with Visconti. Granger was understandably in awe of the Italian opera house and the director’s corresponding flamboyance, and weaves many a tale of melodrama behind the scenes. I love me some good melodrama (cf. Douglas Sirk) — but Senso’s sensibilities, however lush and extravagant and pretty to look at, are too much sugar for a dime.