In my recent review of the upcoming The Criterion Collection DVD for Still Walking, I lamented the fact that streaming technology of companies like Netflix may be the demise of the DVD Golden Era because there will be little or no market for the extra features popularized by that format, and that companies like Criterion may only be able to survive by becoming film distributors. Just a few days ago Criterion announced that it had engaged in an exclusive streaming partnership with Hulu, one of Netflix’s competitors. It seems my words were not only prescient but cogent.
Nonetheless, I received another of Criterion’s upcoming DVD releases to review: Italian director Luchino Visconti’s 1954 wartime melodrama Senso (meaning ‘of the senses’): a color film (the director’s first) that may best be described as Italy’s rejoinder to Gone With The Wind, another early color epic about a civil war. Oddly, in looking up contemporary reviews of the film, not a single critic mentioned this obvious parallel.
The film’s plot is rather straightforward. Set in 1866 Venice during the unification of Italy, and its alliance with Prussia against Austria in the Seven Weeks War, the film opens with a demonstration of Italian nationalism during the opera Il Trovatore. A row erupts between Marquis Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), a sympathizer for unification, and a young hedonistic Austrian Lieutenant, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). Mahler has Ussoni deported, then sets about seducing his cousin, Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), a local countess, whose much older husband, Count Serpieri (Heinz Moog), is a collaborator with the occupying Austrian forces.
Mahler and Livia begin a sleazy affair, with her blithely ignoring the facts that he deported her cousin, is a known Lothario, and is obviously using her. After he loses interest in her, she loses a grip on her emotions. The war interrupts, and just when she feels she is over him, he shows up at her villa and cons her out of money she was holding for Ussoni’s revolutionaries. She gives it to Mahler to bribe a doctor to declare him medically unfit to fight. This leads to an Italian defeat. She then gets a letter from Mahler, in Verona, who warns her not to try and find him, for the danger of such a journey. Obviously, she leaves her husband and hastens to be with her lover, who she finds drunk, and with a teenaged prostitute.
He mocks her as a fool, who betrayed her cause. He orders her to leave his apartment, and calls her a trollop, as he laughs at her. She wanders the streets of Verona, then goes to the Austrian military headquarters and shows the ranking general Franz’s letter where he admits paying off a doctor to not be sent into battle. The general realizes she is a spurned lover, and out for a revenge tantamount to murder, but Livia tells him he must do his duty. Thus, she wanders the streets of Verona insanely barking Mahler’s name, as she is eyed by lascivious soldiers and drunkards, and Mahler is arrested and summarily shot dead, by a firing squad, as the film ends.
Interestingly, Visconti wanted to end the film with Livia insanely wandering through the Veronese night, but Italian censors thought it showed Italian soldiers in a bad light, so he had to shoot the end where the bad guy, Mahler, gets his due. As Granger was already back in America, with other contractual commitments, the scene was shot with a body double, and from afar.
The two-disc DVD package has the full 124 minute film, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, plus a standard making of featurette which runs a little over half an hour, plus an informative visual essay by film historian Peter Cowie. There are only the usual borderless white subtitles for the Italian version, and no English language dub track. Most of Cowie’s insights, which are explained via clips from the film, would have better been served in an audio commentary.
The second disc has the 92 minute English language version of the film, The Wanton Countess (although the title card still says Senso), and it’s notable for a number of reasons. First, both Granger and Valli speak their scenes together in English, in their own voices, and the dialogue is a bit different than in the Italian version. The rest of the film has the Austrians speaking Austrian and Italians Italian.
The loss of a half hour keeps out a number of plot elements expanded in the original version: more intrigue at the theater, with Mahler and Livia meeting before they do in the English version; more despicable behavior from the Count, more depth in the central romance; the loss of a scene wherein Ussoni sends a courier for the money Livia gives to Mahler; and more of the war scenes. The truncated film puts the romance front and center whereas the original version has it primary, but showing the politics and war effort with more emphasis. Also, the difference in the transfer quality of the English version and the restored original is remarkable, as the truncated version is murky and filled with dirt. Still, if one is fed up with straining to see the poor subtitles Criterion uses, it’s a good alternative that captures the basic tale, and leaves out not too much of any grand import that would distract from the central romance.
The rest of Disc Two has two featurettes: one on Visconti and the opera, and a good 1966 BBC documentary on Visconti and the arts. There is no theatrical trailer included, and the insert booklet has an essay by filmmaker Mark Rappaport, and an excerpt from Granger’s autobiography, Include Me Out. It is a solid DVD features package, but one that with a good commentary on either or both versions of the film could have been a great one, especially considering the film, while enjoyable, is nowhere near great. Visconti seemed to always save his fluffier films for the aristocracy, whereas his better films, like White Nights or Rocco And His Brothers, focus on the working class elements.
The acting in the film is hit and miss. Valli is ok, as is Granger, and there are a few moments of grace, but this is a soap opera, after all, so there are many moments of mawkishness, reinforced by the rather mediocre script, penned by Visconti and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, who adapted the novella by Camillo Boito, with dialogue rewritten by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles. The film’s core, from Anton Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, is used perfectly as a melodramatic tool, although that, naturally means, very little is left to the emotional reactions of the viewers. The cinematography, by Aldo Graziati, Giuseppe Rotunno and Robert Krasker is first rate, especially in the countryside scenes at the villa. Senso entertains, but does little to affect one’s intellect or emotions. It is fluff, well made, which will not leave an impression weeks later, even if some interesting parallels to the recent World War II are hinted at but never developed.
Overall, Senso is worth watching, simply because it is well made fluff that, while not deep nor great, represents an important milestone in European cinema. There are no good, nice, nor even likable characters, but on a rudimentary level, one can sense the motives of the two leads, even if neither is a character of depth. Thus the film, at least, has a narrative integrity that many melodramas lack, and, once Mahler betrays Livia, it is inevitable that she will damn him. Its use of red herrings and feints of narrative and character development is well done: such as when Livia is told, upon the Count’s wanting to leave Venice, that a man came to call on her, she assumes it is Mahler, is followed by the Count, and, when confronted, confesses to having a lover, only to find out the man who called was Ussoni. The Count thereby assumes her revelation of a lover was a ruse to protect Ussoni, for whom the Count has little use or respect.
It’s these sorts of moments that lift Senso above run of the mill melodrama, albeit, like Gone With The Wind, not far enough into real drama. If only Visconti had been able to graft a small bit of his working class affinities by showing a bit more of the struggles of the Italian Resistance, Senso may have hurdled that bar. Sans that, Senso lives up to its titular billing, as but a sensual comfort. And all can use a bit of that from time to time.?