Senso (1954)

Review #1,352

Director:  Luchino Visconti
Cast:  Farley Granger, Alida Valli, Massimo Girotti
Plot:  A troubled and neurotic Italian Countess betrays her entire country for a self-destructive love affair with an Austrian Lieutenant.

Genre:  Drama / History / Romance
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice)
Runtime:  123min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some sensuality)
International Sales:  StudioCanal

“It's too late!  It's over!  I'm not your romantic hero!”

Senso could be regarded as both a dress rehearsal (in every sense of the words) and a companion piece to director Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), a mammoth three-hour epic on politics, romance, war, and of course, the end of aristocracy—in some way, The Leopard could also be seen as a thematic distant cousin of Sergio Leone's almost-as-lengthy Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a depiction of the end of the Old West. 

Senso is of course a more compact film, but its setting and visuals suggest a larger-than-life experience.  The backdrop brings us back to mid-19th century politics in Austrian-occupied Italy.  In the opening sequence, we are thrown right into a stage performance in an opulent opera house.  After the performance, a scuffle breaks out in the heat of emotion and in the name of politics. 

What transpires immediately isn’t the dramatic escalation of war—it does come eventually into Visconti's astonishing mise-en-scene in some of the most beautifully choreographed battle scenes in cinema, depicting the Third Italian War of Independence—but the blossoming of an illicit love affair between an Italian countess (Alida Valli) and an Austrian officer (Farley Granger).

Smitten by the affection of the lieutenant, the countess embarks on a treacherous romance that threatens to not just consume both parties, but also sabotage their respective patriotic duties to their countries.  Love amid war and politics has always been fascinating to me, especially when both sides have all to gain personally, and all to lose morally. 

Visconti charts this expertly in Senso, through the artifice of melodrama and the intricacy of its period trappings, marked by a richly-realized production design and exuberant costumes.  The director’s obsession with opera seeps wildly into the narrative, which alternate between joy and tragedy, with Valli giving a strong, tortured performance.  The use of classical music also gives the visuals a sense of regality.  Roger Ebert had put it most aptly, “Visconti’s Senso opens in an opera house and in a way never leaves it.”

Restored in a brilliant new transfer on The Criterion Collection, Senso can now be accessed and appreciated on its own terms.  It is an underrated early work of Visconti, suggesting even greater things to come from one of Italian’s cinema most respected filmmakers. 

Verdict:  This melodramatic story of an illicit love affair set against the backdrop of 19th century politics and war is one of Visconti’s marvels—richly-realized, operatic and tragic. 


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