Luchino Visconti’s ‘Senso’, which heralded the slow opening-up of Italian neorealism

Posted on July 4, 2019

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When we think of Italian neorealism, the films that spring to mind are all of a certain kind. We think of films about the poor or the working class. We think of non-professional actors and shooting on location. The movement shot to fame when Rome, Open City won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but the films we typically name are Bicycle Thieves, or Paisan, or Shoeshine. But the first film (Obsession, 1943) identified with the movement is by a filmmaker (Luchino Visconti) generally known for spectacles like The Leopard. Obsession was Visconti’s first film, and it is based on James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, which became one of Hollywood’s most classic noirs.

Can the label of “neorealism” be applied to films that don’t immediately seem to be, well, neorealistic? Visconti’s first few films followed the tenets of neorealism (unglamorous and real-life characters, shooting on location, tackling social issues), but Senso (1954 — set during the 1866 Italian-Austrian War and based on a nineteenth-century novella by Camillo Boito — is a fascinating departure. It is wholly melodramatic — or perhaps the right word is “operatic”. The married heroine, Livia Serpieri, is an Italian countess, and she falls for an Austrian officer named Franz Mahler — and they meet at an opera performance, which sets the tone and pitch of the film. (Trivia note: The actors playing Livia Serpieri and Franz Mahler are Alida Valli and Farley Granger, both of whom are largely known for their films with Alfred Hitchcock. Valli was in The Paradine Case, and Granger was in Rope and Strangers on a Train.)

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