Senso (1954) – A Guest Post by nem baj

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Let’s face it, my self-imposed “One Month of Watching German War Movies” was a bit of a failure. The problem was, I wasn’t in the mood for the movies I had here. Instead of watching other war movies I stayed clear of the genre altogether and that’s why – once again – I’m grateful that nem baj stepped in with a review of a Visconti movie. I’ve seen a lot of Visconti’s movies, he used to be one of my favourite directors. However I haven’t seen Senso yet but I think I should watch it. I have a feeling I would like ti very much. 

In a nutshell: on the eve of the third Italian war of independence, in the Austrian-occupied city of Venice, the Contessa Serpieri (Alida Valli), a married Italian aristocrat, falls hopelessely in love with a younger Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger), a notorious seducer. For him, she will betray both her social position and her beliefs in Italian independence, while he will exploit her love, and in turn betray his own career and country, up to a tragic ending.

Had it not been for the censorship, Luchino Visconti’s movie would have been called Custoza, after the second battle of Custoza, near Verona, where the Italian independence army was defeated by the Austro-Hungarian forces in 1866. Fortunately for the Italians, their opponent’s defeat at Königgrätz against Prussia prevented them for pushing their advantage and keep the Venetia region. However, in spite of its name reverting to that of its (loosely adpted) source short story, Senso certainly remains a war movie.

Of course, it is also a melodrama, an operatic portrait of the desperate, nefarious, masochistic love of an educated woman for an adventurer. I will not insist upon this aspect here. Yet, although there isn’t much combat to be seen, in part due to the censors, war is everywhere. War, in Senso, is at the same time the driving force of its protagonists’ lives, and the telltale device which reveals their character. And on a historical level, war is at the same time the developing bath and the accelerator of global changes.

As Renoir’s Grand Illusion demonstrated, a war movie isn’t always about those who fight. In this case, it’s about those who choose not to – those who, confronted with a crisis which reveals that their world is crumbling down (a theme dear to Visconti), choose not to join either side, and instead pursue their self-centered interests, their passions. Here, the battle of Custoza is a defeat for both sides. For Italy, it is the defeat of idealists betrayed by the aristocracy. For Austria, it is the beginning of the end of a decaying empire.

Visconti’s images of the battle of Custoza remind me a lot of the way many cinematographers chose to render the American Civil War. There’s a strongly suggested state of confusion, which brings the idea that the opponents belong to the same culture. It’s not so much a war beetween foreign and domestic as it is a conflict beetween the old and the new. Here, the new is a nation-state in the making, forged by ideals: Italy. While the old is a multi-cultural empire held by social allegiances, bent for dissolve: Austria-Hungary.

Senso might not be as achieved as The Leopard, as it is sometimes difficult for the viewer not to give priority to one of its two main streams (the love story and the historical statement) over the other. However, the narrative use of tracking shots is wellesian. The settings, composition and costumes are magnificent, well in line with what we know of the director’s personal background, knowledge, and career in the opera and theatre. Yet the camera never indulges in sheer production show-off: these elements constantly add meaning to what’s going on – and in the interior scenes, the games with the mirrors, paintings and doors are quite devilish. Last but not least for European music lovers, the double use of Verdi (for politics) and Brückner (for love) should make for an unforgettable experience.

PS: Blu-Ray restored edition recommended. You may have a peek at the results here

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000)

Malèna, set in a little town in Sicily during WWII, combines a coming of age story with a war-time story. The first time I watched it, it stunned me. I still liked it a lot the second time but since the story has a tragic ending, it’s more intense to watch it for the first time.

Malèna (Monica Bellucci) is the most beautiful and seductive woman in the little Sicilian town of Castelcuto. Her husband is somewhere in Africa, fighting for Mussolini, while she is left behind in a very hostile climate in which all the men try to have an affair with her and the women hate her for her looks. All the men see her as an object, with the exception of a young boy who falls in love with her. We see the story through his eyes. He is so besotted with her that he follows her around, sneaks out of his house at night and spies on her.

She is a favourite conversational topic and gossip and rumours follow her wherever she goes. People talk very bad about her behind her back. They call her a whore and say she betrays her husband and has lovers. Only the young Renato knows this isn’t so. But when her husband is reported dead, there isn’t any protection for Malèna anymore. She can’t find a job, she has no money and food is scare and whatever she does, the town, reigned by men, turns on her and finally forces her into prostitution.

When the war is over, the women take revenge on her, not because she sold her body to the Germans but because all their husbands lusted after her.

Tornatore captures the atmosphere and hysteria of an Italian city during WWII very well. How they all cheered Mussolini and pretended to know nothing of it when the Americans arrived. The hypocrisy, the paranoia, the double standards. Malèna has the extreme misfortune of not fitting in. Too stylish, too good-looking, not very sociable nor talkative. This causes the jealousy of the women who have no liberties or power and the hatred of the men who treat women like objects. This society is ruled by fanatic Catholicism and the double standards that go with it.

I don’t want to give away too much but the destiny of Malèna which is extreme is very sad and to a certain extent quite typical for women during that time in Italy. Many women, especially in Italy, were forced into prostitution when their husbands were gone or dead.

Malèna is an extremely esthetic movie, beautiful pictures, matching music, and of course there is Monica Bellucci whose beauty brings Malèna to life. The sexual awakening and infatuation of Renato is touching and extremely funny at the same time. It clashes with his mother’s prudery and his father’s strictness.  The end of the story is tragic and infuriating.

Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (1945) Roberto Rossellini’s Neorealist Masterpiece

Rome, Open City, which is part of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, was first meant to be a documentary. It eventually  became a movie which incorporated a lot of original footage, in part due to the shortage of film. The black and white movie Rome, Open City is one of the most important movies of the Italian Neorealist movement. Apart from a famous cast, including Aldo Fabrizi and the great and talented Anna Magnani in one of her best roles, Rossellini hired many people from the streets to enhance the authentic feel.

It’s a fantastic movie and one of the most important movies of European film making. Furthermore it’s another one on my list Children in War Movies as children play an important role.

Roma, città aperta takes place towards the end off WWII. At the core of the story are the Priest Don Pietro Pellegrini, the widow Pina who is about to get married to Franceso, her little son Marcello and Giorgio Manfredi, the head of the resistance. Because Giorgio almost gets caught he hides and the priest and his friend Francesco try to help him and organize his escape. Francesco has a girlfriend, Marina, but he keeps her at arm’s length knowing very well that he is about to leave. Marina, a vain and weak woman, gives away his hiding place to the Gestapo. On the one hand she wants to take revenge, on the other she is venal. Since the war began she regularly sells her body to all sorts of people, also Germans. When bribed by a sleek German commander and his lesbian assistant she gives in. In exchange she gets drugs.

When the Gestapo arrests Giorgio, Pina runs after him into the street and is shot by the Germans. This is an extremely famous scene, one that stays with you for a long time. What follows Giorgio’s and his friends’ arrest is similar to all the other Resistance movies I have seen. The men are tortured. The priest isn’t tortured but also questioned and when he doesn’t say anything, he is executed. The children of the street, among them Pina’s little son, witness the execution of the beloved gentle priest with horror.

Rome, Open City is gritty and realistic. It shows many details of the life in Rome during WWII. How the people lived in close quarters, how they struggled to provide themselves with food. It also shows how many people were active in the Resistance. All the main characters are part of it, also the priest which is an important detail that wants to show how unified the Italians were in their fight against the Germans.

Rome, Open City is a classic. It has many memorable scenes and dialogues. It also analyses the deeper meaning of war and guilt. The priest states more than once that maybe the war happened for a reason. With a central character being a Catholic priest it’s obvious that the movie is saturated by Catholicism. The church  takes an active part in fighting evil.

This movie is a must for cinephiles and people interested in war movies alike. If you need the subtitles it will be a bit difficult to follow this movie. Although I speak Italian I had to watch with subtitles as they can’t be turned off and noticed that far over 50% of the dialogue, which is very fas,t is missing.