Senso (1954) – A Guest Post by nem baj

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