An operatic fusion of romance and history, Luchino Visconti’s 1954 drama Senso was the first Italian film shot in three-strip Technicolor, and the images’ texture—vibrantly colorful, yet soft and almost smudgy—complements the movie’s delirious passions. It isn’t enough to call its story about an Italian countess and an Austrian lieutenant in 19th-century Venice a star-crossed love affair, because that misses its scope. Senso is about love’s power to degrade, compromise, and humiliate those who submit themselves to it, no matter how strong their connections to family, country, or principle. Visconti doesn’t do enough to show how a bond that magnetic and destructive could form—the uniquely international problem of shooting scenes in multiple languages likely didn’t help—but his lush style carries the emotions across. The title of Visconti’s first feature, Obsession, could just as easily apply here.
Not accidentally, Senso opens at an opera house in 1866 Venice, just as the Austrian occupation is starting to fall apart. By virtue of her wealth and privilege, Countess Alida Valli doesn’t need to be engaged in the struggle, but she’s vociferous in her support of the underground movement to win Italy back for its people. When she sees her rebel cousin challenge Austrian lieutenant Farley Granger to a duel, Valli defies her dullard of a husband by getting in the middle of it, but it’s her impression of the occupier that lingers. After an all-night walk through the streets of Venice—a city rendered so beautifully that no words seem necessary—Valli and Granger commence an affair, meeting (or sometimes not) for afternoon trysts at a secret locale.
Throughout Senso, there’s some question of Granger’s commitment to Valli—whether he’s true to his professions of love or wants to use her money to buy himself out of service—but no question of Valli’s commitment to him, which throws their relationship into terrible imbalance. Valli’s passion looks indistinguishable from madness, yet Visconti makes the audience connect to it deeply and understand how she could forsake her dignity in return for so very little. Senso belongs to a great tradition of period pieces—like William Wyler’s The Heiress before it, or Martin Scorsese’s The Age Of Innocence decades later—that deal with female self-sacrifice in exquisitely agonizing detail, but feel swooningly romantic all the same.
Key features: The immense special-features package digs into Senso’s troubled production history, which ended in scathing reviews and a butchered American cut that didn’t see theaters until 1968. The liner notes are divided between a fine critical essay by filmmaker Mark Rappaport and a long except from Granger’s memoir, Include Me Out. Other highlights include the English-language cut (called The Wanton Countess, a title fit for a bodice-ripping romance novel), two new making-of documentaries, an insightful Peter Cowie visual essay, and a 1966 BBC special that explores Visconti’s meticulous directing style.