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When I saw L’innocente (The Innocent) for the first time in its theatrical release, I thought it was the most visually beautiful film I had ever seen. While plenty of films in the mean time have come close to equaling it, particularly those set in the past, I don’t think any have surpassed it. Perhaps that failure is because the film’s rapacious, nearly pornographic sensuality is essential to its ambiguous impact.

It is a convention that films set in the fin-de-siècle period should be visually rich. Since most of the stories take place among the aristocracy or upper bourgeoisie, it is tempting to respond “of course,” and ignore the cumulative effect of such gorgeous perfection. It is easy to forget that people in the past didn’t live as a movie any more than we do. Therefore, only by emphasizing the richness of the settings in L’innocente can we understand what Visconti does with d’Annunzio’s story, or indeed why the director was attracted to the novel in the first place.

The protagonist, Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini) is, in the most generous description, an egotistical jerk. He demonstrates no particular wit, imagination, talent or intelligence, and certainly no generosity. He is narcissistic to the point of solipsism, with no greater worry than his mistress’s (Jennifer O’Neill) petulance. Completely self-absorbed, Tullio thinks his wife (Laura Antonelli) will want to hear about his amorous troubles and not care that he’s fooling around. So when he learns his wife has taken a lover, he’s at a loss. Caught in this quasi-comical dilemma, Tullio struggles to win back his wife, repeatedly proving in the process that he is an arrogant bastard capable of just about anything to serve his pride and pleasure.

And yet…

For all his villainy (he’s practically the mustachioed bad guy of melodrama played as a comic cockroach), Tullio remains an intensely attractive figure of male fantasy. Rich, handsome, with two gorgeous women and complete self-confidence in everything he does, Tullio screws his way through life with total disregard for what anyone thinks of him. He just does what he wants—and what man hasn’t dreamed of being able to behave in such a totally self-centered, irresponsible way? The fact that Tullio is surrounded by the impossibly lush environment that Visconti, master cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis and designer Mario Garbuglia have provided, and that he never has to do anything as vulgar as work to support himself, reinforces the appeal of a conscienceless life lived only for gratification.

Hence, the film’s ambiguity. Tullio’s increasingly unforgivable behavior remains attractive because he’s able to indulge himself in such alluring circumstances. Perhaps this contradiction expresses Visconti’s internal battle between his aristocratic heritage and his Marxist ideals. Certainly his choosing to make a film based on a novel by the proto-fascist d’Annunzio should raise eyebrows. Whatever explanation you choose, it is impossible to view L’innocente without complexly mixed reactions. It is a film built on the ambivalent charms of unbridled egotism.

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