I waited a long, long time to see Luchino Visconti’s Senso. Something of a companion piece to the director’s better known epic, The Leopard, which is also set during the wars of Italian unification, Senso is a lush, romantic melodrama often credited for its baroque excess. Since I had only viewed it in a very poor video copy, I felt that I had never really experienced what made the film unique until I purchased an imported gray market DVD. (As far as I know, it is not available from an American distributor.*) The disc’s rich, saturated transfer more than makes clear why so many commentators have concentrated on the film’s visual style. With a dense, textured heaviness reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite painting (unlikely to have been a direct influence) the film’s imagery falls just short of the cloying and claustrophobic, ably reinforcing the story’s over-heated passions.
The situation is as simple as it is powerful. Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) is sympathetic to the Italian nationalist cause. She nonetheless betrays it out of love for Franz Mahler (Farley Granger), an officer in the occupying Austrian army, who proves entirely unworthy of her affections. While this affair is set against momentous historical events, including a detailed reconstruction of the Battle of Custoza (in which the Austrians defeated a superior Italian army), history takes a back seat to Livia’s volcanic emotions. They are arguably extreme, but still all too familiar to anyone who has sunk to depths they never could have imagined previously after being let down by someone important to them.
It is that dual purpose that makes Senso almost unwatchable in parts. The filmmaking is never less than masterful. Quite the opposite: Visconti and Valli so perfectly implicate and involve us in the Contessa’s self-destructive emotions that you want to look away, even as you are riveted to the screen. You can recognize the mistakes Livia is making, but the situation is too fundamental to human experience, too accurate a reflection of our shared failings, to be able to dismiss her completely. We may want to do so, but if we have even a shred of self-awareness about our own lives and passions, we know we cannot.
To say that at the end of Senso you feel the need to come up for air is not a criticism. The film so ably wraps us in the tumultuous moment that you feel a need to escape as intense as the Contessa’s abject misery. While we can get on with our lives, the Contessa has been reduced to an emotional frenzy that can end only in madness or perhaps a nearly narcoleptic passivity. The film may be one of the most affective, complete demonstrations of the ability of passions to overpower, to destroy, to smother us in the luxuriant, tropical humidity of self-pity. It is therefore most definitely a film for adults.
*Since publication of this essay, Senso has been released in North America by Criterion.