Starring Claudia Cardinale in the title role, Sandra is an updating of the Electra myth set in the small Italian town of Volterra. The uneven, slightly bewildering results can perhaps best be understood as a cross between director Luchino Visconti’s earlier, Neorealist efforts and his later, more grandiloquent and stylized films.
Built on cliffs slowly crumbling into the sea, Volterra is the Neorealist location par excellence, both physically tangible and a metaphor for the central characters’ status. Those largely middle and upper class characters, on the other hand, feel more as if Visconti is exploring the ennui and dissatisfaction of Antonioni territory. Their story is slow and repetitive, and while the characters’ social position affects their options, their actions are shaped far more by their emotions. The most typically “Viscontian” aspect of the situation is how that psychology is determined by reference to a myth outside the story itself.
Using a literary source as a short cut to significance is not unique to Sandra. Virtually all of Visconti’s films have some kind of literary antecedent, with mixed results. As just one example, in The Damned, Thomas Mann and Shakespeare slug it out like prizefighters. Here, Sandra’s resentment toward her mother (Marie Bell) stems from the betrayal of her Jewish father to the Nazi occupation. It’s a neat, contemporary recasting of the initiating tragic event in the Electra story, the murder of her father Agamemnon by her mother, Clytemnestra. On the other hand, the suggestion of an incestuous relationship between Sandra and her brother Gianni (Jean Sorel), while perhaps implicit in the Electra myth, overpowers the vengeance scenario to such an extent that it throws everything out of balance.
Visconti has no obsequious obligation to the original myth, of course, but combining it with modern settings raises questions beyond literary fidelity. Sandra’s mother, for example, a former concert pianist, can barely function. There is thus no titanic, tragic conflict of wills with Sandra, just the pitiable plight of a disturbed woman. Gianni’s tortured feelings toward his sister demonstrate the director’s penchant for operatic extremes but fall short of a convincing depiction of desire, incestuous or otherwise. Far from the instrument of vengeance of Electra’s brother, Orestes, Gianni is just a neurotic mess capable only of self-destruction.
The combination of these unsteady, unrelated themes and approaches makes every scene in Sandra seem to be about something else, which nonetheless remains wrapped in an impenetrable cocoon. Sandra and Gianni’s possible incest is actually the least obscure innuendo. What remains unclear is what the incest has to do with their feelings toward their mother, or whether she is indeed guilty of betraying their father. In the confusion, sympathies shift to Sandra’s good-natured, if ineffectual husband, Andrew (Michael Craig). A clumsy emotional detective, Andrew struggles like us to understand what is going on. The over-heated cauldron of Sandra certainly convinces there’s something at stake. It’s just not clear what all the commotion is about.