In celebration of the 70th Anniversary of La Terra Trema’s release, Getintothis’ Chris Leathley reflects on Luchino Visconti’s extraordinary career as a director, opera maestro and screenwriter.
Luchino Visconti, if nothing else, was a man of startling contradictions.
A member of the Italian nobility whose lineage stretched back hundreds of years but also a lifelong Marxist, Visconti was, like Pasolini, openly homosexual but felt diffident towards those who were eager to engage politically in the culture wars of the 60s and 70s. Aesthetically committed to Neo-Realism at the outset of his film career, Visconti was to develop a luxurious, almost operatic style of cinema that appeared to reject almost every facet of naturalism on film.
This, and more, made Visconti one of European cinema’s most complex figures.
Consequently, there has been no small degree of scepticism regarding his work. How could somebody beset by such glaring ideological paradoxes be taken seriously?
As Visconti’s films became more ostentatious (Visconti, unlike most other European filmmakers, was often afforded considerable financial largesse when making his movies), more people were prepared to question his cinematic approach.
In terms of set design, film locales, costume and meticulous historical detail, more than a few critics muttered ominously regarding ‘decadence’ and ‘style over substance’. This was especially the case amongst some (although not all) of his fellow travellers on the left of Italian politics.
Nonetheless, Visconti was still the critical darling of many. Throughout his career, Visconti won numerous accolades, including the Golden Lion at Venice, the Palme d’Or at Cannes and Oscar nominations for best screenplay.
This is all the more creditable when you consider his peers who were producing films simultaneously, figures like Bertolucci, Rossellini, De Sica, Bellochio, Rosi, Antonioni, Fellini and Pasolini. Italian cinema was an embarrassment of riches during this period and yet, Visconti still managed to achieve notable success and critical plaudits.
Which is not even taking account of other European and global masters who were operating at the time, like Bergman, Godard and Truffaut.
Producers backed him with sizeable budgets and international stars were eager to perform in his films, including Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon, Trevor Howard, Gert Frobe and Romy Schneider. His regular collaborators behind the camera, such as Susi Cecchi d’Amico (screenwriter) and Giuseppe Rotunno (Cinematographer), were equally loyal.
Indeed, their resolute commitment to Visconti and his often sprawling projects was a measure of their conviction that he was a creative genius. This was often in spite of Visconti’s capricious severity with those close to him, inexplicable affection for ne’er-do-well hangers-on in his immediate circle and a maddening predisposition towards self-destructive behaviours.
Perhaps this makes the devotion of cast and crews alike, all the more touching and remarkable.
He was not, therefore, entirely unloved.
Essentially though, it was the string of masterpieces that he produced throughout his career, that kept Visconti at the centre of such talent and ingenuity. Over nearly forty years of filmmaking, Visconti was to make a considerable impact on the cinematic world.
He learned his craft from the very best that Europe had to offer, including Renoir. France in the 1930s fostered within Visconti a boldness of creative vision and a staunch commitment to radical politics. This became bracingly stark when Visconti returned to Il Duce’s Italy.
Given the mutual antagonism of Mussolini’s fascism and Visconti’s pronounced Marxism, it is a little surprising that Visconti was able to make his film debut under Il Duce’s regime. Ossessione was filmed in 1942 and released in 1943 briefly, before being banned (it eventually gained a wider release after the war). This gripping melange of Neo-Realism and Film Noir ensured that Visconti was immediately noticed by the discerning European cinephile.
From thereon in, Visconti was to produce a dazzling array of films, each pursuing widely diverse artistic and political agendas.
This encompassed the poetic Neo-Realism of La Terra Trema (1948) and, slightly grittier, variant of this unique approach to dramaturgy in Rocco and his Brothers (1960). It also included the sensuous elegance of Senso (1954) and The Leopard (1963) and morally bankrupt reflections on privileged decadence such as The Damned (1969) and Ludwig (1972).
As if that wasn’t enough for Visconti’s restless, roving eye, he cultivated darkly erotic vignettes focused on bourgeois obsessions, such as Death in Venice (1971) and L’Innocente (1976). Indeed, he even found the imaginative impetus to manufacture the curious, flawed but still compelling culture clash that was Conversation Piece (1974).
Rarely has a director been so indefatigable in their commitment to making films without bowing irretrievably to commercial or political compromise. His metier was deeply insular, biographical and yet, relatable to the wider issues and questions of the age. On his death in 1976, Visconti left a celluloid legacy that few could match.
What then, were the key features, methods and themes that made Visconti’s filmography so marvellous to behold?
Unlike some of the more impressionistic directors of the era or those in the Nouvelle Vague who prized DIY vivacity over polished precision, Visconti was keen to maintain an evident technical prowess throughout. His teams (for Visconti was no auteur – he relied heavily on those around him, just as they relied upon him) were meticulous in their method and application.
The use of natural and interior lighting in intensely beguiling ways, the careful scouting of locations that would match tactile elements to the subtle tones of a Visconti movie and the demanding need for historical authenticity all combined to intoxicating effect. It must have been maddening for producers when faced with significant cost over-runs (which occurred on more than one occasion), to then have to abide by another extension to the shooting schedule or another logistical nightmare as locations were sought, found and utilised.
Similarly, Visconti was adamant that costume, set design and the score were suited entirely and uniquely to the film. This was often at great expense and would require such preparation and deliberation that films became far more difficult operations.
Nevertheless, all of this enabled Visconti to curate a singular aesthetic and one that was easily identifiable. The sense of melancholic spectacle in his films was ripe with pathos and wonder. This was certainly one reason that Visconti retained a devoted audience – they knew what they were getting visually from one of his movies and they lapped it up greedily.
So far, so good but, this hardly rejects the criticism that Visconti was predominantly concerned with look over content. One can’t deny Visconti was deeply preoccupied with such aspects of filmmaking but it would be a gross injustice to infer that there was nothing else to it beyond cinematic gloss.
Visconti was too politically and culturally engaged for that to be the case. He was certainly obsessed with themes that he felt were prevalent throughout social development over the 19th and 20th centuries. Issues of religion (and the rituals that accompany it) were examined closely alongside, a rather pessimistic, view of societal decadence. Visconti appeared to consider rapid urbanisation and capitalism to be engines for immorality, greed and crass narcissism. To that end, his films often juxtaposed moribund religious tradition alongside frantic, chaotic modernity and its ethical vacuity.
The films of Visconti’s long career each seemed to indicate that no one answer could be provided to society’s troubles and he revelled in exposing the hypocrisy of both conservatives and progressives. Indeed, this was especially the case when Visconti considered political revolution and counter-revolution in The Leopard, frequently evincing an air of mournful resignation over the futility of humanity’s desire for meaningful change.
It is also self-evident that much of Visconti’s work was auto-biographical in subtle but important ways. The complexity of the man was therefore reflected in the complexity of his cinema.
Sexuality was addressed in films like Ludwig and L’Innocente, amongst others, and there is no doubt that Visconti remained concerned by sexual repression and its invidious consequences throughout his career. Equally, he was comfortable dissecting the sometimes dangerous descent into absolute liberation and surrender to the senses. The costs of manic indulgence are laid bare in films like The Damned, for example.
For Visconti, a homosexual in an age where homophobic prejudice was rife, these were important matters.
Likewise, the aristocratic context of films like The Leopard or Senso must have been, at least partially, drawn from his own familial background. Just in the same way that his political dogmas imbued La Terra Trema and Rocco and His Brothers with such urgency. The personal was never really absent from his filmmaking.
One could counter this by saying that other, equally committed ideologues, crafted films with a more robust realism and naturalism that allowed a more physically vivid exploration of social ills and traumas.
No matter. Visconti’s cinematic poetics meant that he did it differently and he always would.
Finally, Visconti was always keen to draw from literary or historical sources for his filmmaking themes. The Leopard was an adaptation of Lampedusa’s elegiac text, Death in Venice was a loose version of Thomas Mann’s novella whilst even Ossessione was based upon the pulp fiction of James M Cain. Visconti was a voracious reader and an acolyte of all the Arts, including the Opera.
This ensured that his films contained literary rhythms, nuances of tone and dextrous language, all of which remained rooted in the environment being depicted. How could films taken from such rich origins be bereft of substance?
As is Getintothis’ custom, we now proffer five of Visconti’s best celluloid efforts for you to investigate…
Luchino Visconti’s debut was a pungent mixture of deceit and passion, just as the source novel (James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice) had been. It was reasonably faithful to the text but the style and manner of the film’s execution was very much of the nascent Neo-Realism school. This predated the more famous work of Rossellini and De Sica in this cinematic approach and reveals how deeply Visconti had already considered cinema and what it could and should do after the war.
It proved very influential, even though it was rarely seen outside of Italy due to rights issues. Unlike The Bicycle Thieves or Rome: Open City though, there was a limited political context here. Perhaps there were subtexts about petit bourgeois repression and the parallels that could be drawn with complacent Fascism but first and foremost, this was Visconti delivering a potent thriller.
A movie that was way ahead of its time in terms of its steamy eroticism, its acute psychology and its skilfully naturalistic photography.
La Terra Trema (1948)
Visconti’s most celebrated embrace of Neo-Realism was still a slyly original take and implied that his filmic vision would be far from stark docu-drama. The politically charged depiction of a group of poverty-stricken Sicilian fishermen had an obvious political motive.
Furthermore, the intelligent use of a largely non-professional cast generates substantial empathy towards the travails of the fishermen as they seek financial independence. Nevertheless, La Terra Trema goes beyond simplistic propaganda for the Marxist cause.
There are breathless visuals, particularly as the fishing crews put out to sea at dawn and these add lustre to the ragged narrative. We are also spared crude proselytising by the participants. Instead, there are attempts, particularly via delicate shots of family members at work and play, to convey an emotional breadth that was considerably more realistic than the melodrama of a De Sica.
Not surprisingly, the film gained rave reviews and won prizes at the Venice Film Festival.
The Leopard (1963)
Critics and fans alike had been somewhat befuddled by Visconti’s glamorous cinematic forays in the 1950s alongside comic farces and bitter Neo-Realism. Works like Senso (1954), Le Notti Bianchi (1957) and Rocco and His Brothers (1960) seemed to point to a potential crisis of direction.
Certainly, many of his Leftist friends had been publicly pleased by the return to some discernible brand of ‘realism’ with Rocco…
However, Visconti was to wrong-foot them all once again with the sumptuous The Leopard. Based on the only novel ever published by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, it is an elegiac work of cinema that details the gradual shifts in the Prince of Salina’s fortunes during revolutionary strife in the middle of 19th Century Italy.
The film boasts meticulously contrived set pieces, not least an exquisite ballroom sequence, and flamboyant uses of costume and authentic physical environments. This all combines to create a sumptuous gala of colour and vitality but the film contains periods of introspection too.
Some of its finest moments are poignant scenes of regret and memory, as the characters adjust to historical processes beyond their control or understanding. This was all aided and abetted by an extraordinary cast that included Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale.
It is, for many, Visconti’s greatest achievement in film.
Death in Venice (1971)
Just as with The Leopard, Visconti chose to use a work of literary art as the basis for this film. Thomas Mann’s novella was loosely interpreted for the big screen with key narrative points being altered whilst respecting the mood and texture of Mann’s captivating story.
It is a perverse tale of one man’s retreat from the world and obsession (erotic maybe?) with a young boy that he sees whilst staying in Venice, a city crumbling physically and perhaps in other ways too. The fate of the main protagonist (Gustav von Aschenbach) is revealed amidst a dire cholera epidemic that is decimating the local population, something which becomes a powerful metaphor for the central character’s flaws and wider social corruption.
Visconti deploys music to mesmeric effect, most memorably the Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, to heighten the sense of a soul lost and wandering the claustrophobic by-ways of the city.
It is a film that might be Visconti’s most poignant production and one that seems to draw on his own deep well of sadness when facing his own mortality (he was to suffer a stroke the following year and pass away in 1976). More importantly, it is an unmissable piece of cinema.
This was a production that was coloured by misfortune and difficulty. During filming, Visconti suffered from a stroke, the film ran into significant cost overruns and the film itself was finished in hackneyed fashion, leading to multiple truncated cuts being made available to a bewildered public.
As such, Ludwig was written off as a late cinematic folly by an ailing filmmaker. Only recently, and especially in the wake of Arrow’s wonderful Blu-Ray reissue, has the full splendour of Ludwig been adequately unveiled.
Helmut Berger (a Visconti regular who featured in The Damned and Conversation Piece too) gives a performance full of astonishing vigour as he depicts the mentally unstable King Ludwig II of Bavaria. He is joined by an all-star cast that featured the talents of Romy Schneider, Trevor Howard and Gert Frobe, amongst others.
In a complementary manner, the locations were selected for historical accuracy and the luminosity of the cinematography brings forth the graceful elegance of the palaces and the region.
The narrative itself is as much a polemic against social strictures as it is a scandalous expose of one of Europe’s most enigmatic monarchs, particularly as Ludwig’s profligate spending and psychological frailty begins to place his continued liberty at risk.
Of all Visconti’s films, it could be argued that Ludwig was his most ambitious and, while not being without error, it is a movie of peerless aesthetic quality.