Visconti's Signature Features

Dennis Harvey July 27, 2006

The term “cinematic royalty” is meant to be descriptive, not literal. Yet Luchino Visconti was one real-life aristocrat who carved out a real career in the movies. In this as so many other things, he remains (even posthumously) the exception, far from the rule; a ruler interested only in the exceptional.

His career stretched from neo-realism to the baroque, and who can say one extreme was truer to himself than another? Perhaps they were all true to his selfhood at the time that they were made. Which makes the Visconti filmography a particularly fascinating biography.

Its arc is measured in the Istituto Italiano di Cultura series that plays this week through September 5.

Each Tuesday night, the Institute screens one of Visconti’s signature features, from his 1942 debut “Ossessione” through 1976’s “The Innocent,” which he died before completing. (Star Giancarlo Giannini reportedly stepped in to finish the film himself.) Some features from this sparse, fussily selective career — he averaged one film every three years during the busiest decades of the Italian film industry — are missing from the Istituto retrospective. But to the discerning viewer, they will not, ahem, be missed. What remains on display is a remarkable panorama of passion, ambition, and artistry that impresses even when the movies themselves fall short of their grandiose goals.

Born into a wealthy Milan family with high-rank pedigree, Visconti (an actual Count, though he mercifully declined using the title professionally) escaped Mussolini’s fascism by training under Jean Renoir and becoming a Communist Party enthusiast. But he returned to Italia mid-WW2 to make “Ossessione” (which played July 18) a torrid romance based on James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (which wasn’t adapted by Hollywood until 1946) that was severely censored at home for its implicit critique of fascist oppression. His second feature “La Terra Trema” (July 25) was considered a key work in the neorealist movement for its use of a nonprofessional cast in portraying a Sicilian fishing village’s population. But in fact the film was elaborately worked-out in visual terms, operatic in its sheer narrative expanse.

Visconti’s next major effort was “Senso” (August 1) a lush 1954 melodrama with the just-recently-deceased Alida Valli as a hapless contessa cheating with wooden Austrian officer Farley Granger circa 1866. With its international cast, opulent production values and targeting of English-language audiences (in fact, the English language version featured dialogue contributions by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles!), “Senso” was a major European cinematic event of the ’50s. It also confirmed that Visconti had only been a neorealist in passing — his emergent true style would be much more grandly lyrical, though never stylized to the point of abstraction in the mode of such native contemporaries as Fellini or Antonioni. (Notably, around this same time he was also instrumental as an opera director in developing the full potential of that ultimate diva, Maria Callas — though it was Pasolini, not Visconti, who later directed her only film.)

After the Dostoyevsky-based “White Nights,” a relatively small film, Visconti made two consecutive all-star three-hour epics that are, for my money, his greatest achievements. The black-and-white “Rocco and His Brothers” (August 8) is a marriage of neorealism and the baroque, charting the eventually tragic events that befall a Southern peasant family who move to the director’s own big city environ, Milan. Traveling way up the economic ladder, 1963’s extravagant “The Leopard” (August 15) starred Burt Lancaster as a Princely patriarch in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel of Sicily during Italy’s 19th-century unification. These are magnificent movies, sweeping, beautiful, and messy at times — at his best, Visconti could err on the side of excess and make it work.

Though not as experimentally inclined and thus perhaps less faddishly adored, Visconti was now on par with the greatest European directors in a great era — among them Bergman, Godard, and Resnais — his each new film being a significant event. (Well, not every single one: This series omits the interesting but lesser “Sandra” and his Camus adaptation “The Stranger,” a story he was temperamentally unsuited for.)

Perhaps the biggest “event” among all Visconti movies, in terms of popular appeal (and notoriety), was his 1969 “The Damned.” But it is also safe to say that this luridly overblown, occasionally ludicrous saga of a decadent German family smirking its way up the ranks of Nazi power is the director’s worst. (It did, however, have a hell of a poster: Visconti protege Helmut Berger in full Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret-strumpet drag, with the ad line “He would soon be the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany.”) Visconti could do many things, but conveying the banality of evil wasn’t one of them. “The Damned” is the only film of his that could pass for self-parody, and its absence from the Istituto series is no great loss.

In his last years before dying in 1976 at age 70 Visconti’s usual slow work pace actually sped up — four films in five years! — though the results were disappointing to many. 1971’s “Death in Venice” (August 22) was an impressive if terribly slow version of Thomas Mann’s novel films that can seem hypnotic on one viewing and tortuous on another.

The next year’s “Ludwig” was an outright flop, an expensive but hollow biography of the famed crazy-castle-building Austrian monarch. It was easy for bored observers to compare the director with his money-hemorrhaging, out-of-touch subject, and to criticize him for casting personal boy-toy Berger in the demanding title role. Yet it is worth noting that a few years ago “Ludwig” (August 29) was restored to its originally intended four-hour length, with the unexpected result that both film and lead performance came off far better than in the three-hour cut first released in the U.S. Retreating from that failure, Visconti next made a small, sly film, “Conversation Piece” (August 29) reuniting him with Lancaster as a reclusive professorial type besotted with a handsome gigolo (Berger, of course). Humor was seldom this director’s strongest point, but here he seemed to be poking fun at himself as a dignified old man still putty in the hands of Young Stuff. (His offscreen companion Berger had reportedly been peeved as hell at not playing the teenage lust object in “Death in Venice,” despite being about 20 years too old; his role in “Piece” seems compensation.) Still, the movie was talky and short on visual panache.

That last quality was not lacking in Visconti’s final project, “The Innocent” (September 5) a return to the 19th-century aristocratic melodrama of “Senso” and “The Leopard” drawn from a Gabrielle d’Annunzio novella. Giancarlo Giannini played a haplessly destructive and unfaithful nobleman whose turbulent emotions wreak havoc with his unfortunate wife (leading 70s Italian sexpot Laura Antonelli) and mistress (American star Jennifer O’Neill). Juicy and opulent, “The Innocent” lacked the full grandeur of Visconti’s greatest works, but it was nonetheless a return to form. The Istituto series starts today (July 11) with Carlo Lizzani’s 1999 “Luchino Visconti: A Portrait,” an hour-long documentary that overviews the late director’s life and career with film clips and interviews featuring such surviving collaborators as Berger, Alain Delon, Claudia Cardinale and Marcello Mastroianni.

All films are presented in Italian with English subtitles, shown on projected DVD. Showtimes are Tuesdays at 6:30 pm; admission is free. Istituto Italiano di Cultura, 425 Washington St., S.F. (415) 788-7142.