Theatrical release poster by Renato Fratini
|Directed by||Luchino Visconti|
Suso Cecchi d'Amico
|Music by||Anton Bruckner from Symphony No. 7, adapted by Nino Rota|
|Edited by||Mario Serandrei|
|Distributed by||Lux Film|
|30 December 1954|
Senso is a 1954 Italian historical melodrama film, an adaptation of Camillo Boito's Italian novella Senso by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, with Alida Valli as Livia Serpieri and Farley Granger as Lieutenant Franz Mahler.
Originally, Visconti had hoped to cast Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando in the lead roles. However, Bergman was then married to Italian director Roberto Rossellini, who would not allow her to work for other directors, and Brando was nixed by the producers, who considered Granger a bigger star at the time. It is also said that Brando refused the role after being informed that Bergman was not going to participate in the film. Both Franco Zeffirelli and Francesco Rosi, later accomplished film and theater directors in their own right, worked as Visconti's assistants on the picture.
Senso is set in Italy around 1866, the year the Italian-Austrian war of unification would see the Veneto and most of Friuli-Venezia Giulia united to Italy after the Seven Weeks' War between Austria on one side and Prussia and Italy on the other. The story opens in the La Fenice opera house in Venice during a performance of Il Trovatore. At the close of Manrico's rousing aria Di quella pira, the opera is interrupted by a boisterous protest by Italian Nationalists against the occupying Austrian troops present in the theater. Livia Serpieri, an Italian countess, unhappily married to a stuffy older aristocrat, bears witness to this and tries to conceal the fact that her cousin Marquis Roberto Ussoni has organized the protest. During the commotion, she meets a dashing young Austrian Officer named Franz Mahler, and is instantly smitten with him. The two begin a secret love affair. Despite the fact that Franz was responsible for sending Roberto into exile for his radical behavior, Livia vainly pretends not to be aware of it.
Although Franz is obviously using Livia for her money and social status, Livia throws herself into an affair of complete sexual abandon with Franz, giving away her money and not caring what society thinks about her. But soon, Franz begins failing to show up for their trysts and Livia becomes consumed by jealousy and paranoia. The war finally forces the lovers apart, with Livia's husband taking her away to their villa in the country in order to avoid the carnage. Late one night, Franz arrives on the estate, and secrets himself into Livia's bedroom. He asks her for more money to bribe the army doctors into keeping away from the battlefield; Livia complies, giving away all of the money she was holding for Roberto, who intended to supply it to the partisans fighting the Austrians. Livia's betrayal leads to tragic consequences; the Austrians overwhelm the under-equipped Italians.
Eventually, Livia is almost driven mad by the fact that she is unable to see Franz, but rejoices when a letter from him finally arrives. In the letter, Franz thanks Livia for the financial support that helped him stay away from the front. He advises Livia not to look for him, but she does not listen. As soon as possible, Livia, still grasping the letter, boards a carriage and hurries to Verona to find her lover. Once there, Livia makes her way to the apartment, which she herself has rented for Franz. What she finds is a drunken, self-loathing rogue, in the company of a young prostitute, openly mocking Livia for accepting his abuse.
After forcing her to sit and drink with the prostitute, Franz brutally throws Livia out of his rooms. She finds herself in the streets, filled with drunken, amorous Austrian soldiers. Livia realizes that she still has Franz's letter, but nothing remains now except mutual self-destruction. Her sanity slipping, Livia heads to the headquarters of the Austrian Army, where she hands Franz's letter to a General, thereby convicting Franz of treason. Although the General sees that Livia is acting out of spite for being cuckolded, he is forced to comply and Franz is executed by firing squad. Livia, now insane, runs off into the night, crying out her lover's name.
The novella is written in the form of a private diary, narrated in first person by Countess Livia (she is from Trento, not Venice like in the film). At the present time she is courted on and off by a lawyer, Gino, whom she constantly rebuffs. Narration switches back and forth between this subplot and the main plot, which take place 16 years apart (1865). As Livia recollects her story, it's very much like Visconti's film adaptation. Visconti focused on the main plot, deleting the diary subplot and the character of Gino entirely. The film pushes Livia's story into the background and gives more detail to the war itself while introducing a new subplot about Livia's nationalist cousin, Roberto Ussoni, who leads a rebellion against the Austrians. In the film, Livia gives his money to her lover, leading to a dramatic massacre of the Italian partisans, an episode not in Boito's original story. Visconti strayed so far away from the original source, that at one point he thought of renaming the film Custoza, after the big battle that occurs during the climax, but was denied due to legal reasons.
The character of Franz Mahler is named Remigio Ruz in the novella; Visconti changed the name as a tribute to Gustav Mahler, one of his favourite composers, whose music features in the later Death in Venice. There's also a thematic connection with the film's opening, set in an opera; the scene does not feature in Boito's novella, where the protagonists first meet at a swimming bath.
Visconti's original ending where Livia wanders through the ransacked Verona in a nearly catatonic state while being accosted by drunken Italian soldiers was banned by Italian censors because it was regarded as an outrage to the Italian army. The final scene that closes the film was shot later, in order to wrap up Senso in a more-or-less positive light. Granger was unavailable for the reshoot, so a body double was used, shot only from a distance with his face obscured.
G.R. Aldo's cinematography for the film received the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists' award. Visconti was nominated for the Golden Lion award at the 15th Venice International Film Festival. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars, listing it as one of his "Great Movies."
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection in February 2011. The release includes The Wanton Countess, the rarely seen English-language version of the film, the Making of “Senso,” a new documentary featuring Rotunno, assistant director Francesco Rosi, costume designer Piero Tosi, and Caterina D’Amico, daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico and author of Life and Work of Luchino Visconti, Viva VERDI, a new documentary on Visconti, Senso, and opera, a visual essay by film scholar Peter Cowie, and Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti, a 1966 BBC program exploring Visconti’s mastery of cinema, theater, and opera direction. There is also a booklet featuring an essay by filmmaker and author Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from Granger's autobiography, Include Me Out.
Tinto Brass re-adapted the original source material as Senso '45 (retitled Black Angel for the international release) in 2002 when he read the novella and found himself unsatisfied with Visconti's rather liberal adaptation. The film starred Anna Galiena as Livia and Gabriel Garko as her lover. The story of the film is much more faithful to Camillo Boito's work than the earlier adaptation in terms of tone and story, but the action was transported from the War of Unification to the end of World War II, with Remigio becoming a Nazi Lieutenant and Livia updated to being the wife of a high ranking Fascist official. Brass later explained that the change in time was made because he did not want to compete with Visconti's vision of Risorgimento-era Italy.
Unlike the 1954 version, Senso '45 did not romanticize the affair between Livia and Mahler (portrayed by Helmut Schultz in the 2002 film). Rather, the film showed it as a clinical study of vanity and lust. The film won Italian cinema's "Silver Ribbon" Award for best costume design.