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Senso (Blu-ray Review)

7 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Christian Marquand.

Though establishing works Ossessione and La terra trema are hallmarks of Italian neo-realism (with operatic flavoring), most audiences probably think of Luchino Visconti in terms of his opulent color period pieces: The Leopard, The Damned, Death in Venice and swansong The Innocent, to name four. But the first of these was this 19th-century war/romance “bad-luck project,” which by no stretch was the last one Visconti would have in his career. Starring The Third Man’s Alida Valli and Farley Granger when Visconti’s dream casting was Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman, it’s a key player in all the head-on-straight books about the greatest color movies ever made.

But until a recent and costly restoration (the negative had shrunk, for openers), Senso’s photographic rep was mostly based on memory. In a loving first-hand essay included in Criterion’s package, writer/filmmaker Mark Rappaport (Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg) notes that he thought it the most beautiful movie ever upon catching it at New York City/Chelsea’s long-gone Elgin Theater in 1968 — the film’s woefully belated premiere U.S. engagement not counting specialized showings in theaters catering to Italian-language audiences. In fact, Rappaport did more than catch it. He saw it five times, courtesy of what must have been one of the few prints, if not the only one, in Manhattan circulation.

Because by the time I was able to see Senso for the first time (New York, in either 1970 or ’71), scratches and splices — lots of them — compromised what were indeed unsurpassedly sumptuous color values. And after that, forget it: fading set in (which means there must have been exclusively Eastman Color prints circulating of this shot-in-Technicolor epic, whose costume-friendly setting is Italy during its Austrian occupation in 1866). Later, repertory theaters played wretchedly faded copies, and also gone-red were the VHS version that Connoisseur Video distributed in the ‘80s and the rendering Turner Classic Movies has aired in more recent times. Once in my programming days at the American Film Institute Theater, Senso’s then distributor swore to me up and down after what I thought was a good grilling that he had an excellent non-faded print. I scheduled it, noted the “fine” print quality in the program brochure and was only saved from tar-and-feathering by a full house of patrons because it’s unlikely the Kennedy Center would have allowed tar and feathers through its doors.

Here, though, are the visuals Visconti intended, and the film’s running time is even a little longer here than I can ever recall seeing. Every shot is a painting, as you’ve heard said of other movies in a common refrain, but as Rappaport says, you don’t want to hang the images on the wall; you want to live in them. This said, all that fanning action in the balcony seats suggests to me that there’s a lot of sweltering heat in the long opening scene where Verdi’s Il trovatore is performed in Venice’s Fenice Opera House (whose relatively recent restoration in 2001-03 utilized still photos from Visconti’s film). Soon, there’ll be some sweltering heat between the story principals as well.

In the source novella by Camillo Boito, the central femme character is apparently a flighty youngster who has a fling with an Austrian soldier before turning the tables on him with his superiors. Here, the stakes are much higher and the drama deeper. Valli’s Contessa Serpieri is older, married and on the way not just to jeopardizing her own status but the fortunes and possibly life of a beloved cousin who’s a major player in the anti-Austrian resistance. (There’s nothing like taking gold coins in your keeping that are earmarked for the underground and giving them to your lover). I’ve never forgotten the supremely visual scenes in the movie’s second half when Granger’s a.w.o.l. wastrel of a lieutenant hides out, with the contessa’s knowledge, in the grainery of her husband’s country estate after the much older fellow (who starts out as a kind of passive collaborator) elects to leave Venice.

Dubbed Granger, who looks the part, is at least OK, but Valli’s performance is maybe three-quarters as good as Bergman’s might have been, which is very passionate indeed. According to the all-star lineup of extras included on Criterion’s release, Visconti never got too far with his Bergman fantasy because she was immersed in her marriage to (and career exclusivity with) Roberto Rossellini. But Brando apparently went so far as to shoot a screen test in Italy, whereupon (according to which story is true), Visconti’s “aristocratic Marxist” politics scared off Brando’s advisors during the ‘50s Red Scare; or the film’s bankroller maddeningly preferred Granger. In an insult to injury, the Italian critics attacked Visconti from both political sides (not that the U.S. reception a decade-plus later was any less myopic).

After Sweet Smell of Success, one might not expect another gangbusters Criterion release so soon — but here it is. The extras include a Senso excerpt from Granger’s autobiography and an unrestored version of the shorter, inferior but tantalizingly rare alternate English-language version (in which Valli and Granger employ their own voices) that boasts a dialogue contribution from Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (the jaw drops). There’s a making-of documentary with lots of still-living production heavyweights, a visual essay by the great Peter Cowie, a 1966 BBC portrait of Visconti and a super featurette that deals with a variety of themes: the director’s theatrical work, his hugely germane resume in opera (read: Maria Callas) and an explanation of what Senso’s story means to Italian history. Included are some wonderfully infectious on-camera comments by the late critic-teacher-scholar and all-around good guy Peter Brunette — the kind of intellectual you wanted to have a beer with (and I wish I could have one with him now).

Senso’s photographic history is fascinating. G.R. Aldo (Umberto D and Orson Welles’ Othello) started but got killed during production in an auto mishap. He was replaced by Robert Krasker (Odd Man Out and later El Cid). Krasker and Visconti didn’t get along, so in came assistant cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno (featured on the making-of featurette), who later went on to shoot Visconti’s The Leopard, Fellini Satyricon, All That Jazz and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Three masters, but with Visconti’s own eye, the result is a seamless work. Did someone say this is a great-looking picture or what?

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