Senso and sensibility
Early on in the piece, the beautiful but bored Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) is asked whether she likes opera. She responds that she does, but that she doesn’t like melodrama in people’s real lives. Oh, the irony. Because what ensues is nothing short of a melodramatic and somewhat ludicrous love affair that leaves the Countess looking, frankly, like a fool – betrayed by the man she thought she loved, having compromised her deeply-held partisan sensibilities and lost all of her money.
Luchino Visconti’s 1954 film is typically sumptuous and emotionally powerful, set in glamourous Italian locations including La Fenice opera house and the streets of Venice, staging vast battle scenes, and showcasing its stars in beautiful costumes. Add to this the music of Verdi (we are treated to a performance of Il Trovatore in the opening scenes) and Bruckner, and you have the makings of an epic period drama.
Compared with the depth and pathos of Death in Venice and The Leopard, however, Senso is relatively fatuous in its subject matter. True, the historical setting is interesting and well-explored – Livia is committed to her cousin’s loyalist cause, and initially approaches her lover-to-be, a lieutenant in the hated occupying Austrian army, to convince him to eschew a duel her cousin has challenged him to (this is 1866, after all). But Livia’s head-over-heels romance with Farley Granger’s lieutenant is never quite believable, and the audience sees his manipulations long before our protagonista does. As she goes to enormous lengths to see him behind her husband’s back, to hide him in her holiday home, and then send him away with all her money so that he can bribe a doctor to get himself discharged from the army, we lose respect for her and simply watch and wait, as if transfixed by an imminent train crash.
Farley Granger is perhaps a curious choice of casting. Having made his name in the excellent Hitchcock films Rope and Strangers on a Train (which proved his ability to mix a doe-eyed daftness with evil machinations), Granger went to Italy to shoot Senso and apparently had a whale of a time travelling around the country. Interestingly, while filming each of the actors was allowed to speak their lines in their native tongue (though Alida Valli was able to speak Italian, English and German) so it’s somewhat disconcerting that Granger is clearly mouthing English words, with a smoothly dubbed Italian voice over the top. Perhaps this adds to undermine his lieutenant’s caddish character, although granted the high-waisted pale blue trousers don’t help…
In any event, Livia and Lieutenant Mahler enjoy a passionate romance until it all unravels, climaxing in a scene the dialogue of which is reminiscent of the cruelty of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (perhaps inevitable, given Tennessee Williams had a hand in the script). It’s certainly gripping and engaging, if in parts laughable – but Senso will, if nothing else, serve to warn one off extra-marital affairs with military men.