Visconti's Senso opens in an opera house. Actually, it opens with a good two minutes of the opera production itself--Verdi's Il trovatore--which made me think I had been tricked into watching an opera production staged for the camera. I wouldn't have been that far off; all of the Visconti movies I've seen thus far have that same operatic scale, elegance, and sense of inevitable tragedy and loss. He treats his characters with varying degrees of compassion or disgust, but nothing can change the fact that they're a doomed bunch, grappling with forces--social change, history, time--that are out of their control.
Here, fairly traditional romance and melodrama replaces the grand family drama of The Leopard (1963) as the conduit for Visconti's depiction of the changing world (the historical backdrop of the Italian Risorgimento remains the same). La Contessa Serpieri is a wealthy Venitian lady, married to both her husband and the cause of Italy's unification, and she betrays them both to find true love with Franz Mahler, a charming Prussian soldier. He goes on about how war forces men to become peons fighting for a cause they have no interest in, and is perfectly happy to give up glory, honor, and patriotism for her. Or not. Lest we give into idealism and start thinking that happiness can be found by escaping social constraints, the story turns sour, and the two lovers turn from heroes into degenerates.
There's one scene in particular, where all the sentimental veneer is stripped away, that shocked me in it's cruelty. It appealed to the side of me that likes my movies dark. But then again, this is a story where a woman is punished for foolish desire (something that always leaves me uneasy), where connection is impossible between two people who are supposed to be fighting each other, and where patriotism and fidelity matter above all. I was impressed with the intelligence, visual acuity, and attention to detail on display in Senso, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this just wasn't the right story to carry out Visconti's vision. Senso may be good, but the best thing about it is that it was practice for The Leopard.
Death in Venice (1971)
Thomas Mann's Death in Venice novella, on the other hand, provides source material that fits the director like a glove. Not to say that Visconti is a pedophile who enjoys staring at 14 year old boys who are supposed to embody the very idea of beauty and perfection. But the director admitted that he tried to approach auditions for the role of the young Tadzio with the lustful gaze of aging protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, and judging from the footage we have of him marveling over the cuteness of some shirtless Scandinavian fellows, he seems to have had an easy go at it.
Now, now. Before I get too carried away with tasteless remarks about pederasty, I should say that there is a lot more here than mere perversion. Death in Venice is about beauty, loss, and powerlessness, and like many of Visconti's films, it takes place in a a world that's coming apart; a cholera epidemic has swept down upon Venice, although it seems to have enveloped the city in a mournful haze instead of filling it with an air of dread. But, most importantly, the story is about the creative process; von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), unable to find real beauty in his own art (he was a writer in the book and is a composer here), discovers it in something forbidden, in his love for the young boy (Bjorn Andreson). The movie shows the poor man as a rather sad and sometimes pitiful character, but it also treats him with with a sympathetic gaze. Von Aschenbach is a more than an old man that we have to shake out heads at and feel a little bit sorry for. As Mann said, "something comes out in illness that is more important and conductive to life and growth than any medical guaranteed health and sanity...in other words: certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit."
Strangely enough, Death in Venice, which should be a more flawless and distinguished work than Senso, falters in its direction where Senso does not. The affection that Aschenbach has for Tadzio is shown through an endless series of zooms. We get a zoom in on the mustachioed and decrepit Aschenbach and then a zoom in on the rosy cheeked Tadzio and it gets to be a little silly after a while. The music is often mushy and sentimental, and the film can be formless and long-winded at times. But ultimately, it's the personal connection that Visconti brings that elevates the movie. Death in Venice nearly reaches the level of beauty and sadness that it aims for.