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Review: 'Senso' uncovers a visually splendid Italian melodrama rarely seen in America

Review: 'Senso' uncovers a visually splendid Italian melodrama rarely seen in America
Alida Valli and Farley Granger in Luchino Visconti's 1954 film, "Senso." (Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal)

For a much admired work by a major director, “Senso” has taken a long time to get to Los Angeles theaters in a form close to its original shape. Now that it has, we can see both what we’ve been missing and why it’s taken so long.

Directed by Luchino Visconti, released in Italy in 1954 and now playing at the Nuart in West Los Angeles in a new digital restoration, this beautifully shot film about the deranging power of mad, doomed love certainly has a history that makes it qualify as what the French call a film maudit, a cursed film.

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Starring the unlikely couple of America’s Farley Granger and Europe’s Alida Valli, “Senso” first reached English-speaking audiences in a cut-down and dubbed version with the wacky title of “The Wanton Countess.”

The original Italian version, with Granger dubbed, as was the custom, did not reach even as far as New York theaters until 1968, when the New York Times dismissed it as “closer to soap opera than Mr. Visconti imagined.”

A reaction like this was certainly not what Visconti, eventually responsible for classics ranging from “Rocco and His Brothers” and “The Leopard” to “Death in Venice,” had in mind when he and top Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico began adapting the novella by Camillo Boito.

“Senso’s” story is set in a very particular time and place in Italian history: Venice in 1866, when the city and surrounding area were still under the control of Austria but the Italian Risorgimento, the armed cultural renaissance that led to unity and independence, was in full swing.

Visconti had big plans for this multimillion-dollar epic that chronicled the ill-fated passion between a patriotic Italian countess and a cynical Austrian officer. He even apparently had Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in mind for the couple, which would have been an intriguing matchup for sure.

"Senso," released in Italy in 1954, is now playing again after a new digital restoration.

Instead “Senso” stars Valli, who’d been a knockout playing opposite Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles in “The Third Man,” and Granger, who seemed like a hot ticket after the Alfred Hitchcock double bill of “Rope” and “Strangers on a Train.”

Certainly from a visual point of view, “Senso,” which the celebrated French critic Georges Sadoul called “one of the most beautiful Italian films ever made,” lived up to expectations.

Shot by G.R. Aldo and Robert Krasker with Giuseppe Rotunno serving as camera operator, “Senso” is visually lush and luxurious from its opening sequences shot at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice opera house to later shots at a Palladian villa outside of town to expansive panoramas of military action that close the film.

Granger’s Lt. Franz Mahler (named by Visconti after the composer he admired) looks like a toy soldier come to life in the immaculate white uniforms he invariably wears, while Valli’s Countess Livia Serpieri dons a variety of drop-dead outfits courtesy of Marcel Escoffier and Piero Tosi.

“Senso” opens with an opera, Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” in full swing on La Fenice’s stage, and that is no accident.

For even when the singing stops, it becomes clear that Visconti, who directed numerous operas in addition to his films, intended “Senso” as a kind of opera without arias — a story where outsized, out-of-control, over-the-top emotions were given their head.

Though Visconti and Cecchi d’Amico receive the main screenwriting credit, “collaborators” Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles also get on-screen credit, and in fact “Senso” often has the emotional hot house atmosphere that characterized Williams’ late plays.

When we first meet Countess Serpieri as an audience member at La Fenice, she is a passionate Italian patriot, tolerating her marriage to a much older man but emotionally attached to her freedom-fighting cousin Roberto.

Lt. Mahler is a much different animal. A self-absorbed womanizer uninterested in politics, he has the actions and reactions of an impetuous child.

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The countess contrives to meet him in the hopes of saving her patriotic cousin from trouble. Much to her surprise, during a late-night walk along Venice’s bewitching canals (well before they became clogged with tourists) she falls madly in love with him.

The lieutenant’s feelings seem to fluctuate and his cultural differences (Granger’s obvious foreignness helps here) make him harder for the countess to pin down. Which makes it inevitable that her two passions — for the officer and the movement — are doomed to be in conflict.

Not usually seen as one of the cinema’s great romantics, Visconti with “Senso” made a film that both celebrated and mocked the very idea of romantic love, and the film remains resolutely itself after all these years.

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‘Senso’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles

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