Italy, France, 1976
Directed by Luchino Visconti
With Giancarlo Giannini (Tullio Hermil), Laura Antonelli (Giuliana Hermil), Didier Hautepin (Federico Hermil), Jennifer O’Neill (Teresa Ruffo), Marc Porel (Filippo d’Arborio)
The establishing shots show the lead character of the last film directed by Luchino Visconti battling with his fencing teacher, displaying his skills and strength. But Tullio Hermil must cut short his training to attend a party, held in a glitzy old palazzo, a party that is another amazing spectacle of elegant, refined, precious furniture, ornaments, and dresses by the director of revered period pieces like “Senso” (1954) or “Morte in Venezia – Death in Venice” (1971), where an older lady as blue-blooded as Tullio Hermil is displays her own, less aggressive but no less self-confident talent, and where he is awaited not only by his quite wife Giuliana but also by beautiful mistress Teresa Ruffo.
The character imagined by writer Gabriele d’Annunzio is proud of both his social status and his vitality. He adheres to very manly and sophisticated values, soon revealing how little he fears God and morals, intent rather on pursuing his own pleasures. There is in this first part an astonishing dialogue between husband and wife showing how candid and unabashed Tullio Hermil is when it comes to face the truth and assert his whims and personality: Giuliana is thanked for putting up with his romantic adventures and viewed as the kind sister helping him keep his balance and keeping him from erring too far on the wrong side. But he acknowledges things are moving in uncharted territories with Teresa Ruffo; maybe he is more is love than he first thought; the fact is, he needs to follow Teresa Ruffo everywhere she goes and to stay with her.
Now the film could focus on the whims and sexual urge of the husband, or perhaps gets interested in the resigned life of the wife. It actually chooses to show both narrative arcs, the sultry romance of Tullio and the deep-seated angst of Giuliana. When Tullio’s brother Federico Hermil introduces to his sister-in-law some friends, including novelist Filippo d’Arborio, there could be a new deal in the narrative, especially as the meeting takes place under shocking circumstances – Federico was dining with his guests at his brother’s palazzo when Giuliana suddenly knocks at the door, in a state of frenzy, clearly sickened by the sleep pills she has taken, showing the ravaged face of a lady under pressure, coping with strong fears.
The most remarkable fact of the story and the film is that nothing really happens – on the screen. Only a few exchanges of gazes point to the desire of the unhappy wife and the successful and seducing writer of striking a bond – it would takes many scenes, and the diagnostic of Tullio’s mother who is relieved to see that her daughter-in-law is at long last pregnant, to find out they did have an affair – and would never take it up, as Filippo d’Arborio soon afterwards dies from a tropical disease after a trip to Africa.
What Giuliana did with her sentiments and her body remain concealed to the audience – quite the opposite of the case of Teresa Ruffo, who fully expresses what she thinks of her lover, and is quietly shot frolicking with him. But then, her feelings and urge are not the center of the film.
Of course, the film does point out that Tullio is not dupe – in fact he gets interested in the novelist even as he despises his novels, unlike many, especially Giuliana and Teresa, too. His suspicions would even make him renege on a promise to Teresa Ruffo to travel in Paris; he would instead go to his mother’s countryside mansion where Giuletta is resting. Tullio pines for his wife and wants to conquer her again. This leads to the film’s most sensual scenes, exposing the full nudity and submissive sexuality of Giuliana, which Tullio clearly relishes possessing and exploiting. His own naked body is shot with ever more intensity and raunchiness than in the scenes with his mistress. Tullio, even more clearly than before, comes across as a dominant, overweening male, guided by impulse and steered by a brash and nonchalant view of life. The physical vigor and assertiveness exposed at the beginning orders his life, and his relations with women. He is as eager to possess his wife as he was quick to defy a fellow aristocrat who was flirting with Teresa Ruffo: sex and duel are the natural options of a man who cannot countenance the women he has elected escape him, and puts his whims and needs above everything else, according to a personal moral denying moral and social tenets.
But news of the pregnancy change everything. And fencing is the ground where Tullio’s trouble is fully displayed, when he nearly kills his brother, as the family’s physician is paying a visit (and proving the mother’s hint right). Snap, rude behaviors morph into a burning, lasting rage: to him, it is obvious the baby cannot be born, and he plans for an abortion – after all, Giuletta suffered from a miscarriage in the past, so another accident would not raise suspicion and nicely settle the question of honor. But Giuletta refuses to commit a crime – and the demise of her one-time lover does not really alter the picture. A strange tension rises, but the baby is delivered.
The attitudes of the parents, who seems incredibly unconcerned by the boy, puzzle the outside world, and nobody really imagines how the situation drives Tullio ever crazier. He eventually kills the titular innocent, losing forever Giuletta who would rather live alone with the memories of the child and the child’s father than stick with a man she despised.
In the film’s conclusion, he does not come across as a really saddened or worried man. He cheerfully chats once again with his mistress, mocking his wife for taking up the emotions and poses of a bad melodrama, the kind of hackneyed and lachrymose elements filling the novels Filippo d’Arborio used to write, in his view. Teresa Ruffo is rather demure, cautious in her choice of words, glad to spend the evening with her lover, but ready to tell him some truths. Once again, sex seems to take control of their relationship and Tullio to get satisfaction. But the night proceeds in an unexpected way: the man claims he is able to bring things to a conclusion and without Teresa Ruffo really realizing what is going on, shoots himself in the chest.
Why does Teresa Ruffo flee in the final, poignant shots, taken as a foggy dawn rises? Of course, she does not want to be pictured with a dead body, belonging to a man with whom she has has an illegitimate affair. She fears the scandal. And she may be wondering what responsibility she has – after all, she argued earlier that Tullio was lying to himself, and perhaps more in love with Giuletta than he said. Was he? Did he even feel at long last remorse? The abrupt, shocking self-destruction of this self-indulgent vitality and selfish exercise of sensuality raises questions, and they are more pressing and annoying as it is hard to pinpoint anything suggesting in the past than his views on Giuletta could be more sentimental than what he showed. And there is the sad reality that the director died before the editing was finished: there is no certainty that what is nowadays screened is to the last shot what he would have signed off. As it stands, the “L’innocente” is rather disturbing, plumbing the depths of a libertine hoping to conquer fully the objects of his desire and keen on safeguarding his status and the comfort of his lack of principles. The portrayal is precise and scathing, while astutely highlighting the physical, sensual, combative characteristics of the lead character, and how they represent his deeper persona and eventual folly. Still, something is lacking in the picture, the ambiguity or the figment of sincerity and respect that would make sense of the end, and would make the portrait more complete and more riveting.