Italy, 1954

Directed by Luchino Visconti

With Alida Valli (Countess Livia Serpieri), Farley Granger (Lieutenant Franz Mahler), Massimo Girotti (Marquis Roberto Ussini), Heinz Moog (Count Serpieri)

Countess Livia Serpieri’s life is at first buffeted by her allegiance to two different men: on the one hand, her husband the Count, older than her and an opportunistic supporter of the Austrian Empire which is ruling Venice, their city, in 1866, while the rest of Italy (save the Papal States) has become a newly unified country, and on the other hand, her cousin, Marquis Roberto Ussini, a seductive fellow of her age who is fighting to achieve this Italian unity. But the arrest of Ussini after a protest inside the Venice opera brings in her life another man who is going to fully alter it; he is Lieutenant Franz Mahler, an Austrian soldier who is as cocky as he is attractive.

Caught in a powerful psychological and political drama and in an impossible romance: Alida Vallli

Her unexpected love for the enemy’s representative drives the countess first to betray her husband, a move that is not too hard and too tragic for her to make, and then her cousin and his fellow fighters, an altogether different problem. The first treason takes place in Venice with the city’s walls and streets as the assiduous witnesses of Franz Mahler’s courting, which challenges the countenance and sentiments of Livia Serpieri. Her fault is not found out and she manages to handle the situation. The second treason unfolds in a countryside turned into a battlefield by a new war that is going to end with the complete defeat of the Hapsburg Empire. It is far more challenging and heartbreaking for the countess and as war rages she is assailed by her desire for the Austrian soldier, who would like to be discharged to stay with her. She eventually collapses under the weight of her emotions and chooses to ignore political reality and dear friendships to give money to Mahler and then to share his life in Verona. But when she meets him he cynically acknowledges that he misled her for his own benefit. The third man of her story is the cause of a third treason, and the biggest as she is the victim.

The men surrounding her embody the essential elements of a powerful psychological and political drama, based on a celebrated novella by Camillo Boito. The count and the marquis are basic actors of the wider historical and political tragedy, standing for the perennial opposition between the ally and the rebel, the cunningly cautious and the fierce fighter, the mature and the youngish. The lieutenant is the Janus-like character whose real feelings are hard to decipher and whose behavior cleverly swings from being attractive to being embarrassing. The screenplay grants them the right place and the right weight so as to make the drama intense and compelling, while giving a realistic and neutral vision of the end of the Risorgimento historical movement.

The countess’s sentimental arc is the real topic and her plight hogs the attention of the camera and the audience. Alida Valli’s face writhes with fear and doubt from the beginning, when she is worried by her cousin’s arrest; the truth is that pain would always creep over her face, even when she feels fully happy with her lover (think of the sequence when she cuts a lock of her hair, hoping he can’t forget her, but uncertainty is in the air). If tension runs high in the first part for the obvious reasons, from the marital infidelity to Mahler’s penchant to disappear and to his problematic nationality, the second part becomes the unforgiving chronicle of a passion going mad and the face and attitudes belie the folly the countess is the willing victim of. The finale is a heart-rending move back to reality which emphasizes how far she has strayed and betrayed, though it is hard to fully excuse her, in particular for her last-minute revenge. Livia Serpieri’s passion seems above all a tragic individual fall from certainty and confidence, the story of a drifting heart that may point to the frustrations of a woman whose marriage is probably an arrangement and who can’t consider incest (with Ussini). The political context adds a more shocking and poignant layer to the melodrama, though, as it ends with the lover’s contempt, it is hard to argue the film pleads for love beyond the borders.

Luchino Visconti takes the story as an opportunity to tracks a woman’s attraction to lust through a clever use of shots and spaces. Venice is turned into a vast stage for the forbidden love and it is hard to forget the long night Franz and Livia spent wander in the town, first in little streets along canals as they are on the defensive and then across squares as feelings bloom. Visconti does his best to visually underline the characters’ sentiments and carry the audience along, from carefully reckoned shots to astute choices of clothes. The second part follows suit, with a stronger sense of spectacle and striking ideas (like the long journey in a coach, with long shots on the increasingly dirty vehicle alternating with close shots on black-clothed Livia, mourning her political conviction but on the verge of mourning her love). Compositions are as lavish and beautiful as the costumes, props and sets; all these elements’ beauty is nicely enhanced by the Technicolor technique that Visconti chose to use for the first time and by his obsessive desire to make details ringing true and looking stupendous. “Senso” is a compelling drama – and a beauty of a drama.

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