Italian stage and film director Luchino Visconti (1906–1976) is considered one of the founding fathers of the Italian neorealism film movement. As his career progressed, however, he produced more lavish films that spanned a range of historical periods. More than just a neorealist director, Visconti was one of the greatest international film directors that emerged from the post–war Italian cinema.
Visconti was born into an aristocratic family as Count Don Luchino Visconti Di Morone on November 2, 1906, in Milan, Italy. He was one of seven children of the Duke of Modrone.
As a member of the Italian aristocracy, Visconti enjoyed a pampered and privileged upbringing that allowed him to pursue whatever activities suited his fancy. His early interests included music and theater. He inherited his musical inclinations from his mother, who was a talented musician. From his father, he inherited a love of the theater, as the Duke operated his own private stage. In the process, Visconti had the opportunity to meet some very famous artists including conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), and Italian poet and novelist Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938).
Visconti's earliest education was supervised by his mother, though later he attended private schools in Milan and Como. After his parents separated, he was sent to a boarding school of the Calasanzian Order from 1924–26.
Despite the unique opportunities that Visconti's privilege afforded him, his greatest passion at the time was horse breeding and racing. For nearly eight years, the passion bordered on obsession. But his early life was not all horses and art. From 1926 to 1928, he served in the Reggimento Savoia Cavalleria. At the end of his service, he went back to his artistic pursuits and, in 1928, made his debut as a stage set designer. During this period, he was involved in production at La Scala, working with future opera star Maria Callas.
Moved to Paris
In 1936, at the age of 30, Visconti moved to Paris, where he immersed himself in the intellectual, cultural and political trends that characterized France before World War II. Through his friendship with world–famous fashion designer Coco Chanel, Visconti met the great French filmmaker Jean Renoir. This introduction awoke in Visconti a passion for cinema as an art form.
Visconti served as an assistant to Renoir, working as a costume designer and as an assistant director on Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936) and Les Bas–Fonds (The Lower Depths, 1937). Even though Visconti was now completely fixated on film, he did not give up his interests in the performing arts such as theater and opera.
In 1937, Visconti made a brief visit to Hollywood, but he was disillusioned by the American film factory. When he returned to Italy in 1939, he became a member of the editorial staff of Cinema, a film journal. That year, he also served as assistant director to Renoir on La Tosca.
Politics was another of Visconti's great interests, and during this period he switched his philosophies from fascism to communism. When he returned to Italy, he became part of the resistance to the rising tide of fascism, and he would remain a Marxist until his death.
Censors and Church Denounced First Film
Back in Italy, Visconti's career as a film director began in earnest in the early 1940s and he would soon became a major figure in the Italian neorealist cinematic movement. Neorealism was characterized by an unadorned and truthful depiction of lower–class life. Neorealist directors and their films demonstrated a pronounced social consciousness through concern with lower–class individuals and families and their hardships. The neorealist style was starkly realistic, and depended on film techniques such as long, unbroken takes.
Visconti's first film, made in 1942, was Ossessione, a loose, unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain's American pulp crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Visconti moved the setting to Italy, and he increased the already heated sexuality of Cain's story. The film reflected the influence of his early film work with Renoir, specifically in the use of long takes.
Visconti had to sell some family jewels to finance the film, but it was an enormously popular success in Italy, even though it ran into trouble with Fascist censors for its "obscenity." The censors objected to Visconti's steamy depiction of an illicit love affair as well as his harsh representation of Italian provincial life.
The film is considered one of the first "neorealist" films. Though the film had no overt political message, it still showed unemployment and depicted a harsh portrayal of the institution of marriage. It also had an overtly gay character. Not only did Italian censors denounce the film, but the Catholic Film Center condemned it. Reportedly, in Salsamaggiore, bishops exorcised a theater where it had been shown. Scenes involving the homosexual character were cut but later restored.
Visconti himself was openly bisexual in his lifestyle, as was his father. Though his films depicted only a few homosexual characters, Visconti's work often possessed elements of homoeroticism, which was often manifested in his choice of attractive leading actors through the years.
Visconti would regularly produce films from 1942 to 1976, but his pace was rather slow, due to the obsessive care he brought to all elements of his productions.
Imprisoned by Gestapo
After adopting the Marxist philosophy, Visconti became an active anti–fascist and he managed to escape persecution by the Mussolini government until the final days of World War II. During the war, Visconti's palazzo became a secret headquarters for members of the Communist Resistance. Also, Visconti himself engaged in armed resistance against the German occupiers. Eventually, his activities led to his brief imprisonment in 1944 by the German Gestapo.
After the war, Visconti returned to his previous interests, opera and theater. He was among a generation of theater directors who strived to rejuvenate the Italian theater, which had lost its vitality under the Fascist government, through reinterpretation of plays and by introducing new works. In the upcoming years, Visconti helped introduce playwrights that had been banned by the fascists. These included Jean Cocteau, Jean–Paul Sartre, and Tennessee Williams. The first play that Visconti directed was Cocteau's Parenti terrible in Rome in 1945.
Visconti established an international reputation as a stage director at the Teatro Eliseo in Rome after the war. Visconti's stage productions often generated controversy due to their themes and subject matter (e.g., incest and homosexuality). Some of the plays he presented also reflected his left–wing political sympathies, as they often depicted a lead character in conflict with the prevailing attitudes of modern society.
His opera productions earned him as much fame as his film work, particularly his work with Callas, who claimed that Visconti taught her how to act.
Released Second Film
For his second film, released in 1948, Visconti chose overtly Marxist subject matter. La Terra Trema, an adaptation of the Giovanni Verga novel I Malavoglia, concerned life in a poor Sicilian fishing village. Funded by the Italian Communist Party, the film was intended as a documentary trilogy. Visconti wanted to present an encompassing film about the Sicilian poor, but he only managed to complete the first part of his envisioned project, and this involved the exploitation and eventual breakdown of a fishing family.
The film was shot entirely on location in Sicily and possesses the documentary–like style now associated with the neorealist film movement. For some of the roles, Visconti employed locals who were allowed to speak in their native dialects. The film was shot by G.R. Aldo, one of best–known and finest post–war Italian cinematographers, and featured long takes and long shots combined with extensive camera movements.
Moved Away From Neorealism
As good as Visconti's early film work was, his greatest achievements were ahead of him. His subsequent films featured neorealistic stylings but, during the 1950s, he began producing films that were quite lavish and operatic. A favorite theme involved the moral and economic disintegration of aristocratic families. He was also preoccupied with the decadence of the upper classes.
In 1951, he released Bellissima, a satire that starred famed Italian actress Anna Magnani as a stage mother intent on getting her daughter into movies. For his next film, Visconti turned to the works of Verdi. Senso, released in 1954, included sections from the opera Il Trovatore, and is a spectacular, operatic film shot in color. Set in 1866, it involves revolution, forbidden love, and betrayal. Alida Valli played a countess who betrays her Italian nationalism for love during the Austrian occupation of Venice. Though the film was highly melodramatic, it still reflected Visconti's Marxist sensibilities, specifically as it related to Italian history, and it marked the end of Visconti's strict neorealist period, as the director began to commingle realism with a much more elegant style.
That same year, Visconti staged the opera La vestale starring Callas. In 1957, he released an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's White Nights starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell.
Rocco and a Return to Realism
From there, Visconti entered into a period where he produced highly personal works, several of which are regarded as his greatest films. He also concentrated exclusively on film. In 1961, he withdrew from theatrical activities. His film output would include a mixture of contemporary and period films. But almost all would involve reflections on a past that is irretrievably lost and how that loss affects the present, as well as how the loss manifests itself in melancholy and ruminations on the inevitability of death. Many of his films would focus on the collapse of family dynasties and the disintegration of family relationships.
The very realistic and very popular Rocco and his Brothers (1960) would be the last time Visconti focused on working–class subjects. Essentially, the film is a family tragedy that involves the Parandis, a Sicilian peasant family forced to move, for economic reasons, into the industrial northern section of Italy. The film deals with their troubles and disillusionment. In their new home, the Parandis, particularly the brothers, must deal with harsh economic realities as well as the sexual rivalries that threaten their solidarity. The film was hugely successful, both with audiences and critics, and it was Visconti's personal favorite work.
The film has an episodic structure, as it takes turns focusing on each brother. However, the main focus falls on Rocco (played by Alain Delon, who became an international star because of the film), the loving, protective brother who tries to keep the family together. The brothers are unable to find work and turn to prizefighting, which Visconti portrays as class exploitation. The entrance of the prostitute Nadia into their lives turns brother against brother. Eventually, Nadia is murdered by Simone, the brutal brother whose actions are directed by his insecurities and moral laxity. Rocco tries to save his brother, but is betrayed by Ciro, the younger brother who has become a factory worker involved in labor unions.
Visconti may have considered Rocco and his Brothers his favorite film, but his most personal film was The Leopard, a haunting work released in 1963 that details the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy during the nineteenth–century Risorgimento period of Italian history. It is also considered Visconti's greatest film.
The opulent film, featuring American actor Burt Lancaster in the lead, focuses on one aristocratic Sicilian family forced to endure a substantial transformation due to a marriage that brings the middle class into its fold. It was awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes. However, the film was severely edited for release in the United States, and American audiences had to wait nearly 20 years to view a restored version.
During this period, Visconti developed his reputation as a difficult director. According to the British Film Institute website, one of his lead actresses, Clara Calamai, called him "a medieval lord with a whip." Reportedly, he treated Lancaster quite badly. However, Lancaster later said that Visconti was the best director he ever worked with and described him as "an actor's dream."
In his next film, Sandra (1965), a psychoanalytical treatment of the Elektra myth, Visconti turned to the Italian Resistance, in a story of a wealthy woman haunted by an incestuous relationship with her brother and by the fact that her mother betrayed her Jewish father to the Nazis.
The general consensus is that Visconti took a career misstep with his next film, an adaptation of Albert Camus' existential novel The Stranger. Released in 1967, Lo straniero was a failure with both the critics and the public.
An operatic feel, as well as favorite Visconti themes—politics, family disintegration—find their way into the director's next work, The Damned (1969). Described as "Wagnerian," the film delineates the fall of a German industrial family that yielded to Nazism. Visconti used the real–life Krupp family as a schematic model for his story of a family's descent into betrayal and murder. The allegorical film was described as a "cold" film that resorted to caricature.
Visconti's next film, Morte a Venezia (1971), based on the Thomas Mann novel Death in Venice, was praised for its beautiful production values, but it also failed with the critics. Visconti followed this with Ludwig (1972), a four–hour depiction of the life of the "mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria. Critics found it visually beautiful but overlong.
Suffered a Stroke
While filming Ludwig, Visconti suffered a severe stroke from which he never fully recovered. According to accounts, Visconti smoked up to 120 cigarettes a day, which contributed to the stroke and to his subsequent health problems.
Visconti was nearly paralyzed by the stroke, and he would direct his final two films from a wheelchair. Despite his physical difficulties, the director was back in fine form with Conversation Piece (1975), a semi–autobiographical film about an aging Italian professor at odds with the materialism of the bourgeoisie and the militancy of the radical youth. Lancaster played the professor.
Visconti's last film was L'Innocente (1976). Based on Gabrielle d'Annunzio's novel, the film depicts European high society at the end of the twentieth century. Visconti died on March 17, 1976, in Rome, two months before film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival; cause of death was cited as influenza and heart disease. He was 69 years old. Visconti's funeral was held two days later and was attended by Italian President Giovanni Leone and Lancaster.
Right to the end of his illustrious career, Visconti had produced films set in various periods and focusing on a range of subjects. Though the films had deeply personal elements, Visconti always claimed that he never made a film for himself but only for the audience, and the focus was always on the human being. "I was impelled toward the cinema by, above all, the need to tell stories of people who were alive, of people living amid things and not of the things themselves," he said in a 1943 interview that was quoted on the Fieri Boston website. "The cinema that interests me is an anthropomorphic cinema. The most humble gestures of man, his bearing, his feelings, and instincts are sufficient to make the things that surround him poetic and alive. The significance of the human being, his presence, is the only thing that could dominate the images."
International Directory of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, St. James Press, 2000.
International Directory of Theatre, Volume 3: Actors, Directors, and Designers, St. James Press, 1996.
Monaco, James, et al, The Encyclopedia of Film, Putnam, 1991.
"Biography of Luchino Visconti," RIA International Online,http://www.italica.rai.it/eng/principal/topics/bio/visconti.htm (December 28, 2004).
"Italian Masters of Neorealism: Luchino Visconti," Fieri Boston, http://www.fieri-boston.org/cinema–visconti.htm (December 28, 2004).
"Luchino Visconti," British Film Institute,http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/visconti/biography.html (December 28, 2004).
Stein, Elliott, "Full Visconti Series Juxtaposes Neorealism and Opulence," The Village Voice,http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0446/stein.php (December 28, 2004).
Nationality: Italian. Born: Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone in Milan, 2 November 1906. Education: Educated at private schools in Milan and Como; also attended boarding school of the Calasanzian Order, 1924–36. Military Service: Served in Reggimento Savoia Cavalleria, 1926–28. Career: Stage actor and set designer, 1928–29; moved to Paris, assistant to Jean Renoir, 1936–37; returned to Italy to assist Renoir on La Tosca, 1939; directed first film, Ossessione, 1942; directed first play, Cocteau's Parenti terrible, Rome, 1945; directed first opera, La vestale, Milan, 1954; also ballet director, 1956–57. Awards: International Prize, Venice Festival, for La terra trema, 1948; 25th Anniversary Award, Cannes Festival, 1971. Died: 17 March 1976.
Films as Director:
Ossessione (+ co-sc)
La terra trema (+ sc)
Bellissima (+ co-sc); Appunti su un fatto di cronaca (second in series Documento mensile)
"We, the Women" episode of Siamo donne (+ co-sc)
Senso (+ co-sc)
Le notti bianche (White Nights) (+ co-sc)
Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers) (+ co-sc)
"Il lavoro (The Job)" episode of Boccaccio '70 (+ co-sc)
Il gattopardo (The Leopard) (+ co-sc)
Vaghe stelle dell'orsa (Of a Thousand Delights; Sandra) (+ co-sc)
"Le strega bruciata viva" episode of Le streghe; Lo straniero (L'Etranger) (+ co-sc)
La caduta degli dei (The Damned; Götterdämmerung) (+ co-sc)
Alla ricerca di Tadzio
Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice) (+ pr, co-sc)
Ludwig (+ co-sc)
Gruppo di famiglia in un interno (+ co-sc)
L'innocente (The Innocent) (+ co-sc)
Les Bas-fonds (Renoir) (asst d)
Une Partie de campagne (Renoir) (asst d) (released 1946)
La Tosca (Renoir) (asst d)
Giorni di gloria (De Santis) (asst d)
By VISCONTI: books—
Senso, Bologna, 1955.
Le notti bianche, Bologna, 1957.
Rocco e i suoi fratelli, Bologna, 1961.
Il gattopardo, Bologna, 1963.
Vaghe stelle dell'orsa (Sandra), Bologna, 1965.
Three Screenplays, New York, 1970.
Morte a Venezia, Bologna, 1971.
Il mio teatro, in two volumes, Bologna, 1979.
By VISCONTI: articles—
"Il cinéma antropomorfico," in Cinema (Rome), 25 September 1943.
"La terra trema," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), March 1951.
"Marcia nuziale," in Cinema Nuovo (Turin), 1 May 1953.
Interview with Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Jean Domarchi, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1959.
"The Miracle That Gave Men Crumbs," in Films and Filming (London), January 1961.
"Drama of Non-Existence," in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), no. 2, 1966.
"Violence et passion," special Visconti issue of Avant-Scène duCinéma (Paris), June 1975.
Interview with Peter Brunette, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1986/87.
On VISCONTI: books—
Pellizzari, Lorenzo, Luchino Visconti, Milan, 1960.
Baldelli, Pio, I film di Luchino Visconti, Manduria, Italy, 1965.
Guillaume, Yves, Visconti, Paris, 1966.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, Luchino Visconti, New York, 1968.
Ferrero, Adelio, editor, Visconti: Il cinema, Modena, 1977.
Tornabuoni, Lietta, editor, Album Visconti, foreward by Michelangelo Antonioni, Milan, 1978.
Stirling, Monica, A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti, New York, 1979.
Servadio, Gaia, Luchino Visconti: A Biography, London, 1981.
Bencivenni, Alessandro, Luchino Visconti, Florence, 1982.
Tonetti, Claretta, Luchino Visconti, Boston, 1983.
Ishaghpour, Youssef, Luchino Visconti: Le sens de l'image, Paris, 1984.
Sanzio, Alain, and Paul-Louis Thirard, Luchino Visconti: Cinéaste, Paris, 1984.
De Giusti, Luciano, I film di Luchino Visconti, Rome, 1985.
Mancini, Elaine, Luchino Visconti: A Guide to References andResources, Boston, 1986.
Villien, Bruno, Visconti, Paris, 1986.
Schifano, Laurence, Luchino Visconti: Les feux de la passion, Paris, 1987; published as Luchino Visconti: The Flames of Passion, London, 1990.
On VISCONTI: articles—
Renzi, Renzo, "Mitologia e contemplasione in Visconti, Ford e Eisenstein," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), February 1949.
Demonsablon, Philippe, "Notes sur Visconti," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1954.
Lane, John Francis, "The Hurricane Visconti," in Films and Filming (London), December 1954.
Castello, Giulio, "Luchino Visconti," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1956.
Lane, John Francis, "Visconti—The Last Decadent," in Films andFilming (London), July 1956.
Dyer, Peter John, "The Vision of Visconti," in Film (London), March/April 1957.
Poggi, Gianfranco, "Luchino Visconti and the Italian Cinema," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1960.
"Visconti Issue" of Premier Plan (Paris), May 1961.
"Visconti Issue" of Etudes Cinématographiques (Paris), no. 26–27, 1963.
Elsaesser, Thomas, "Luchino Visconti," in Brighton (London), February 1970.
"Visconti Issue" of Cinema (Rome), April 1970.
Aristarco, Guido, "The Earth Still Trembles," in Films and Filming (London), January 1971.
Korte, Walter, "Marxism and Formalism in the Films of Luchino Visconti," in Cinema Journal (Evanston, Illinois), Fall 1971.
Cabourg, J., "Luchino Visconti, 1906–1976," in Avant-Scène duCinéma (Paris), 1 and 15 March 1977.
Sarris, Andrew, "Luchino Visconti's Legacy," in The Village Voice (New York), 15 January 1979.
Rosi, Francesco, "En travaillant avec Visconti: sur le tournage de LaTerra trema," in Positif (Paris), February 1979.
Lyons, D., "Visconti's Magnificient Obsessions," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1979.
Special issue of Castoro Cinema (Firenze), no. 98, 1982.
Graham, A., "The Phantom Self," in Film Criticism (New York), Fall 1984.
Gerosa, M., "Visconti e i suoi attori," in Cinema Nuovo (Rome), vol. 36, no. 308–309, August-October 1987.
Aristarco, Guido, "Luchino Visconti: Critic or Poet of Decadence?," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Spring 1988.
Filmcritica (Montepoulciano), vol. 42, no. 419, November 1991.
Aristarco, G., "Der späte Visconti zuischen Wagner und Mann," in Film und Fernsehen (Berlin), vol. 20, no. 5, October 1992.
Schleifer, E., "Das Ende des 'Flickerlteppichs,"' in Film-Dienst (Cologne), vol. 46, no. 6, 16 March 1993.
Schneider, Roland, "Visconti ou la déviation esthétique," in CinémAction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 70, January 1994.
Bertellini, Giorgio, "A Battle d'arrière-garde: Notes on Decadence in Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 50, no. 4, Summer 1997.
Liandrat-Guiges, Suzanne, "Le corps à corps des images dans l'oeuvre de Visconti," in Cinémas (Montreal), vol. 8, no. 1–2, Autumn 1996.
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The films of Luchino Visconti are among the most stylistically and intellectually influential of postwar Italian cinema. Born a scion of ancient nobility, Visconti integrated the most heterogeneous elements of aristocratic sensibility, and taste with a committed Marxist political consciousness, backed by a firm knowledge of Italian class structure. Stylistically, his career follows a trajectory from a uniquely cinematic realism to an operatic theatricalism, from the simple quotidian eloquence of modeled actuality to the heightened effect of lavishly appointed historical melodramas. His career fuses these interests into a mode of expression uniquely Viscontian, prescribing a potent, double-headed realism. Visconti turned out films steadily but rather slowly from 1942 to 1976. His obsessive care with narrative and filmic materials is apparent in the majority of his films.
Whether or not we choose to view the wartime Ossessione as a precursor or a determinant of neorealism, or merely as a continuation of elements already present in Fascist period cinema, it is clear that the film remarkably applies a realist mise-en-scène to the formulaic constraints of the genre film. With major emendations, the film is, following a then-contemporary interest in American fiction of the 1930s, a treatment (the second and best) of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice. In it the director begins to explore the potential of a long-take style, undoubtedly influenced by Jean Renoir, for whom Visconti had worked as assistant. Having met with the disapproval of the Fascist censors for its depiction of the shabbiness and desperation of Italian provincial life, Ossessione was banned from exhibition.
For La terra trema, Visconti further developed those documentary-like attributes of story and style generally associated with neorealism. Taken from Verga's late nineteenth-century masterpiece I malavoglia, the film was shot entirely on location in Sicily and employed the people of the locale, speaking in their native dialect, as actors. Through them, Visconti explores the problems of class exploitation and the tragedy of family dissolution under economic pressure. Again, a mature long-shot/long-take style is coupled with diverse, extensive camera movements and well-planned actor movements to enhance the sense of a world faithfully captured in the multiplicity of its activities. The extant film was to have become the first episode of a trilogy on peasant life, but the other two parts were never filmed.
Rocco e i suoi fratelli, however, made over a dozen years later, continues the story of this Sicilian family, or at least one very much like it. Newly arrived in Milan from the South, the Parandis must deal with the economic realities of their poverty as well as survive the sexual rivalries threatening the solidarity of their family unit. The film is episodic in nature, affording time to each brother's story (in the original version), but special attention is given to Rocco, the forebearing and protective brother who strives at all costs to keep the group together, and Simone, the physically powerful and crudely brutal one, who is unable to control his personal fears, insecurities, and moral weakness. Unable to find other work, they both drift into prize fighting, viewed here as class exploitation. Jealousy over the prostitute Nadia causes Simone to turn his fists against his brother, then to murder the woman. But Rocco, impelled by strong traditional ties, would still act to save Simone from the police. Finally, the latter is betrayed to the law by Ciro, the fourth youngest and a factory worker who has managed to transfer some of his familial loyalty to a social plane and the labor union. Coming full circle from La terra trema, Luca, the youngest, dreams of a day when he will be able to return to the Southern place of his birth. Rocco is perhaps Visconti's greatest contribution to modern tragedy, crafted along the lines of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (whose plays he directed in Italy). The Viscontian tragedy is saturated with melodramatic intensity, a stylization incurring more than a suggestion of decadent sexuality and misogyny. There is also, as in other Visconti works, a rather ambiguous intimation of homosexuality (here between Simone and his manager.)
By Senso Visconti had achieved the maturity of style that would characterize his subsequent work. With encompassing camera movements—like the opening shot, which moves from the stage of an opera house across the audience, taking in each tier of seats where the protest against the Austrians will soon erupt—and with a melodramatic rendering of historical fact, Visconti begins to mix cinematic realism with compositional elegance and lavish romanticism. Against the colorful background of the Risorgimento, he paints the betrayal by an Austrian lieutenant of his aristocratic Italian mistress who, in order to save him, has compromised the partisans. The love story parallels the approaching betrayal of the revolution by the bourgeois political powers.
Like Gramsci, who often returned to the contradictions of the Risorgimento as a key to the social problems of the modern Italian state, Visconti explores that period once more in Il gattopardo, from the Lampedusa novel. An aristocratic Sicilian family undergoes transformation as a result of intermarriage with the middle-class at the same time that the Mezzogiorno is undergoing unification with the North. The bourgeoisie, now ready and able to take over from the dying aristocracy, usurps Garibaldi's revolution; in this period of transformismo, the revolutionary process will be assimilated into the dominant political structure and defused.
Still another film that focuses on the family unit as a barometer of history and changing society is La caduta degli dei. This treatment of a German munitions industry family (much like Krupp) and its decline into betrayal and murder in the interests of personal gain and the Nazi state intensifies and brings up-to-date an examination of the social questions of the last mentioned films. Here again a meticulous, mobile camera technique sets forth and stylistically typifies a decadent, death-surfeited culture.
Vaghe stelle dell'orsa removes the critique of the family from the social to the psychoanalytic plane. While death or absence of the father and the presence of an uprising surrogate is a thematic consideration in several Visconti films, he here explores it in conjunction with Freudian theory in this deliberate yet entirely transmuted retelling of the Elektra myth. We are never completely aware of the extent of the relationship between Sandra and her brother, and the possibility of past incest remains distinct. Both despise their stepfather Gilardini, whom they accuse of having seduced their mother and having denounced their father, a Jew, to the Fascists. Sandra's love for and sense of solidarity with her brother follows upon a racial solidarity with her father and race, but Gianni's love, on the other hand, is underpinned by a desire for his mother, transferred to Sandra. Nevertheless, dramatic confrontation propels the dialectical investigations of the individual's position with respect to the social even in this, Visconti's most densely psychoanalytic film.
Three films marking a further removal from social themes and observation of the individual, all literary adaptations, are generally felt to be his weakest: Le notte bianche from Dostoevski's White Nights sets a rather fanciful tale of a lonely man's hopes to win over a despairing woman's love against a decor that refutes, in its obvious, studio-bound staginess, Visconti's concern with realism and material verisimilitude. The clear inadequacy of this Livornian setting, dominated by a footbridge upon which the two meet and the unusually claustrophobic spatiality that results, locate the world of individual romance severed from large social and historical concerns in an inert, artificial perspective that borders on the hallucinatory. He achieves similar results with location shooting in Lo straniero, where—despite alterations of the original Camus—he perfectly captures the difficult tensions and tones of individual alienation by utilizing the telephoto lens pervasively. Rather than provide a suitable Viscontian dramatic space rendered in depth, it reduces Mersault to the status of a Kafkaesque insect-man observed under a microscope. Finally, Morte a Venezia, based on the fiction of Thomas Mann, while among Visconti's most formally beautiful productions, is one of his least critically successful. The baroque elaboration of mise-en-scène and camera work does not rise above self-pity and self-indulgence, and is cut off from social context irretrievably.