Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Wanton Countess (Senso) (1954)

Sansernes Rus
After ”La Strada” I continue with an Italian film ”Senso”, but that is also almost the only thing these two film have in common. I know the director Luchino Visconti only from the surprisingly good and convincing “Ossessione” from 1943 and I suppose I expected something in the vein of Italian neorealism, a style “Ossessione” was a precursor for. “Senso” however is in many ways a very different experience. And then again maybe not.

Let me start with the positives.

This is a divinely beautiful film. Italy in Technicolor is a gorgeous place and this movie uses locations to great effect. I have become so used to the bleak scenery of neorealism that I had almost forgotten how beautiful a place Italy is. Instead poor people in the slums we are watching the elite in the most romantic surroundings imaginable and the crazy thing is that it is not even a fake über-romantic studio set, but actual real life Venice, an Italian opera, a real manor in the countryside and the old town of Verona we see. This is what reality also looks like and it takes your breath away. Honestly everybody owe themselves one time their life to take their loved one to Venice. Touristed as it may be there is no more romantic place in the world. Trust me on that, I have been to a Leonard Cohen concert on Piazza San Marco with my wife and strolled arm in arm on deserted paths along the canals at night. You just cannot beat that.

Add to that period settings in gorgeous colors, uniforms, dresses, paintings, flowers, you name it, and this is truly a feast for the eyes. Ah, and the glazing on the cake, the gorgeous Alida Valli as leading lady Countess Livia Serpieri. I know her from “The Third Man”, but that movie did not do her justice. Technicolor loves her and as was mentioned in the extra material, she was the sweetheart of every Italian man in that era. I can believe that. Oh, my…

Second thing I notice right from the beginning is that this is a movie where the characters speak the language they are supposed to speak. Italians speak Italian and Austrians speak German and I even sense a hint of Austrian inflection. This pleases me greatly and it immediately gives the movie 100 points in its favor right off the bat. Okay, Farley Granger is an American and it may feel odd to give him an Italian and German voice, but he is playing an Austrian officer in Italy and that is what matters. I wish a lot more producers would have the courage to be that consequent in such matters.

As you can already tell this movie has a lot going for it, but then we get to the plot.

Frankly, half way through the movie I was ready to denounce the movie for its plot and acting style. This was melodrama of the worst kind and no fancy wrapping could save it. But the movie takes a most spectacular turn with the last act and whether intended or not goes in a direction that seems to criticize the very elements I was having problems with.

The year is 1866. Countess Serpieri (Valli) is involved with the independence and unification movement in Venice that eventually led to the unified Italy under Garibaldi. Her cousin Roberto Ussoni is arrested during a happening at the opera in Venice and Serpieri is trying to prevent a duel between Ussoni and the Austrian officer (Granger as Lieutenant Mahler) he insulted. Serpieri is married to an old count, who disagrees with her political involvement, and I guess for the hot blooded Countess he is a bit of a bore. Certainly it takes no time for the Countess to fall in love with Lieutenant Mahler. Soon they have a fully-fledged affair going with a secret apartment at their disposal in Venice.

As war comes closer Serpieri leaves town and is entrusted with a gold treasure intended to finance the campaign against the Austrians, but when Mahler shows up at their manor she is so anxious to keep him out of harm’s way that she lets him talk her into giving him the gold treasure so he can bribe a doctor to declare him unfit for military service.

Up to this point the Countess is behaving and acting as belonging in a Max Ophuls period piece. She is so much in love, the officer is soooo handsome in his white uniform and she totally loses her head. One thing is that she is cheating on her husband and boring and old as he may be that is just the price of money and security. She does have an obligation there that she is letting down. Then again I suppose some flirting on the side made life bearable in those stuffy marriages. What is a lot worse is that she is throwing away her moral integrity, not by loving an enemy soldier, when it has to be I actually admire that, but by spending the money so many people depend on, on her love interest. It shows how much she is a victim of her emotions, but it also reveals her as a failure as a person and at this point I could not care less for her.

Then we get the twist and I better cry SPOILER ALERT! The whole thing backfires on Livia Serpieri when it turns out that Mahler is a spineless womanizer who sucked her dry of money and in terms of moral and human integrity is absolutely worthless. This is what Serpieri has thrown away everything for. We get the best scenes of the entire movie when she seeks him out in Verona and find him in decadent luxury with a young (much younger than the Countess) girl and only mockery for Serpieri. This is total humiliation and degradation. I cannot help but seeing this as the price she pays for her betrayal. Not of some religious penalty for debauchery, but for losing her senses and throwing her head and all integrity away. It is cheap, I know, but somehow I feel vindicated. Too many movies celebrate this “follow your dream and to hell with consequences” ideal, but here is a movie that lets the world come crashing down on a person who does exactly that. A handsome officer in a dashing uniform may generate romantic dreams, but is this reality?

This actually points directly back to “Ossesione”, which, when you think about it, tells exactly the same story.

The melodrama gets very thick, the acting is heavy handed in the silent tradition, but though it annoyed me at the time I see it now merely as tools to tell the story, a story of people who loses everything as victims of their emotions.

I liked this movie better than I expected and even if you do not care for the story see it for the pictures. It is a beautiful beautiful movie to look at. Or even better, visit Italy. I will be going there in less than a month.


  1. I haven't seen this one yet. Your review makes me look forward to it. I generally love Visconti. For another gorgeous film of his, you have The Leopard coming up.

    1. I think there is a lot to look forward to here. I just hope I have not ruined it for you with my spoiler.