On Senso


In which The Gay Recluse loves Luchino Visconti.


After scouring the globe, we were finally able to obtain — from South Korea! — a copy of Senso, Luchino Visconti’s 1954 film about the Austrian occupation of Venice during the war for Italian independence.


In what is arguably the most operatic of Visconti’s films, we follow a beautiful-but-aging Viennese countess (which in the 1950s meant that she was about 26 or so), who against her better judgment falls in love with a younger Viennese officer. The story is not complicated: as the officer flits in and out of her grasp, she increasingly longs for him, until after a series of encounters she impulsively gives up her entire life — at this point, with political tension escalating, she has been safely sequestered in the countryside — to flee through a war-torn country to be with him. But the affair is doomed: we learn that the officer essentially played her, and when she arrives, he is drunk and cruel; he flaunts a young prostitute who emerges from his bedroom and lectures the countess on the impossibility of attaining happiness in such a detestable era of history. In a fit of vengeance she leaves and immediately turns him into the Viennese army — from which he had used her money to get a fraudulent discharge — and a few minutes later he is executed as she staggers through the streets of Venice while drunken soldiers leer at and molest her.


It hardly matters that you know the plot: rather, to watch this movie is to enter into a reflective state similar to what we sometimes experience at the opera; it’s almost as if your mind is bifurcated, but in the least neurotic of ways. You take in the sumptuous colors and costumes (Technicolor!); the decadent, decaying walls of Venice; the lush score, which employs Anton Bruckner and Giuseppe Verdi (trivia: Senso was used to reconstruct/renovate La Fenice after it was scandalously burned down — arson! — in the 1990s); and as you do this, you are somehow able to ponder the the threads of your own life as if you were viewing it serenely, like a piece of art, instead of pulling and tugging at this tapestry, as so often happens in the course of our daily travails.


As much as we loved Senso, however, it’s not our favorite Visconti film. We would never argue with those who claim that his greastest works — The Leopard, The Damned and Death in Venice — all came after.


But we watch Senso anyway, to understand what turned Visconti away from the neorealism upon which he built his career and led him to the intoxicating, extravagent decadence and — somehow — resignation that permeate his later works.  We want to reconcile the idea that the same man who made the La Terra trema, the Sinclairian documentary of a small village ravaged by capitalism, also created Ludwig, for example, the obsessive rumination on the last (and even more obsessive) monarch of Bavaria.


In fact, we are never convinced by Visconti’s embrace of communism, any more than we would say he was a monarchist; in this respect, Visconti brings to mind Walter Benjamin, who — as much as he would flirt — was similarly incapable of embracing a political ideology. Just as Benjamin lingers over the fruit sellers on the snowy streets of Bolshevik Moscow in prose that can only be described as romantic, Visconti allows his camera to caress his young male actors just a little too much for us to ever consider them political statements.


Much like reading Benjamin, when we watch Visconti, we are left with the sense that all great art is rooted in a philosophical pessimism, a constant dissatisfaction with the present and everything it has to offer, but one that ironically enough leaves us oddly joyous and satisfied as we take it in.

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