Criterion // 1954 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // March 1st, 2011
Venice -- Spring of 1866, the last month of the Austrian occupation of the Veneto. The Italian government has forged a pact with Prussia, and the war of liberation is imminent.
Based on Camillo Boito's 1882 novella of the same name, Senso is famed Italian director Luchino Visconti's tale of forbidden love during Italy's unification in the 19th century. Long neglected on home video in North America, the 1954 classic finally arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
During the Italian-Austrian war, middle-aged Venetian Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli, The Third Man) falls in love with a young, philandering, and cowardly Austrian lieutenant named Franz Mahler (Farley Granger, Strangers on a Train). As Garibaldi and his Redshirts close in on Venice, the lovers find themselves spiraling into tragedy.
In the long and storied history of film critic douche-baggery, things don't get much uglier or more juvenile than they did in postwar Italy. Neorealism was as much an anti-fascist (read: Communist) political movement as it was an art style. Critics regularly savaged filmmakers for not sufficiently toeing the ideological or stylistic line -- even brilliant directors making brilliant films (Fellini's La Strada, for instance, was roundly trashed for having the audacity to be distinguishable from any flick ever made by Roberto Rossellini). 1954's Senso was the first of Luchino Visconti's movies to throw Italian critics into hissy fits -- despite the fact that Visconti was an avowed Communist. Its mix of melodrama, professional actors, a Hollywood leading man, and luxurious cinematography were too much for the critics' delicate and shockingly reactionary political sensibilities to handle. Senso flopped -- hard. Which is too bad because it's a beautiful movie and, in retrospect, the perfect companion piece to Visconti's masterpiece, 1963's The Leopard.
Like The Leopard, Senso is concerned with the fading Italian aristocracy during the social instability of the Risorgimento. It is far less politically complex than The Leopard, content to concern itself with the melodrama of star-crossed lovers while mostly relegating the Italian-Austrian war to a backdrop, but still captivating in both its beautiful imagery and mostly earned emotion. The title refers to sensuality, and is fitting for a tale of Countess Serpieri's sexual obsession with a craven Austrian officer, an obsession that leads to her tragic betrayal of the revolution. Alida Valli is required to carry most of the weight of this melodrama, and one can see how her scenery chewing -- though competent and entirely appropriate to the material -- would grate on neorealist critics who preferred the naturalism and wooden delivery of non-professional actors. Valli's performance is full of suppressed longing, guilt, and anguish -- played largely through her eyes and tense posture. It is at turns subtle and over-the-top -- entirely appropriate for Visconti's operatic sensibilities (Senso famously opens in Venice's La Fenice opera house during a performance of Il Trovatore, and the movie self-consciously mirrors that opera's themes of romantic intrigue and betrayal).
The movie's weak link is Farley Granger as the womanizing coward Lieutenant Franz Mahler. As with The Leopard nearly a decade later, Visconti originally wanted Marlon Brando to play Senso's lead, but the movie's financial backers pushed for someone more bankable, someone they believed would deliver larger audiences in the United States (Farley was just coming off of a headlining turn in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train). But where The Leopard actually benefitted from Visconti having to settle for his second choice, Burt Lancaster, whose classic Hollywood screen presence added weight and texture to the movie's aging Prince Salina, Senso suffers from the loss of the raw magnetism that defined Brando's style in the '50s. Granger is handsome enough for the role, but so lacking in passion that Valli must work all the harder to make her character's obsession plausible.
Despite the flawed casting of Granger, Senso has much to recommend it -- not least of which is production design and cinematography best described as opulent. Much of the drama is set in gorgeous Venetian palaces, rendered in vivid color and impressive detail by the three-strip Technicolor process used by Visconti. According to their liner notes, Criterion's 1080p/AVC transfer was sourced from the original camera negative as well as a master positive. The restoration work and transfer were supervised by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and Italian movie superfan Martin Scorsese. The end result is nearly perfect; easily the best the movie has looked in a home video release. Colors are startlingly deep and rich. Detail is slightly limited in long shots, perhaps by some severe damage to the camera negative mentioned in the notes, but the overall image is stunning. The presentation is in the movie's original full frame aspect ratio.
Audio is a two-channel linear PCM mix of the movie's original analog Italian track. Fully restored, it's not only free of hiss and crackle, but delivers far more depth and subtlety than most Italian films of the era, which, because of the heavy use of ADR, tend to sound tinny and flat.
Criterion's Blu-ray edition of Senso is a single-disc release that offers the feature itself along with some high-quality supplements:
The Wanton Countess
Running only 94 minutes, this English-language edit of Senso represents a severe compromise of Visconti's vision. It is interesting, however, for two reasons. First, we get to hear the undubbed performances of Granger and Valli, both of whom delivered their dialogue in English during the shoot. Second, knowing that his stars would perform in English, Visconti hired Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie) and Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky) to punch up the dialogue. The Wanton Countess provides us an opportunity to hear their work.
Criterion presents this alternate version of the film in a 1080p/AVC transfer that is a solid piece of work even if it doesn't approach the quality of Senso's image. Colors are muddier and more muted, though still warm. Minor source damage is prevalent throughout. Audio is presented in a single-channel mono mix.
The Making of Senso (33:46)
This retrospective documentary combines modern interviews of Visconti's crew with period still photos and scenes from Senso to examine the making of movie from its earliest conception, to its disastrous initial release, and through to its growing reputation over the years. The documentary is presented in a crystal clear 16:9 high definition transfer.
Viva Verdi: Visconti and Opera (36:05)
Cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum (The Queen's Throat), film scholar Peter Brunette (Roberto Rossellini), and historian Stefano Albertini discuss the influence of Visconti's career as a director of opera on the themes and style of his movies.
Video Essay (28:27)
In lieu of a feature-length commentary, we are treated to this more compact analysis of Visconti's life, politics, and art by film historian Peter Cowie. The piece, which combines Cowie's meticulously prepared voiceover narration with still photos, delves deeply into the history, themes, and politics of Senso.
"Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti" (48:15)
This episode of the BBC's Sunday Night from 1966 delivers a fine overview of Visconti's career in film, on the stage, and as a director of opera.
A 38-page insert booklet contains detailed notes about the digital transfer of the film, as well as an essay by filmmaker Mark Rappaport (Rock Hudson's Home Movies), and a long excerpt from Farley Granger's autobiography that covers the making of Senso.
Fans of Luchino Visconti should rejoice over this top-notch high definition presentation of one of the director's most celebrated films.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* English Version
* Video Essay