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Visconti’s Neglected ‘Senso’ Snubbed Brando, Lost Bergman: DVD

Visconti’s Neglected ‘Senso’ Snubbed Brando, Lost Bergman: DVD

Luchino Visconti was a rare combination, a great filmmaker who was also a great opera director. It’s regrettable that he never directed an opera for the movies, though many of his films are operatically scaled, with sequences that play like arias.

His masterpiece, “The Leopard” (1963), starring Burt Lancaster as a Sicilian aristocrat during Italy’s unification in 1860, most resembles an opera in terms of its passion and brio.

Less well known but almost as brilliant is “Senso” (1954), now out on DVD in a beautiful Criterion restoration. Set in the same era as “The Leopard,” it stars Alida Valli as a married Italian countess who falls desperately in love with a brash, two-timing Austrian lieutenant, played by Farley Granger.

One reason for the film’s neglect is that, except for a few showings in 1954, it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1968, and then only in a limited run.

If Visconti had secured the actors he originally wanted -- Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando -- “Senso” would have had a much higher profile. But Bergman at the time was married to Roberto Rossellini, a rival of Visconti’s who wouldn’t allow his wife to take the job. Brando, who hadn’t yet made “On the Waterfront,” screen-tested for “Senso” in Rome but was turned down by the producers.

Bergman, Brando

Valli was well-known to American audiences, having appeared in “The Third Man” (1949). Her imperious sensuality is perfectly suited to the role of the countess, whose hauteur eventually morphs into madness.

Granger, who had appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope” (1948) and Nicholas Ray’s “They Live by Night” (1949), was a more problematic choice. But his callowness as an actor works to his advantage here, since the lieutenant himself is callow. Still, it’s tempting to imagine what this film might have been like if Bergman and Brando were its stars.

Valli’s scenes with Granger were performed in English and later dubbed into Italian. A drastically re-edited English-language version, called “The Wanton Countess” and included in the Criterion two-disc package, was shown only in the U.K.

As with Visconti’s original, it boasts an oddball “dialogue collaboration” credit for Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams. (Visconti had already directed an acclaimed stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”)

Callas’s Svengali

Prior to “Senso,” Visconti was known primarily for “Ossessione” (1943), an adaptation of James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” that is generally regarded as the first Italian neo-realist movie, and “La Terra Trema” (1948), his epic about Sicilian fishermen.

It might seem like a big leap to go from those films, packed with proletarian power, to the heavily costumed, upper-crust artifice of “Senso.” Yet Visconti always maintains an absolute commitment to truthful storytelling.

Visconti was well-regarded as a stage director prior to “Senso” but had yet to direct any opera. “Senso” opens with a production of “Il trovatore” staged in Venice’s hallowed Teatro La Fenice opera house. (We hear the aria “Di quella pira,” which ends with a call to arms.)

Soon after finishing the film he directed his first opera, at La Scala, with the young Maria Callas. He would forever be identified as her Svengali. (The Criterion extras include a TV documentary featuring a brief interview with the maestro and the diva -- a mini-opera all by itself).

Visconti was a great contradiction. An aristocrat whose lineage went back to Charlemagne, he was also a vocal member of the Communist Party.

He saw the world in operatic terms. Before dinner each night, his father would take out his watch and bellow, “The curtain for La Scala is now rising.” Opera, for Visconti, was the art where all of life is expressed.

(Peter Rainer is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own).