Luchino Visconti's Senso (1954) is apparently a significant stylistic departure from his earlier neorealist films. This story, a tale of an Italian countess who falls in-lust for an officer of the occupying Austrian army, is beautiful and glamorous and romantic on the surface . . . but totally and heartlessly realistic at its core.
The obsessive relationship onscreen takes place at the onset of the Italian war of Independence from the Austrian Empire. Without this historical-political backdrop, this story would feel like something coaxed off the pages of a Victorian Harlequin novel (if such a thing existed). But given this cheap diamond's very solid setting, you know that something larger is at work . . . and you care about the petty inanities and sequential betrayals because you know they are a stand-in symbol for something more universal.
We first meet the countess Livia (Alida Valli) at the opera during an especially eventful interval between acts . . . immediately following a peaceful revolutionary demonstration against the Austrians . . . a protest which Livia's beloved cousin Roberto has planned.
In a stroke of melodrama-coincidence, the overwrought countess is also introduced to the virile and attractive Austrian officer, Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) . . . the same officer whom her cousin had just insulted during the presentation. Livia practically swallows her own tongue in the realization of her attraction to Franz, but the two part ways without any further ado. Livia chooses to focus on a simpler anxiety--the fate of her cousin. She is worried that he will be arrested--a situation that would be both personally devastating and devastating to the resistance movement they have committed themselves to. She mentions her worry to the Count, but her much older husband seems to be an extreme pragmatist--hoping to remain on good terms with both the Austrians and the Italians--and reluctant to involve himself in the affairs of the Resistance.
It turns out that Livia's fears are well-placed . . . as Roberto is reported and sent off into a year of exile almost immediately.
Livia can't shake the anxious feeling that things are falling apart . . . despite Roberto's hopeful affirmations and their plans to keep the Resistance in motion in his absence. Of course, we as the audience know that it is Livia's focus on the mission that is changing, rather than any real set-back in their plans.
Re-enter the reason for Livia's distracted mind . . . Franz. They "run-into" one-another again, and spend a happy, if somewhat unsettling night in one another's company. While their chemistry is undeniable, Franz is an ambiguous figure. He blows hot and cold to Livia . . . one moment he is pulling her back into the bed, and the next, fondling Livia's gift of jewelry with a kind of delight in his eyes that is certainly not present when he is actually looking at Livia herself. Soon enough, on the same day Franz goes AWOL . . . from their love nest at least, the Count tells Livia they must flee--and Livia has a minor breakdown. Gone mad with the thought of never seeing Franz again, she scours the city high and low and (scandalously) traipses through the Austrian barracks looking for him.
(Side note: I remember, as a teenager traipsing through a reenactor battle encampment in Gettysburg all by my lonesome + huge hoopskirt . . . looking for a boy of course . . . and that was scandalous enough. I didn't have any idea how many codes I was breaking--codes that were based on Victorian era etiquette, and was mortified when I realized later.) Despite the fact that she finds evidence that he has pawned the jewelry she gave him, and that his fellow officers seem to see her as barely better than a prostitute, Livia keeps searching. At this point, Livia clearly cares nothing for her own reputation anymore. It is only out of sheer luck that she is spirited out of Venice by her husband with some semblance of dignity intact.
As the film progresses, the two "lovers" meet again twice. On the first, Franz seeks Livia out, spending a night in her embrace, and leaving with oodles of cash. And no, he doesn't steal it. He doesn't need to.
Franz is an expert manipulator. He knows she can't stand the thought of losing him. And he uses that fear to convince her to give him enough money to buy himself a fake physician's note claiming he is unfit for military service. In her overwrought, smoky tones (this is the real life baroness Alida Valli after all, and she possessed nothing if not a powerful command of her own voice) talks herself into the BIG BETRAYAL of the film . . . surrendering to Franz the Resistance's cache of funds that has been placed in her care.
It is easier to understand this act of betrayal when watching the film. As an actor, Farley Granger was nothing if not aware of his own sexuality . . . and he played the part of the homme fatale with a boisterous physicality that made me blush--despite the mostly clothed embraces onscreen. You just don't question the Countess' addiction to him--especially given her separation from her cousin (her emotional anchor), her cold relationship with her husband, and the mortal uncertainties of wartime.
Yet, her betrayal has far reaching consequences. The Italian partisans, without funding, lose to the Austrians in a bloody battle . . . and when a brief chance comes to change the course of the battle . . . the countess can only think of how the changing battle lines will cut her off from Verona, where Franz now resides as a civilian. She abandons the partisans, risking life and limb to travel to Verona. The city is a zoo of soldiers (both the wounded and the rapey kinds), but she manages to find the apartment her money paid for rather quickly.
She (but not we) is surprised when she finds a "very different" Franz within. Living in unshaven but gilded debauchery, and flaunting a young prostitute who vaguely resembles the Countess (Franz obviously has a type), Franz abandons his gifts of flattery and seduction. Gone are the sugary words, the false embraces.
But he is still manipulative as ever--and he blames her for making him into a useless, purposeless person . . . all for her own selfish, delusional reasons. Instead of love, the countess is treated to an impassioned declaration of her flaws and betrayals.
The last straw is perhaps when he tells her that she she knew all along that he was the one that had her cousin arrested.
It is at this moment that Livia realizes the extent of her own delusion . . . and the destructiveness of her one-sided junoon. She walks out, makes her way to the Austrian Army HQ, and shows the general a letter from Franz exposing his fraudulent scheme for military discharge. And perhaps because this is an Italian film, the general realizes immediately that he is dealing with a lover's quarrel. Instead of blindly following his duty to arrest Franz, he makes sure Livia knows that her choice is a choice between life and death, and gives her a chance to recant her story.
She doesn't. As she fades into the shadowy streets, wailing his name . . . Franz marches before a firing squad. The curtains close.
I have to say I love the lead pair in this film. I find Farley Granger very unsettling as an actor (perhaps just because I saw Hitchcock's "Rope" far too young), but he is perfect for the narcissistic yet charismatic Franz. And, as The Third Man (1949) is one of my most beloved films of all time, I'm always glad to see Alida Valli in something else.
On a technical note, this film is quite beautiful to look at . . . and to listen to. The composer Nino Rota (of Godfather fame) reworked themes from Anton Bruckners' Symphony No. 7 into a score that perfectly ebbs and flows with the emotions of the characters and the events on the larger international scene. And besides the beautiful sets and costumes, the use of light and shadow in the film is delicious . . . even when you're just looking at household objects, you really can't complain about what you're seeing.
Still, this is one of those rather difficult films to write about. Unlike Dil Se, I can't say that this story contains any kind of redemptive themes. It is a march towards destruction . . . and the only comfort one can take (and a cold comfort it is) is in the fairness of the consequences. The countess betrays her country for companionship, and therefore deserves to live alone. The soldier betrays his country for money, and therefore deserves execution. One could chock up this unflinching morality to the original novella text of Senso, published in 1882. But as far as I can tell, Visconti took a story that was about the physical betrayal of one's country for romantic obsession, and turned it into a different kind of betrayal-- dependent upon the misuse of money for selfish purposes.
Given the fact that this film came out of post-WWII Europe, I can't help but think that this story of junoon is, on some level, a study and rejection of the psychological and material justifications for war. Wars of territorial annexation, that is. Here, wars of resistance are not only good, but necessary. According to Visconti (if I read him right), people have no excuse for placing personal needs over the needs of others--either on a interpersonal or international level. There is also no excuse for placing one's own desires over the needs of one's family (or country).
So, if you were looking for something good to come out of this whole "junoon" thing, you're out of luck. But, if you were looking for a moral to the story, it is this . . . DESPITE Franz's atrocious behavior, it is Livia we are meant to abhor by the end of the film. In failing to resist Austria (either in commitment to the Independence movement, or in resistance of her own desires for an Austrian) she commits the ultimate sin.
Tough luck, Livia.