Aug 25, 2014


The female cuckold is certainly an underused figure in cinema, especially nowadays, which is probably partially the result of feminism and other sorts of social plagues that prop up women in a superficial way, but whatever the reason, it is certainly a damn shame. Out of all the films about cucks with cunts that I can think of, two classic melodramas especially stick out in my mind: William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949) and Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954). While both films feature wealthy yet naïve women who become almost willing victims to Don Juan-like characters that were played by bisexual men, Wyler’s film seems like classless counterfeit twaddle compared to the aesthetically aristocratic majesty of maestro Visconti’s visually orgasmic celluloid opera. An aesthetically revolutionary work for Guido cinema that also marked the director’s transition from commie-inspired neorealism to lavish and kaleidoscopic melodramas that make the great Technicolor of the Hollywood Golden Age seem like pumped up kitsch masquerading as high kultur, Senso was also Visconti’s first color film, yet it looks like the product of a seasoned master of colors who approached cinema the way a Renaissance painter would a painting. Based on the decadent 1882 novella of the same name written by Camillo Boito—an Italian architect and engineer of half Polish extraction who also happened to be a talented art historian and novelist who dabbled with dark themes like incest and necrophilia—Senso is a salacious slice of high-melodrama about ill-restraint, lust, treachery, decadence, and deceit set around 1866 in Risorgimento-era Italy during the end of the Italian-Austrian war of unification about a proud yet sexually repressed middle-aged countess in an unhappy marriage with an old fart who falls for an Austrian suave and dapper young Austrian Officer of the manipulative man-whore sort. Featuring Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner as adapted by Nina Rota as a musical score and an antihero named in tribute to Gustav Mahler, the work also was one of the director’s first films where he would flex his Teutonophilia (of course, both the composers mentioned were technically Austrian, but the film was made with a post-WWII context kept in mind, as Bruckner’s music recalled the German occupation to viewers at the time the film was released). A work that somewhat attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ Italian nationalism, albeit from a revolutionary leftisti/‘proto-Bolshevik’ perspective, Senso makes an attempt at connecting the Italy of yesteryear to the present by using references to timeless feuds (i.e. Aryan occupation of Italy) and important historical locations (i.e. Salò, which is where the Nazis set up their puppet state in late 1943 after the Allies beat Mussolini’s ass) that would certainly be pertinent to Guido filmgoers when the film was first released. Originally featuring an ending that was banned by censors in the Italian government due to its unflattering (yet probably realistic) depiction of Austrian soldiers as drunken horndogs and eager defilers of women, Senso is a masterful example of subtle and elegant cinematic subversion with a truly timeless aristocratic flare.

 Opening at La Fenice opera house in Venice during a colorful performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera Il Trovatore aka The Troubadour during on May 27, 1866, Senso immediately lets the viewer know they are about to watch a rare operatic melodrama that seems like an immaculate reproduction of the time it depicts. At the conclusion of the character Manrico's reciting aria Di quella pira, the opera is rudely interrupted by a brazen and belligerent bunch of Italian left-wing nationalists who not only want the Austrian occupiers out of their country, but also the Austrian troops out of their opera house, for no Aryan could possibly understand the great Goombah opera. The rowdy protest was organized by an aristocrat named Marquis Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), whose unhappily married countess cousin Livia Serpieri (played by Italian diva and real-life Baroness Alida Valli, who was of partial Austrian aristocratic ancestry) is also in attendance at the opera, though unlike her flamboyant relative, she hides her patriotism and merely watches her cousin do all the work while she charms Austrian military men. As a result of his subversive activity and insulting an Austrian officer named Franz Mahler (played by American actor Farley Granger, who is best known for his roles in the Hitchcock classics Rope and Strangers on a Train), Roberto is sentenced into exile, but that does stop his sexually repressed cousin from starting a secret lurid love affair with the Austrian soldier who got her beloved relative banished. An oddball and decidedly deracinated officer who openly admits to his lover that he couldn't care less about the military, has no sense of patriotism/nationalism, and is described by his comrades as a predictably unpredictable philanderer who oftentimes disappears for long periods of times with strange women, Franz is not exactly the most ideal mensch for a cheating woman to fall in love with, but Countess Livia—a woman married to a wealthy Italian collaborator who kisses the ass of the Germanic occupier—is no longer in control of her emotions or so she learns when it is already too late, thus making her the perfect prey of a scheming Aryan Don Juan, who is quite conscious of his narcissism and even openly admits to his mistress: “I never pass by a mirror without looking at myself.” 

 While Livia initially manages to keep her hot and steamy love affair a deep dark secret by renting out an apartment on the other side of the city and meeting Franz there so they can make love, the Countess becomes crazed with heartbreak and jealously when the Austrian officer fails to meet her at one of their planned sensual sessions and goes all around town looking for her sweetheart, even visiting his military barracks and making a fool of herself. With war breaking out, Livia is forced by her husband to flee to the country so as to avoid possible death, but before she leaves, the Countess is told by a maid that a man has come to see her, so she gets excited and goes to meet her. Livia’s husband follows her, but the Countess does not care and confesses to her cuckolded hubby about her affair. Unfortunately for Livia, the man that came to see her was not Franz but her cousin Roberto, who has came back from exile and is more politically active than ever. Believing that his wife was only attempting to hide her cousin, Livia’s husband ignores his wife’s confession of extramarital deceit and attempts to win Roberto’s favor, as he know that as an Italian collaborator, he may face a bitter backlash from his fellow Italians. Upon her bittersweet reunion with his cousin Roberto, Livia is told to temporarily hold a jewelry box full of money and jewels which will be used to supply weapons for partisans who intend to fight the Austrian occupiers. Of course, little does Roberto realize that his cousin has become a slave of love to the very man that was responsible for his exile. 

 Although Livia flees to the country, Franz somehow finds her whereabouts and pays her an unexpected visit that will ultimately determine her romantically tragic fate. Of course, Livia is exceedingly happy to see Franz, who is only there to ask for money from his “wealthy patron.” A coward as well as a con man, Franz tells Livia about how certain Austrian soldiers can get exempted from battle by bribing corrupt doctors who certify that they are unfit for battle. Naturally, as a desperate woman who does not want her love to die on the battlefield, Livia gives Franz the money that Roberto told her to hold that was intended to fund the Italian partisans, who are destroyed as a direct result of her actions, as they are too ill-prepared to battle Aryan Übermenschen. Indeed, Livia is guilty of a double betrayal, or as she confesses herself, “Now I was irrevocably tied to him. For his sake I’d forsaken and betrayed everything for which the others were so desperately fighting – those dreams for which they had struggled so long to make reality.” While the Countess receives a letter from Franz saying he is safe, he warns her not to visit him, but her anxiety has gotten the best of her and she does so anyway, even traveling through hordes of injured soldiers returning from battle to see him. When Livia arrives at Franz’s apartment, she immediately notices he is living a life of luxury and lechery, as a would-be-playboy who is drunk with alcohol and guilt. After Franz states to Livia, “You shouldn’t have come. You were wrong to come, and you’ll be sorry you did. You see…I’m not an officer now. I’m not a gentleman now. I’m a drunken deserter. And I stink to high heaven of cowardice and vice!” the Countess hears the voice of a young woman crying out her lover’s name. Indeed, Franz has been using Livia’s money to pay for a regular prostitute named Clara (played by Marcella Mariani, whose acting career was tragically cut short when she was killed in a plane crash at the mere age of 19), who is much younger and more beauteous than the aged Countess. After forcing Livia to meet Clara and hatefully proclaiming, “I’m not your romantic hero. And I don’t love you anymore. I needed money and took it – that’s all,” Livia runs out of her meta-treacherous lover’s apartment while he calls her a “trollop” and even tells her break her neck on the way out.  Hysterical, heartbroken, and on the verge of insanity, Livia decides to go to the headquarters of the Austrian army to reveal that Franz is guilty of treason. After telling an Austrian general her story, Livia warns that her actions will make her nothing short of a murderer, but she does not care and tells the military man to carry out his duty. In the end, Franz is executed by firing squad and Livia runs into the night while calling the name of the man she condemned to death. 

 Notably, director Luchino Visconti originally intended to cast Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando for the lead roles. While I think that Alida Valli made for a wise replacement for Bergman, the less than Aryan looking Farley Granger was not exactly the best choice for the role. Rightfully determined to find a blond actor to play a blond Don Juan beast, Visconti apparently tried to hire various other popular heartthrobs for the role, including Tab Hunter, but he ultimately settled for Granger, whose hair he even attempted to dye blond. But then again, Granger was perfect for the role if one interprets the film from a less than philo-Semitic angle. Indeed, aside from the fact he is rather swarthy and played a character loosely based on a real-life gay Jewish child murder in Hitchock’s Rope (1948), Granger plays a role in Senso that Visconti intentionally named after the late-Romantic Jewish composer Gustav Mahler (indeed, in Boito’s source novel, the character’s name is ‘Remigio Ruz’). Additionally, Granger’s character could not be more anti-Aryan and stereotypically Jewish in character, as a cowardly and deracinated draft-dodger who is afraid of battle, as well as a cunning schemer who debases women from other nations, with the aristocrat always being the main target of the wandering Jew. Somewhat ironically, Visconti chose to use Anton Bruckner—a composer heavily associated with National Socialism who had a lot in common with Uncle Adolf (they were both Austrian-born Wagnerites from peasant backgrounds)—instead of the seemingly more fitting Mahler for the score. As Roger Hillman noted in a chapter on Senso in his book Unsettling Scores: German Film, Music, and Ideology (2005): “In a Viennese musical journal of October 1932, one critic takes to task the New York Bruckner Society for spreading propaganda for Mahler alongside Bruckner. He sees this as an affront to European sensitivities, and he counterpoints the two composers as “the Aryan Bruckner, our German composer, and Mahler, with the disintegration attendant of his Jewishness…On the one hand edification, on the other a destructive tendency, even modernism! This, too, makes interesting reading when approaching the sundered character of Visconti’s figure Mahler, who appears to the strains of Bruckner.” 

  Although producers hoped Senso would be a hit in the United States (hence its America male lead), it never really received a proper release in America, as it was only played at a couple Italian-language theaters that catered to unassimilated Guidos, thus making the film a lost masterpiece of sorts, at least among the Yanks. Somewhat interestingly, a butchered 94-minute English-language version of the film featuring dialogue written by Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles was released in England and later the United States under the somewhat sleazy sexploitation-like title The Wanton Countess, but of course the film somewhat betrays Visconti's original vision.  Additionally, nearly a half a century after the film's initial release, quasi-pornographer Tinto Brass (Salon Kitty, Caligula) also remade Senso under the title Senso '45 (2002) aka Black Angel, though he made the story much more cynical, replaced Bruckner with an original score by maestro Ennio Morricone, and changed the setting from Risorgimento-era Italy to the Fascist era, with the female protagonist falling for an SS officer instead of a first lieutenant in the Austrian army. On top of that, frog Television hack Gérard Vergez adapted Boito's novel for the French TV series La grande collection (1991-current) in 1993 under the original title Senso in a work starring Chiara Caselli (who Americans probably best know for her roles in Gus van Sant's 1991 masterpiece My Own Private Idaho and Liliana Cavani's 2002 hit Ripley's Game) as the lead and featuring Jean-Pierre Aumont. A socio-politically-conscious melodrama like Gone with the Wind (1939) of the lavish, luscious, and sensually-charged sort, albeit much more cultivated and aristocratic, Senso is a rare look at history and class from the perspective of a true blue, blue blood who ultimately proved he was right when he said, “Melodrama has a bad reputation because it has been abandoned to schematic and conventional interpretation.” Indeed, it is harder to think of a film that is more simple yet sophisticated, as a work with a misleadingly simple storyline that is layered with subtext and allegorical aesthetic references that only the most cultured of viewers will understand, at least in any more meaningful way. 

-Ty E

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