This romantic tragedy marked Luchino Visconti’s first step away from Neo-Realism towards the lavish period spectaculars that established him among Italy's most opulent auteurs. Set in Venice during the spring of 1866, when the underground movement against the Austrian occupation of Italy is growing stronger. The married Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) encounters handsome, yet arrogant Austrian lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) at the opera where her cousin Roberto challenges him to a duel. Roberto is arrested and exiled, which at first leads Livia to despise Franz, but after a moonlit walk through Venice they fall in love and she becomes his mistress. War separates the lovers but when Franz visits in secret, Livia forgets her principles and betrays her cause.
Exquisitely framed, lit and photographed, Senso is a grand product of Italian cinema’s golden age, if a notch below Visconti’s masterpiece: The Leopard (1963). The director revisited his theme of social and moral decline amongst aristocrats betraying their principals, in the seedy decadence of The Damned/Götterdammerung (1969). Visconti was himself an aristocrat, who had a fairytale childhood growing up in a castle, but he was also a Marxist tortured by his own homosexuality. Here he produces a film that succeeds as both a crowd-pleasing matinee romance and a subversive reading of the genre. When juxtaposed against turbulent historical events the lovers are unmasked as shallow and self-serving. Adapted from the novella written by Camillo Boito, Visconti actually downplayed the romance and introduced the sub-plot about Livia’s cousin and his rebellion against the Austrians. He also altered the name of one of the principal protagonists from Remigio Ruz to Franz Mahler, in honour of one of his favourite composers whose music figured prominently in the director's later classic Death in Venice (1971). Amidst Technicolor splendour, passions leads to moral corruption, which marks Visconti as something of a didactic spoilsport, albeit an honest chronicler of human nature.
Playwright Tennessee Williams co-wrote dialogue for the English language version, but the region two DVD features only the original Italian. Censors objected to the closing scene where Livia wanders the streets and is accosted by soldiers, which was re-shot to provide a resolution that, while not exactly happier, redresses the moral balance. At a time when Hollywood films showed married couples sleeping in separate beds, Senso is daringly open about Livia and Franz’s illicit affair. Visconti originally wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando in the starring roles, but his substitute leads don’t disappoint. Alida Valli is especially fine as the conflicted Livia. It’s fascinating to see her here, young and radiant, before Eyes without a Face (1959) and Suspiria (1977) turned her into Euro-horror’s definitive wicked witch. Farley Granger is stronger here than in most of his Hollywood roles, although Franz is such a narcissistic jerk (“I like to look at myself and make sure I am me”) you wonder what Livia sees in him. He settled in Italy, going on to appear in sleazy exploitation gems like Amuck! (1971) and The Slasher is a Sex Maniac (1972). Speaking of sex maniacs, Tinto Brass - of Caligula (1979) infamy - reset the story in World War Two, for Senso ’45 (2002); re-titled Black Angel for its international release.