Born in his ancestral palazzo, situated in the same Milanese square as both the opera house La Scala and the Milan Cathedral, Luchino Visconti (1906 - 1976) was raised under the auspices of aristocratic privilege, theater and Catholicism. This triangulation of monuments would create an equally titanic filmmaker whose work remained stylistically sui generis through arguably the most impressive decades of 20th century filmmaking. The quietude of La Terra Trema is managed with an operatic virtuosity, and the baroque period pieces—for which he is best known today—clearly point to a noble upbringing. However, there is also a Gothic character to Visconti—embodied in the spired cathedral that overshadowed his childhood—that has remained largely unsung.
The relationship between the Visconti family and Gothic architecture stretches back to the Medieval Era. In 1386, Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti envisioned a cathedral in the heart of Milan, though it was fated to remain under construction for almost half a millennium until Napoleon ordered its completion in the 19th century. Just as his ancestor brought Northern Gothic architecture to Italy, so, in 1943, did Luchino introduce the groundbreaking cinematic genre of Italian neorealism to the peninsula.
Doing away with sets, neorealist cinema was set in the raw environment of postwar Italy. In one sense anti-architectural in its desire to transcend the bonds of interior space, this same ambition is what makes the style a perfect cinematic analog to the Gothic. The Gothic is an architecture of exteriority: Throwing ceilings to the sky and opening walls onto the outside with large windows, the Gothic presents light as the manifestation of divinity within a place of worship.
The mysticism of light, dating back to the pseudo-Dionysian theology of Abbot Suger of St. Denis Cathedral, translates well to the medium of light that is the cinema. In any Visconti work, lighting is intimately connected to set design: It is often seen in the gleam of curtains, the radiance of starlight or the glow of Milanese fog, where the director carries the religiosity of Gothic architecture into his realism.
Visconti’s religion (or should we say religions? For he was also a Marxist) adds an ethical weight, powerful and challenging, to his works. The term decadence, often associated with Visconti, only attains meaning through being in excess of contemporary mores. Neither the Catholic Church nor the Italian communists could accept Visconti’s homosexuality, and a resultant displaced angst is plainly worn by his protagonists—monumental individuals who bear the full weight of their social milieus.
While neorealism has come to be packaged with its own mythology—a new cinema for a liberated nation, the idea of a new “Italian” style—re-centering our historical gaze on the Gothic Visconti allows one’s imagination to spread across a much larger plane of geography and time. From his cinematic apprenticeship with Jean Renoir in France—the very cradle of Gothic architecture—to his German trilogy, Visconti’s style has always been one of cosmopolitan effort. This international flavor also matches the deeper etymological referent of the Gothic—the Goths, those barbarian invaders who toppled the Roman Empire. Among Visconti’s formal signatures are many borrowings from foreign directors, including the particularly pronounced influence of Jean Renoir, Josef Von Sternberg and Elia Kazan. Global in scope, timeless in influence and architectural in spirit: This is the legacy of Luchino Visconti. – Hugh Mayo, Class of 2018
Organized by Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero of Istituto Luce Cinecittà. Co-produced by Istituto Luce Cinecittà, Rome. Presented in association with the Ministry of Culture of Italy.Special thanks: Marco Cicala, Camilla Cormanni—Istituto Luce Cinecittà; and Cineteca Nazionale.
Film descriptions by Hugh Mayo.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon
Italy 1963, DCP, color, 187 min. Italian with English subtitles
The Leopard is not an “objective” account of the Risorgimento; instead, it tells the story of Italy’s unification as seen by the putrefying aristocracy it rendered irrelevant. Walled away in their Sicilian villa, the Salina family waits and prays as history circles around them like a noose. Burt Lancaster’s Prince of Salina is more concerned with his amateur astronomy and events of the stars than the political earthquakes of his own era. His silent meditations on the end of his dynastic line occupy most of the narrative as his handsome and ambitious nephew prepares to wed the daughter of an haute bourgeois landowner. Visconti harnesses all his familiarity with the sentiments, architectures and experiences of Italian aristocracy to create a period piece that is cosmic in scale and damning to the last shot. Restored in association with Cineteca di Bologna, Pathé, Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé, 20th Century Fox and CSC-Cineteca Nazionale. Restoration funding by Gucci and The Film Foundation.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Maria Schell, Marcello Mastroianni, Jean Marais
Italy/France 1957, 35mm, b/w, 102 min. Italian with English subtitles
A cinematic gem, White Nights is an essential formal exercise leading up to the titanic Rocco and his Brothers. Set in a winter Venice, far from the hustle and bustle of the city’s summer months, the film follows the nocturnal wanderings and romantic pursuits of a loner played by Marcello Mastroianni (who received his start with Visconti in theater). Visconti lends a fluid editing style that blends memory and reality to craft the relationship of the film’s principle love triangle, an amorous geometry that proves to be a consistent theme in Visconti’s body of work.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Karina, Bernard Blier
Italy/France/Algeria 1967, 35mm, color, 104 min. French and Italian with English subtitles
The watchful eye of the sun presides over the events of The Stranger. Heat beams down as French expatriate Meursault—played by a pensive Marcello Mastroianni—glides with indifference through an unsettling Mediterranean environment in this adaptation of the Camus novel. Working under the limitations imposed by Albert Camus’ widow, Visconti had difficulty executing the film according to his own vision. Nevertheless, the result is still a fascinating interlude between Sandra and The Damned.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli, Jennifer O’Neill
Italy/France 1976, 35mm, color, 129 min. Italian with English subtitles
For an adaptation of the decadent author Gabriele D’Annunzio, L’innocente is directed with immense poise and restraint. With exquisite cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis, Visconti’s final film shows no diminishment in quality despite the director’s declining health. The ethics and power games of romantic entanglements take center stage in this society drama, building to a denouement that is nothing less than Visconti’s final, raging farewell to cinema.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot
Italy/France 1960, 35mm, b/w, 145 min. Italian with English subtitles
Rocco and His Brothers is a devotional work, a pious tragedy set in Visconti’s ancestral home. The narrative follows a migrant family from southern Italy travelling north for better economic prospects. The Milan Cathedral towers above their aspirations, loves, successes and downfall. Alain Delon casts a saintly figure as the title character who rises to become a prizefighter at the expense of his relationship with his apish brother Simone (the Esau to Delon’s Jacob). From the minor miracles—the southern family’s first glimpse of snow, the steam of the modern laundromat, the legendary Milanese fog—to the transcendent climax, in Rocco Visconti perfects the dreamy spirit of White Nights within the space of Catholic mysticism.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Massimo Girotti
Italy 1954, 35mm, color, 123 min. Italian with English subtitles
Visconti’s first outing in color scintillates from the beginning, with tricolor confetti raining down on Austrian troops in a crowded Venetian opera house. Senso traces a “graphic” relationship between the Countess Serpieri—Alida Valli dressed from veil-to-toe in the darkest hues—and the young Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) decked out in his gleaming white uniform. A monumental work worthy of von Sternberg and Kazan, this film represents yet another enormous stylistic leap, bringing its director closer to his golden run of 1960s masterpieces. Restored by StudioCanal, CSC-Cineteca Nazionale and Cineteca di Bologna. Restoration funding by Gucci, The Film Foundation and Comitato Italia 150. A Rialto Pictures Release.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Dhia Cristiani
Italy 1943, DCP, b/w, 140 min. Italian with English subtitles
Ossessione occupies an otherworldly zone between classical and postwar cinema. This hypnotic adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (a book given to Visconti by Jean Renoir on the set of A Day in the Country) is an oneiric journey of murder and wayward passions. Or more accurately, the film is an anti-journey. As scholar Giuliana Minghelli has noted, the lovers—the stifled wife of a hotelier and a handsome stranger—are damningly drawn back to the gloomy inn on the Po River again and again. A fatalistic tragedy of Mussolini’s Italy, Ossessione is a political fulmination. Restored by Luce Cinecittà, CSC-Cineteca Nazionale and VIGGO.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Dirk Bogarde, Ingrid Thulin, Helmut Griem
Italy/West Germany 1969, DCP, color, 156 min. English and German with English subtitles
Visconti leaves no taboo unbroken in painting the fall of a German industrialist family during National Socialism’s prewar power consolidation. Featuring a cast of international stars (Dirk Bogarde, Helmut Berger, Charlotte Rampling) and his first collaboration with legendary cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis, The Damned sees Visconti playing with a stacked deck. With so many infamous scenes chained together, including an homage to Josef von Sternberg’s Blue Angel featuring Berger in drag as Marlene Dietrich, it is no surprise the film was originally given an X rating in the United States. After being released unfathomably ahead of its time in 1969, The Damned would burn a hole through arthouse cinematheques and inspire a host of 1970s filmmakers—including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who watched it thirty times. Restored by Cineteca di Bologna and Institut Lumière (Lyon).
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Farley Granger, Alida Valli, Massimo Girotti
Italy 1964, 35mm, color, 90 min. In English
This abridged version of Senso, featuring dialogue by Tennessee Williams, is more interesting as an artifact than as a polished work of its own. More than a studio ploy, the Williams collaboration is rooted in an older friendship and sense of mutual artistic appreciation between the playwright and the director. Visconti would adapt The Glass Menagerie (1946) and A Streetcar Named Desire (twice, in 1949 and 1951), and Williams would visit the set of La Terra Trema, penning an essay of his experience that currently resides in the Harvard Theatre Collection. As for the film itself, one of the main draws is watching Farley Granger’s performance un-dubbed in the original English. For those only familiar with Italian version, the experience is as fascinating as it is alienating.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Alain Delon, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot
Italy/France 1960, DCP, b/w, 177 min. Italian with English subtitles
Rocco and His Brothers is a devotional work, a pious tragedy set in Visconti’s ancestral home. The narrative follows a migrant family from southern Italy travelling north for better economic prospects. The Milan Cathedral towers above their aspirations, loves, successes and downfall. Alain Delon casts a saintly figure as the title character who rises to become a prizefighter at the expense of his relationship with his apish brother Simone (the Esau to Delon’s Jacob). From the minor miracles—the southern family’s first glimpse of snow, the steam of the modern laundromat, the legendary Milanese fog—to the transcendent climax, in Rocco Visconti perfects the dreamy spirit of White Nights within the space of Catholic mysticism. Restored by Cineteca di Bologna in association with Titanus, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels and The Film Foundation. Restoration funding by Gucci and The Film Foundation.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Anna Magnani, Walter Chiari, Tina Apicella
Italy 1951, 35mm, b/w, 114 min. Italian with English subtitles
The only Visconti movie where a maternal relationship takes center stage, Bellissima is a disenchanting look at the economics of postwar Italian cinema. Anna Magnani stars as a mother willing to pay any price to secure stardom for her five-year-old daughter—in a business where the actor is more of a commodity than a human being. Despite a muted style, the film establishes two concerns that would define its director’s career: the idea of cinema as a fantasy world and the sanitization of history. Set at Cinecittà’s film studios, it would have been difficult for 1950’s audiences to forget how the “cinema city” was founded by Mussolini as a state propaganda machine.
Visconti's shorts are essential exercises, both revelatory in the context of the director's larger body of work and incisive on their own. His contribution to the anthology film We, The Women sees Visconti reteaming with Anna Magnani to create a social comedy. When her cab driver charges a premium fee for traveling with a dog, Magnani leaves a trail of destruction as she tries to find witnesses to correct this injustice. Il Lavoro (The Job) is the most elegant of the shorts, filmed with cohesive sets constructed in the tradition of von Sternberg. A first collaboration with Romy Schneider, the German actress plays an aristocrat who intends to separate from her husband and go to work for the first time. While the most memorable part of The Witches may be the jazzy theme by Piero Piccioni, Visconti's segment provides a close examination of the inner grotesqueries of fame, unmasking a famous movie star on vacation. Finally, Notes on a News Item is Visconti's most haunting film. Documenting the path taken by a murdered girl, the five-minute short marks a return to the atmosphere of Ossessione in addition to foreshadowing the phantasmagoria of Sandra.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Anna Magnani
Italy 1953, DCP, b/w, 18 min. Italian with English subtitles
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Romy Schneider, Tomas Milian, Romolo Valli
Italy/France 1962, 35mm, color, 46 min. Italian with English subtitles
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Silvana Mangano, Annie Girardot, Francisco Rabal
Italy/France 1967, 35mm, color, 37 min. Italian and English with English subtitles
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Vasco Pratolini
Italy 1953, 35mm, b/w, 5 min. Italian with English subtitles
Courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Dirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns
Italy/France/US 1971, DCP, color, 130 min. English, Italian, Polish, French, Russian and German with English subtitles
Death in Venice is Visconti’s most faithful Thomas Mann adaptation. While perhaps a quieter affair than The Damned, its source material attests to Visconti’s continued fascination with the Germanic. Dirk Bogarde gives a phlegmatic turn as Gustav von Aschenbach, a composer on holiday who becomes increasingly obsessed with a young boy of features unseen outside classical sculpture. A return to the labyrinthine canals of White Nights, the difference between dream and nightmare becomes less clear as an unidentified plague bears down on Venice. Restored by Cineteca di Bologna and Luce Cinecittà.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Romy Schneider, Helmut Berger, Trevor Howard
Italy/France/West Germany 1972, 35mm, color, 238 min. Italian, German and French with English subtitles
The most ambitious of all of Visconti’s films, Ludwig was the recipient of the energies that should have been channeled into the director’s dream of adapting Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Visconti would never be able to make the latter film after suffering a stroke following the completion of this four-hour behemoth. The film surrounds the excesses, dalliances, and eventual political censure of King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), also known as the “Mad King.” Helmut Berger, who bears an uncanny likeness to the monarch, is at his most degenerate in the title role, but like many protagonists of Visconti films, the king is a clear substitute for the director. Builder of castles and patron of the Opera, Ludwig acts as a mirror of Visconti’s architectural and theatrical ambitions. New 35mm print courtesy Luce Cinecittà.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano
Italy/France 1974, 35mm, color, 121 min. Italian and French with English subtitles
The first film Visconti directed after his stroke, Conversation Piece sees the director working with a new level of focus after larger productions became unfeasible for him. Reteaming with the star of The Leopard,Burt Lancaster, Visconti creates an intimate rendering of an aging professor whose solitude is interrupted when a rich family forcibly moves into the upper floor of his Rome palazzo. A “conversation piece” is a genre of painting that refers to an informal group portrait, and the film crosses generational, sexual, and, in a Proustian fashion, temporal boundaries in painting the relationships among every combination within the small cast. This would be Visconti’s last collaboration with long-time writing partner Suso Cecchi d’Amico.
Directed by Elia Kazan. With Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 113 min
The Leopard before The Leopard, Viva Zapata! must have been an event for Visconti to have seen in the early fifties. Hot off A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan reteams with Marlon Brando in his prime to create an elemental epic of earth, rock and sky. Myth permeates the screen as peasant guerrillas wage an invisible war for the rights to their land. The Marxist leanings, performances, formal proficiency and set design must have struck a chord: The influence is laid bare in the tryst sequence from 1954’s Senso, a nearly shot-for-shot remake of Zapata’s honeymoon scene.
Also screening as part of the Cinema of Resistance series.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Dirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns
Italy/France/US 1971, 35mm, color, 130 min. English, Italian, Polish, French, Russian and German with English subtitles
Death in Venice is Visconti’s most faithful Thomas Mann adaptation. While perhaps a quieter affair than The Damned, its source material attests to Visconti’s continued fascination with the Germanic. Dirk Bogarde gives a phlegmatic turn as Gustav von Aschenbach, a composer on holiday who becomes increasingly obsessed with a young boy of features unseen outside classical sculpture. A return to the labyrinthine canals of White Nights, the difference between dream and nightmare becomes less clear as an unidentified plague bears down on Venice.