Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti

Born to an aristocratic family, Visconti spent the pre-WWII years in Paris, soaking up the intellectual, cultural and political currents of the time. His close association with Jean Renoir led to his decision to become a filmmaker, although he continued throughout his life to devote part of his considerable energies to the theater and opera. An active anti-fascist, he managed to escape persecution by the Mussolini government until the final days of the war. He directed his first film, "Ossessione" (1942) during the war years. An unauthorized adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the film avoided overt political content but was still censored by the Fascists for "obscenity," perhaps because of its raw and naturalistic portrayal of the lovers' affair.Immediately after the war, Visconti turned his attention to opera and theater, but in 1948, he made his most overtly Marxist film, the powerful "La Terra Trema," an adaptation of Giovanni Verga's classic novel about life in a poor Sicilian fishing village. In 1951, Visconti changed pace again, with one of his few attempts at satire, "Bellissima," which records the attempts of an indefatigable stage mother, brilliantly played by Anna Magnani, to get her little daughter into the movies.Another complete turn, this time to the period of the Risorgimento, produced the brilliant "Senso" (1954), a filmic opera of revolution, illicit love and betrayal which even incorporates sections from Verdi's "Il Trovatore." In 1957, Visconti offered a very theatrical version of Dostoevsky's "White Nights," starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, and in 1960 he made his final foray into working-class life, "Rocco and His Brothers," a potent domestic tragedy portraying the difficulties encountered by a Sicilian peasant family transplanted because of economic need to the industrial North. Visconti's next film, a haunting, elegiac adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel "The Leopard" (1963), was an account of an aristocratic Sicilian family faced with enormous social changes during the late 19th century. Although awarded the Golden Palm at Cannes, it was severely edited for US audiences and not restored for almost twenty years.In the unjustly neglected "Sandra" (1965), Visconti deals for the first time with the Italian Resistance, through the story of a wealthy woman haunted by an incestuous relationship with her brother and the knowledge that her mother had betrayed her father, a Jew, to the Nazis. Following an excellent adaptation of Camus' "The Stranger" (1967), Visconti abandoned himself finally to his greatest loves--opera and politics--in "The Damned" (1969), a truly Wagnerian account of the fall of a German industrial family in its capitulation to the evils of Hitler and the SS. Two more "German decadence" films followed: "Death in Venice" (1971), far more Visconti than Thomas Mann, and "Ludwig" (1972), a colorful rendition of the life of the "mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria. The homoeroticism which provocatively tinged even the gay filmmaker's earliest films finally, if not unproblematically, had come to the fore.Visconti made two final films, "Conversation Piece" (1975), a semi-autobiographical story of an elderly intellectual confounded by a new Italy in which the vulgar materialism of the new bourgeoisie clashes with the sometimes desperate alienation and militancy of radicalized youth, and "L'Innocente" (1976), based on Gabrielle d'Annunzio's novel of upper-class adultery. They reveal signs of his declining powers but still testify to a dedication to art, beauty, social justice and human values that were the motivating forces behind this extraordinary talent.