Filmmaker Retrospective: The Passionate Cinema of Luchino Visconti

8. Sandra (1965)

Sandra (1965)

Claudia Cardinale stars in this modern resetting of the Elektra myth as the titular Sandra, who returns to her hometown with her husband for the commemoration of the death of her father. When she returns, however, she becomes immersed in her past habits.

Unfortunately for her husband, this involves reinvigorating a relationship with her brother Gianni, which turns inappropriate, to say the least. As the siblings grow closer together, they then team up against their mother and step father, who they think are slandering the memory of their father.

Once again, Visconti focuses on the grand mansions of nobility set in a period where their influence was becoming increasingly irrelevant. The production is again meticulous and elegant, contrasting with the twisted characters of Sandra and Gianni.

However, unlike many of his past films, this is less of a social statement and more of an attempt at straightforward storytelling. Cardinale gives a solid performance succeeding at being both erotic and mysterious in the lead role, capturing the audience in almost every scene.

The film itself is quite exciting, dealing with taboo themes and material, and although atypical thematically of Visconti, is very engrossing. Winner of the Golden Lion award, Sandra may not be the strongest or most representative of the director’s work, but it an effective retelling of a classic tale.


9. The Stranger (1967)

The Stranger (1967)

Visconti teams up again with Marcello Mastroianni in this film of Albert Camus’s classic novel. The Stranger is the most true to the book of any of Visconti’s many textual adaptations, taking no liberties with the characters or story. Mastroianni plays the main character Meursault, a Frenchman living in Algiers who is on trial for the murder of an Algerian man.

Meursault, however, does not seem to care about his crime and throughout the film shows little interest in anything whatsoever. The focus of this film is not only on the crime, but more importantly the emotional detachment of Meursault and his reasoning for the killing.

Like Meursault, Visconti’s directing in The Stranger is somewhat detached, not showing his usual style and vision as strongly. In order to call attention to the characters passivity, Visconti uses muted colors, and sets that do not distract or excite.

The cinematography is still calculated and effective but the result is much less stunning than Visconti’s usual work. allowing for the themes of the novel to come through. Mastroianni’s subdued performance is also underwhelming but effective in conveying the film’s purpose. While it is not Visconti’s most evocative film and lacks his usual grandiose production design, it is an intelligent adaptation of a complex novel.


10. The Damned (1969)

The Damned (1969)

Alternatively titled “Götterdämmerung” off of the Wagner opera, The Damned is Visconti’s darkest, most operatic film, following the rise of the Nazi party through the eyes of an industrialist family. When the head of the family gets killed, an employee Friedrich, played by Dirk Bogarde, who is sleeping with a member of the family, Sophie, rises through the ranks.

Helping him is his relative, Aschenbach, an SS Officer who plans for Friedrich to kill those ahead of him in line for power, including taking part in the historic massacre “The Night of the Long Knives.” Complications arise, however, when Sophie’s disturbed son Martin, played by Visconti’s lover Helmut Berger, decides to try for power himself.

The film is dark not only in content, but in staging and cinematography as well. Many different forms of lighting are used to capture the emotions of the scene, except for sunlight which very rarely appears on screen. The unsettling atmosphere this technique provides shows how futile fighting against the Nazi rise was at that time.

The incredible performances also add to the tension of the film, most notably Berger’s twisted Martin, who is one of the most terrifying and wicked Nazis ever portrayed on film. The Damned is insistently depressing, doing justice to the horrible events, but is still exceedingly thrilling with dynamic relationships and characters, making it one of Visconti’s most emotionally jarring films.


11. Death In Venice (1971)

Death In Venice (1971)

Adapted from Thomas Mann’s timeless novella of the same name, Death in Venice was Visconti’s last true masterpiece. Dirk Bogarde stars as Gustav Aschenbach, the tired composer recovering from sickness and the recent failure of his new piece, who travels to Venice for an extended vacation.

At the resort, however, he becomes enamored with the beauty of a young boy, Tadzio. As Aschenbach’s obsession grows stronger, disease grips Venice making his sickness worse. As his health deteriorates, the city empties but he stays to admire the boy, at last finding true beauty, making the inevitable titular conclusion both tragic and meditative.

The film is relatively loyal to the book, with the exception of profession (Aschenbach was originally a writer) and the loss of the mythological references. The mythology helped to develop the relationship between the artist and art and, while Visconti tries to convey this through added scenes of Aschenbach discussing music, this does not come through as strongly as in the book.

Ultimately, Visconti’s changes were most likely to enhance the homosexual nature of the plot, which he was maybe more interested in, and in doing so the focus on beauty is somewhat lost. Bogarde’s performance is the best of his career, delivering a desperate and touching portrayal as the aging artist.

Some may find the film a bit slow, but, with the help of a moving soundtrack by Mahler, the simplistic plot and flawless conception make it one of Visconti’s finest and most evocative films.


12. Ludwig (1972)

Ludwig (1972)

Clocking in at over 4 hours, Ludwig is Visconti’s most ambitious film in terms of sheer size following the life of Ludwig II, king of Bavaria. Helmut Berger, in a riveting portrayal, immerses himself in the role of the troubled king, slowly descending into madness.

Also at the core of the film is Ludwig’s obsession with music and arts, especially with Richard Wagner, who the king invites to his castle to befriend. His rise and fall, detailing his troubled bisexual relationships and unpopular political decision creates a detailed and educative portrait of the leader.

While very personal to Visconti, focusing on musical and homosexual themes, Ludwig falls short on content to warrant its massive run time. The sets, filming and acting are all on par with Visconti’s other works in the 1970s but the slow advancement of plot can be exhausting at times.

Of course, there are excellent moments in the film that remind you of Visconti’s talent and vision, and the overall plot is still interesting enough to make the film watchable. Ludwig is not Visconti’s most captivating or accessible film, but is a great example of his detailed craftsmanship and examines a unique character in German history, not often seen in film.


13. Conversation Piece (1974)

Conversation Piece (1974)

Conversation Piece is certainly the most bizarre film of Visconti’s career. Burt Lancaster, in his second collaboration with the director, stars as a retired professor who is living in a peaceful palazzo in Rome. His life is interrupted by a party of rich intruders who demand that he rent them a section of his home, and for some unexplained reason he obliges without much fight.

Composing this group is a noblewoman played by Silvano Mangano and her lover played by Helmut Berger who are accompanied by her daughter and boyfriend. The tenants are assuming and demanding of the professor who’s life is thrown into chaos by their antics and troubles.

The title of the film refers to a type of painting that the professor collects, featuring groups of people in the midst of leisurely talk. The structure of the film also relates to the title, being made up of various interconnected scenes. Because of this,unfortunately, the plot fails to develop interestingly, instead exploring typical Visconti themes such as sexuality and social class in long, tedious conversations.

The performances in the film are over dramatic much of the time, as the characters are more of symbols of values rather than people. The overall disorganization and chaotic nature of the film makes it Visconti’s least effective film creating an uneven story and atmosphere. There are interesting elements to the film and a few great moments between Berger and Lancaster, but it is only a necessary watch for completionists of the director’s work.


14. L’innocente (1976)

L'innocente (1976)

Visconti’s last film does away with the overindulgence of his last couple films, creating a more polished piece focusing on raw human emotions, but still utilizing extensive formalism creating a feeling similar to his middle works.

The film stars Giancarlo Giannini as the misogynist, elitist Tullio who openly parades his mistress around his wife Laura who he no longer cares for. However, when Laura gets a lover of her own, Tullio falls in love with her again, stronger than ever before. Laura soon gets pregnant with her lover’s baby, and when she wont get an abortion due to religious reasons, Tullio is faced with a tough decision.

L’innocente, like so many Visconti films, is at its core a commentary on the the social struggle in Italy, although it is slightly more concealed than usual.

The scope of the film is fairly small but the theme still comes through in the form of Tullio’s character who is an archetype for the elite and nobility in Italy. He is egotistical and unfeeling for the most part, except through sex, which is his only form of a meaningful relationship. He is also capable of feeling greed and jealousy, and it is only through them that he experiences what he thinks is love.

Visconti is showing the lack of humanity in higher living and how desensitized it makes people. The master filmmaker’s last work, finished shortly before his death, is not his most ambitious, brave or powerful, but is a solid piece of work, accurately reflecting his trends and strengths as a director.

Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.