Friday, June 4, 2021


The hands of 69-year-old director Luchino Visconti are shown turning the pages of the 1892 Gabriele D'Annunzio novel upon which this, Visconti's final film, is based. 

During the pandemic lockdown of 2020, between panic attacks and bouts of binge-eating, I also managed to find time to watch a great many wonderful movies. A year-long, borderless flow from night to day provided the perfect conditions for indulging my passion for the long-form motion pictures: aka movies with lengthy running times. With no worries about having to get up early the next day (indeed, at the height of lockdown, “next day” was more an abstract concept than a reality), I breezed through Bergman’s 5hr 26min Fanny & Alexander; aced Scorsese’s 3hr 30min The Irishman, and Kubrick’s 3hr 7min Barry Lyndon felt like it was over before I’d even settled into my chair. 

Of particular interest and appeal to me during this period were the films of Luchino Visconti. And not simply because he’s a director whose visually sumptuous epics are as heedless of time constraints as I suddenly found myself to be. No, given the almost surreal socio-political climate of America in 2020, I drew ceaseless comfort and solace from Visconti's flagrant surrender to beauty and staunch respect for intelligence. But chiefly I reveled in the vehement strain of anti-Fascism that underscore the narratives of the deeply poetic and majestic films made by the late Italian director. His films--each a repudiation of moral ugliness and spiritual ignorance--were like an anchor to a sane and humane world that was slipping away.
I revisited old favorites: Death in Venice, Ludwig, The Damned, and Conversation Piece. And I also discovered a treasure trove of heretofore unseen-by-me masterworks that further solidified in my mind the conviction that Visconti is unsurpassed as cinema's painterly pundit of aristocratic foibles. A peerless chronicler of corrupted ideals and self-immolating passions. Each newly discovered (and gloriously restored) film felt richer than the last: Ossessione, Rocco & His Brothers, Senso, & The Leopard --his final film, the tragic L’Innocente, catching me totally off guard by being far more poetically moving than I'd expected. 
Giancarlo Giannini as Tullio Hermil

Jennifer O'Neill as Countess Teresa Raffo

Laura Antonelli as Giuliana Hermil

Marc Porel as Filippo d'Arborio

Italian aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giannini) is the self-styled embodiment of Nietzsche’s Higher Man. A handsome, athletic gentleman of wealth, intelligence, and taste who, by nature of his philosophical beliefs and self-discerned status as a superior being, answers to no man, no social mores, and certainly no god. An avowed atheist, Tulio professes to be a self-regulating free man and free-thinker. One whose idleness of occupation (coupled with a self-serving disdain for convention) affords the unimpeded indulgence of all manner of hedonistic pursuits and sensual gratifications...all outside of the confines of his marriage.  

Given his libertine worldview, Tullio’s marriage to the docile and religiously devout Giuliana (Antonelli) suggests, at first glance, a contradiction. That is, until one is reminded that all narcissists require a mirror. And in the eyes of Giuliana—who remains somewhat masochistically devoted to him in the face of countless infidelities and humiliations—Tullio sees the confirmation of his superior image of himself. Ascribing nobility to Guiliana’s martyred suffering, Tullio reasons that if a woman so good and pure of heart can love a man who gives so little and treats her so shabbily, then that man must be a great man, indeed.
Übermensch or Überjerk?
After informing Giuliana of his plans to take temporary leave with his mistress, Tullio takes a moment to overshare ("No woman has ever succeeded in seducing me like she does") before asking her to remain his wife and be there for him as platonic companion and confessor.

But as is so often the case with individuals harboring a God complex (or Yeezus complex, for that matter); Tullio’s professed self-possession is simply self-absorption left to flourish in the absence of either introspection or self-awareness. And it’s Tullio’s arrogant lack of self-awareness that proves to be the source of his unexpected anguish when, after abandoning Giuliana for the beautiful Teresa Raffo (O’Neill)—a widowed countess arguably as independent-minded as Tullio, but lacking his gift for self-deception—he begins to suspect his wife of having fallen in love with Filippo d’Arborio, a dashing author (Porel) renowned for his compassionate nature.
Merely the thought of his wife’s infidelity is enough to throw Tullio into an existential tailspin that has him grappling not only with the untenable prospect of her choosing to exercise the same sexual agency he affords himself, but the dreaded notion that he, a man superior, should find himself falling prey to the lowborn sensations of jealousy, envy, and rivalry. Most confounding of all (more so for Tullio than the viewer), his suspicions have the effect of rekindling his passion and reawakening his love for his wife.
But is love something Tullio is capable of?  
Tullio's high opinion of himself induces the desire to vanquish all rivals 

Luchino Visconti used the traditional family saga to chronicle the dissolution of Italian aristocracy in The Leopard (1963). With L’Innocente, the classic romantic triangle scaffolds a critique of the hypocrisy and amorality of bourgeois society while delivering a bitter requiem to Italian patriarchy (perhaps even Visconti's own). The film is set in a world rigid in its governance and regulation of women's sexuality and bodies, but Visconti's vision—one less nihilistic than D'Annunzio's morally myopic and proto-fascist source novel I was inspired to read after watching L'Innocente...twice—questions the value of a life lived in pursuit of sensual experience if starved of a spiritual existence. 
"I don't have a hell to fear or a heaven to hope for."

Given my cinematic attraction to high-style debauchery, grand passions, male nudity, and directors of whose visual style the term “operatic dimensions” is oft applied, I’ve a natural affinity for the films of Luchino Visconti. A born aesthete, Visconti’s eye finds rapturous beauty even in his stark neorealist melodramas. 
Inaccessibility and maturity of content played a part in my not seeing any of his films until college (Death in Venice being the 1st unless you count Visconti’s contribution to the 1962 anthology film Boccaccio ’70 which popped up often on late-late night TV). But my heel-dragging paid off in that I was introduced to the bulk of Visconti’s masterworks in pristine condition; when released on DVD/Blu-ray digitally enhanced, restored to their original lengths, and subtitled, not English-dubbed.
Making films that were political, sensual, and courageously Queer in subtext if not in theme, Visconti, like my other fave Ken Russell, was one of the last of the truly fearless filmmakers. The ambitious visual scope of Visconti’s films was matched only by how ambitiously his films sought to explore the dark extremes of human relationships. 

In synopsis, L’Innocente sounds like another one of those movies about men who profess to love women so much that they can’t seem to treat them like real people (making it something of a 19th-century cousin to Shampoo, Boomerang, Carnal Knowledge, and All That Jazz). Visconti takes the framework of the romantic tragedy to breathe life into the sexual double-standard narrative, making the struggle representative of larger socio-political conflicts related to morality and religion.

Luchino Visconti died on March 17, 1976 while L'Innocente was still being edited. The film didn't premiere in the U.S. until 1979. 

Didier Haudepin as Federico Hermil, Tullio's younger brother

“We’re intelligent, we’ve studied, we’ve traveled. We’ve enjoyed ourselves so much, we’re so rich…and then?"   Federico  L'Innocente -1976  

“We're rich, we’re famous, we’re beautiful…and miserable.” Holly  Andy Warhol’s Women in Revolt -1977

Identical sentiments, albeit from absurdly dissimilar sources. Movies tasked with depicting the empty existence of the wealthy usually fail miserably when faced with the challenge of how to visually represent a world of material excess without inadvertently glamorizing what they’re trying to condemn. My theory behind movies that fall into this trap (e.g., both the 1974 and 2013 adaptations of The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street - 2013) is that the filmmakers themselves simply don’t believe it. The movie narrative dictates it, but these directors, like many working in an industry tentpoled on glorifying its own overindulgence in greed and money-worship, come across as being too in awe (and covetous) of wealth to even recognize when their opulence gaze turns more fetishistic and admiring than critical.
Visconti, the father of Italian neorealist cinema, was born into nobility (his full title is Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone). Yet when his filmmaker's gaze shifted from the gritty realism of Italy’s working classes to the ornate drawing rooms of the Italian aristocracy, his vision reflected the eye of someone both familiar and disenchanted with this world. A lover of beauty, Visconti’s films are overflowing with lavishly operatic images of wealth and elegance, but his aesthetic eye for detail works in service of creating a verisimilitude that draws us into this world; a world we know only from paintings and books. The breathtaking authenticity he brings to his films via costuming (Piero Tosi), production design (Mario Garbuglia), & cinematography (Pasqualino De Santis) create environments that don't call to mind enviable splendors and worlds of happiness and comfort. Rather, they bring forth images of ornamentally lush prisons or gilded birdcages entrapping his decadent and morally-adrift characters.
Luchino Visconti's films tend to reflect periods of social, political, or ideological change. Given the director's Marxist leanings, the displays of affluence and luxury in his movies are more representative of the moral dissipation of fashionable society than an opportunity for audiences to "ooh" and "aah" at the Lifestyles of the Rich and Fascist.


If I think back to the first time I saw L’Innocente…replaying it in my mind, trying to figure out just what in particular it is about this movie that brought me to such stinging tears by the finale,  affecting me far more deeply than any of Visconti’s arguably more masterful works; I always come back to the same thing…the eyes have it.
Visconti’s gift for vivid tableau is ideal for capturing L’Innocente’s lives of stiff formality (where bedroom-hopping, fencing, and the occasional duel seem to be the only modes of physical exertion). Amid such evocative stillness and voices not always so artfully dubbed, it’s remarkable the degree to which the film’s talented cast can convey and communicate a wealth of complex emotions solely through their eyes. That they can do so with a depth and virtuosity that is often  positively heartbreaking confirms Giancarlo Giannini’s 1975 comment to the NYT: “The eyes are the most mobile part of the body.”
Giannini’s expressive eyes were practically his calling card during the early ‘70s when his films with director Lina Wertmüller made him the darling of the foreign film scene. So it's no surprise he’s able to make the rather repugnant Tullio creepily relatable (like Daffy Duck, he’s all our worst instincts consolidated) and imbue him with a kind of pitiable humanity lacking in the novel. Laura Antonelli, whose propensity for consistently doffing her period britches made her something of an arthouse pinup during the ‘70s, is hampered somewhat by a character so compliant she risks becoming infuriating before the story reveals her truth, but Antonelli is the heart of L’Innocente and gives one of those radiant, delicate performances that gets better each time you see it.
To my utter and unending astonishment, American actress Jennifer O’Neill turned out to be my personal favorite in the entire film. Indeed, it’s O’Neill’s mournful eyes - which Visconti is wise to keep his camera trained on in the film’s heart-rending final sequence - that remains the single most haunting image my mind returns to each time I think of how much I love this movie. Known more for her beauty than her acting chops (and she looks positively stunning here), O’Neill leaves her Summer of ’42 girlishness behind in Nantucket (along with her voice, mercifully, as she is dubbed in Italian by actress Valeria Moriconi), evincing a heretofore untapped womanly bearing that's alluringly hard-edged and impassioned. 
Rina Morelli as Mrs. Hermil (mother of Tullio & Federico)
L'Innocente was the actress' last film. She also appeared in Visconti's The Leopard 

Depending on the translation, Gabriele D'Annunzio's novel is known as The Innocent, The Intruder, or The Victim (US). Each title suggesting a subtle shift in the narrative interpretation of the object of Tullio’s obsession. The book is written as a first-person, past-tense confessional told from Tullio’s point of view, his warped perspective the only version of reality to which we're we're privy.  
L’Innocente’s screenplay (written by Visconti, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, & Enrico Medio) is linear in form, providing glimpses of events outside the sphere of Tullio's awareness. In essence, we're given a God’s eye view of an atheist. While the novel remains staunchly immoral and self-serving in its point of view, the religious Visconti (“My ideas may be unorthodox, but I am still a Catholic” ) who was ailing and directed from a wheelchair, has no problem coming right out and labeling his protagonist a monster.
It was poignant watching Luchino Visconti’s last film L’Innocente, during the pandemic lockdown mere months after the insurrectionist riot of January 2021. When I saw L’Innocente I was seeing a work of the artist as revolutionary—an Italian bisexual Marxist, at that—wresting the mike from the hand of history and not allowing the oppressor to control the narrative. Visconti takes an amoral chronicle written by a poet dubbed “the father of fascism” and transforms a self-aggrandizing, masturbatory exercise in nihilism into a theological, protofeminist evisceration of the kind of louche narcissist who fancies himself as a towering superman, when in reality he is simply self-loathing and morally bereft.
"I wonder why you men raise us up with one hand and drag us down with the other? Why won't you let us walk by your side, as one being next to another? A woman next to a man. Nothing more, nothing less."

Luchino Visconti’s first film was Ossessione (1943) an unauthorized adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. That film’s realism, upfront sexuality, core antifascism, and Queer sensibility flew rebelliously in the face of Mussolini’s regime and was banned.
As much as I adore it, I don’t think L’Innocente is Visconti’s best film. But in its own way, it’s a work as deceptively and sublimely subversive as his first.

Can't tell you how happy it made me feel to see the handsome star of Luchino Visconti's very first film, return, handsome as ever, 33-years later, to make an appearance in the director's swan song.

Massimo Girotti as Gino in Ossessione (1943) - Visconti's first film

Massimo  Girotti as Count Stefano in L'Innocente (1976) - Visconti's last film

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