A Venetian Countess (Alida Valli) loses her reason in succumbing to her senses and to Lieutenant Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) of the invading Austrian Army. She gives up money and position; even betrays her family, her country and her highest ideals; all for a feckless sensualist, a gigolo from the first and one who’ll show himself a quivering coward by the end. That’s where love and desire will take you in the world of Visconti and of Senso.
It’s a beautiful film, gorgeous to look at. Valli seems to float from canal to piazza, in large hooped skirt, in a wind-blown veil, as she suffers, desires, trembles, and looks for and at her lover; whilst refusing to see what is at all times clear to the audience: that he’s a cheap hustler unworthy of such sacrifices. The film is set at the time Garibaldi was uniting Italy and there are clearly points being made about European and Italian history that are beyond my present reach.
But the central story is entirely accessible; and the cinematic means through which to convey that story are the work of a giant of cinema; from the tour de force opening at the opera house to the tragic battle sequences at the end; from the grandeur of the houses right down to the exquisiteness of the pattern of a scarf that Valli holds to her face: everything is perfection. Even Granger, giving an awkward, unskilled performance is to the film’s advantage, as the looks-without-substance characteristic of the actor is so well used to convey that of the character.
A film of faded colours, set at a key historical moment, but focussing rather on the depths to which desire might drive one. A great film.