Senso, the fourth feature by aristocrat turned filmmaker Luchino Visconti, was his color debut and the first of his films to leave the neorealist worlds of the impoverished and struggling poor for the elevated lives of the rich and privileged, a world he knew firsthand. This operatic, painstaking composed and choreographed cinema of elegance and decadence, set against the panorama of history and political upheaval, is what Visconti is most celebrated for, and it began with this lush melodrama.
The film opens in La Fenice, the magnificent Venice opera house, during a production of Verdi’s “Il Travatore,” and as the aria ends with a climactic call to arms, the upper balconies explode with their own call to arms with a hurricane of three-color leaflets (red, green and white, the colors of the Italian flag) and bouquets showered upon the soldiers on the floor. The sequence is a visual symphony conducted masterfully by Visconti: art and life mirrored in the dramas on- and off-stage, political action battling social decorum and conformism for dominance in a communal hub where everything is a matter of etiquette and codes of behavior, the occupying army an island of Teutonic white uniforms in the center of Italian color and culture.
Alida Valli (of The Third Man fame) plays the married Countess Livia Serpieri, a proud Venetian in 19th century occupied Venice on the verge of revolution, and American Farley Granger (recently of Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train) is Austrian officer Franz Mahler, a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform. They are enemies by definition–Livia supports the revolutionaries while Franz is a member of the occupying forces–brought together when Livia invites him to share her loge so she can beg him to call off a duel with her passionate cousin, a leader in the brewing resistance. Walking along the canals at night, she falls in love, and Visconti offers us the glow of her flame in the light of the rising sun as she steps home in the dawn. As she falls helplessly, passionately in love with this handsome but mercenary officer, the country marches to revolution, but her dedication to the cause wilts under her desire and obsession.