Luchino Visconti’s penchant for opulence was in the making long before the great trilogy of The Damned, Death in Venice and Ludwig II. Senso is a beautiful work of historical fiction, beautifully adapting Camillo Boito’s novel into a work of art.
As the Italian Wars of Unification set the scene, one can easily mistake the film as a work glorifying the forward march of democracy as expressed through nationalism and self-determination. After all, the film opens with a political demonstration at Teatro La Fenice, staged to interrupt a performance of Il Travatore at the very moment when Manrico has completed “Di quella pira” and calls his men to arms to save his mother. The occupying Austrian forces break up the performance and disperse the demonstrators, at which point a tale of forbidden love ensues between an aristocratic Venetian woman and an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army.
It is from here however that Nino Rota’s score followed a peculiar directive from Visconti. Instead of Verdi, the audience hears only excerpts from Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony (with the occasional folk song from an Austrian officer or two sung on screen). Of course while Bruckner’s music needs no explanation or defense these days, once his music was under-appreciated once upon a time. Furtwängler wrote that prior to 1939, his own attempts to promote Bruckner’s music were seldom greeted with warmth and that (sadly) it was the Third Reich’s project of musical imperialism that saw a large scale revival of his symphonies, primarily in countries where the Nazis were occupying.
Everything in the film contains codes about the Second World War. The turning point of the film comes when protagonist Livia learns that Garibaldi has taken the town of Saló, the same town where Hitler established a puppet republic in 1943, after Victor Emmanuel III and the Italians switched sides and attempted to depose Mussolini. The backdrop of Venice is no coincidence either, as Mussolini and Hitler both agreed that Venice ought not to belong to Italy, but enter into loose confederation directly with the Reich.
When we think of Anschluss, we think Austria, 1938. But Visconti’s film points to cultural Anschluss that befell parts of Italy, as it did with Bruckner and other vestiges of Europe’s past. The Reich was known for absorbing that which was useful in order to promote its political viability. That said, one need not think too hard when Visconti’s film. For just as there is anti-Nazi sentiment in the metaphors of Saló and the liberation gradual liberation of Italy after 1943 by Allied forces, the movie is deafeningly silent on what came before. As with The Sound of Music, it’s perhaps too easy to believe claims of victimization by the Third Reich, when the history of fascism in Europe is far more widespread. After all, the political problems surrounding Hitler, Mussolini, Venice and Saló did not really touch on the political values of fascism and the redemptive qualities of violence, but rather if those values ought to come from the Italian people or from German directives. Senso is a gentle reminder that historical fiction can easily rely on fictive histories.
Direction: Luchino Visconti
Music: Anton Bruckner from Symphony No. 7, adapted by Nino Rota
Cinematography: G.R. Aldo
Starring: Alida Valli, Farley Granger