April 8—15, 2024


Luchino Visconti: In Costume

The “Red Prince”, a Marxist descended from a wealthy family of Milanese aristocrats, a neo-realist filmmaker and author of costume frescoes about the lives of the rich and powerful, a connoisseur of high culture, and a lover of melodrama. Occupying a permanent spot in the pantheon of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the history of cinema, Luchino Visconti was an artist full of contradictions. Although the artistic movement with which he was spiritually linked – Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust’s modernism – is now long gone, Visconti’s films still remain fascinating. They are not only decadent (and simultaneously anti-decadent) tales about the demise of the old world, but also magnificent, multifaceted spectacles that combine cinema, literature, opera, and theatre.

It would be unfair to say that Luchino Visconti di Modrone (1906-1976) only realized his potential as director when he began making lavish costume films. After all, his debut, the austere Obsession (Ossessione, 1943) is regarded an early example of neorealism, while The Earth Trembles (La terra trema, 1948), portraying the lives of Sicilian fishermen, is sometimes ranked among the pinnacles of the neo-realist movement. For many viewers, however, Visconti remains above all the author of sumptuous films depicting the beauty and the grotesque life of the Italian and German aristocracy in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


The Innocent

Arthouse Costume Films

The beginning of a conceptual and aesthetic shift in Visconti’s cinema was the film Senso (Senso, 1954), based on a novella by Camillo Boito, the first colour film in the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The beginning of the film, set during a staging of Verdi’s opera Trovatore, ushers in a new artistic path in the director’s career. From then on, Visconti would often combine the characters’ romantic adventures with great history, cinema with opera, and spectacular visuals with insightful psychological analysis. In portraying the love affair between an Italian countess and a lieutenant of the Austrian army occupying Venice, Visconti did not look to Hollywood renditions, but to the theatrical, 18th- and 19th-century works of romantic melodrama.

An excellent example of how to make visually stunning and spectacular, yet completely un-Hollywood-like costume dramas is The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963), based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. The Italian Risorgimento is shown here from the perspective of a Sicilian prince – in a way, the porte parole of the director – who learns first-hand that for everything to stay the same, everything must change. Sophisticated, smart dialogues, visual beauty, great attention to detail, and subtle psychological observations resound with full vibrancy in the almost hour-long ball scene, and make The Leopard one of the most compelling works in its genre.

The Leopard

Between Modernism and Queer Cinema

The decadent motif of the decline of the old world becomes more prominent in Visconti’s later films.  This is why film scholars have often written about the “fading world” (Joanna Wojnicka) or the “charm of decline” (Alicja Helman) in his cinema. In The Damned (La caduta degli dei, 1969), the director returns to a somewhat less distant past and tells the story of the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s. In order to do so, he adopts the perspective of wealthy industrialists collaborating with totalitarian power. Whereas The Leopard told the story of the beginning of the end in a melancholic and elegant manner, The Damned is brutal and grotesque. Contemporary film scholars sometimes read the film’s heavily stylized, expressive aesthetic as an early example of queer cinema.

Queer poetics are also discussed in relation to Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971), an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s classic novella about an artist (a writer in the book, a composer in the film) who, in plague-ridden Venice, allows himself to be swept away by a destructive passion for a teenage boy. Recently, admiration for this masterful adaptation has given way to critical voices condemning Visconti for his treatment of the film’s 15-year-old star, Björn Andrésen. Still, it would be hard to question the value of the film itself, which superbly confronts love and death, youth and old age, beauty and ugliness.

The final segment of Visconti’s so-called German trilogy is Ludwig (1973), a monumental four-hour film about Ludwig II Wittelsbach, the eccentric king of Bavaria, who was more concerned with patronage of the arts and philosophy than with the question of politics. Visconti’s filmography concludes with The Innocent (L’innocente, 1976), a drama based on the decadent novel by Gabriel D’Annunzio. Set in the late 19th century, this story of a love quadrangle, ruthlessly reveals the narcissism and sadism, but also other hidden insecurities of the Italian aristocracy, whom Visconti knew so well.

Death in Venice

Visconti on the Big Screen

Although he also made outstanding contemporary-set films (suffice to mention Rocco and his brothers [Rocco e i suoi fratelli], 1960), it is Visconti’s monumental, grandiose, vibrant, “operatic” works that appear to have been created exclusively for audiences to enjoy on the big screen. Their aesthetically pleasing beauty, attention to detail and musical qualities can be admired today thanks to the digital restorations they have undergone in recent years. Is Visconti’s cinema – once described by Bartosz Żurawiecki as the “final ecstasy of modernism” – merely a vestige of a bygone era? Or perhaps, by proposing a model of sensual, yet intellectually demanding costume spectacle (a model somewhat alternative to Hollywood cinema), Visconti has developed a poetics that can still be inspiring today? It’s definitely worth finding out for yourself.

Robert Birkholc
translated by: Joanna Figiel