Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on various players.
There is evidently something of the romantic sadist in me; I tend to like romances far more when they end in terrible tragedy. At the very least, I appreciate them a lot more when the lovers do more than have silly quarrels or face trials at are easily overcome. The whole grandeur of a great romance is made that much grander by those trials faced by the star-crossed lovers. It’s one of the reasons a lot of rom-coms don’t work for me. There’s just not enough pain to suit me. In the case of Senso (The Wanton Countess), there’s more than enough misery and terrible decision making to go around.
Like many a romance of the tragic variety, Senso takes place in a time of political and military upheaval. It’s the mid-19th century, and the southern part of Europe is torn by war as Austria and Italy fight over territory. In Venice, the people are decidedly bent on Italian rule, which doesn’t bode well for the Austrian military in the area. At an opera performance, the Venetians stage an allegedly impromptu but actually planned demonstration of fealty to Italy. This protest has been staged by Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti). Ussoni is the cousin of the Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli), who is trapped in a bland and pathetic marriage with a bland and pathetic count (the awesomely named Heinz Moog).
In the commotion, Ussoni runs afoul of an Austrian soldier named Franz Mahler (Farley Granger). Franz is evidently the talk of the Venetian women, which makes her a person of interest to the Countess. She arranges a meeting, and despite her own Italian nationalism and devotion to her cousin, she falls and falls hard for the Austrian. They begin a torrid and constant affair, a fact that she is forced to hide from her husband (for obvious reasons) but not really caring about the potential political or social problems such an affair might cause her.
As the war progresses, though, Livia is moved to the country by her husband, where she pines for her lost Franz. But Franz arrives and begs her for money, which he needs to bribe the Austrian doctors to keep him off the front line. Livia gives him the money, and this has terrible consequences—the money she gives Franz was to be used for the Italian resistance, and its loss means the loss of a few key battles.
This takes us through most of the film. I don’t have the heart to describe the last half hour or so, because this third act is best left to the first-time viewer to discover for him- or herself. Suffice to say that the ending puts to rest any illusions the viewer might have about the truth of the love affair between Franz and Livia, answers any and all questions about Franz’s character, and leads to a conclusion completely deserved by both characters.
I’m not generally a huge fan of period romances although I like them well enough, but Senso has the definite advantage of being relentlessly brutal by ripping out the heart and hope of anything the audience might think will edify the ending of the film. It’s marvelous in how completely and totally it drags our characters into complete, self-selected abasement.
In this film, the fact that it’s a period romance is an absolute boon. The sets and costumes are necessarily sumptuous when appropriate, and filled with the sort of faded decadence when appropriate as well. While it won’t match the staggering look of a similar ill-fated romance taking place in the same time period (Gone with the Wind in case you were wondering), there is a look of former glory now faded but still beautiful in virtually every frame. Nowhere is this more plain than when Franz rips off Livia’s veil near the end. With the veil on, she looks beautiful and tragic. With the veil removed, she looks tired and haggard. It’s genius.
My only real complaint is the painful dubbing. It’s not surprising that Luchino Visconti would want to make a film in Italian, but it’s similarly obvious that Alida Valli and Farley Granger—who speak about 80% of the film’s dialogue—are speaking English and have been dubbed over. I’m not generally a fan of dubbed films and prefer to watch them in the language they were spoken in. I’m always distracted by the fact that the flapping lips don’t match the sounds coming out of them. I’d have rather had the English, not because I dislike subtitles, but because it’s so clearly what the actors are speaking.
Senso is not a happy film and it doesn’t intend to be. It has a strange and tragic beauty. Better, the story follows in a way that makes each new scene and complication both inevitable and surprising. It’s always exciting when a film can do that.
Why to watch Senso: It ends the way it should.
Why not to watch: The dubbing is distracting.