Thursday, August 1, 2013

All is Fair in Love and War

Film: Senso (The Wanton Countess)
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.


  1. You liked this one more than me, probably because of the reasons you laid out in the first paragraph. I didn't dislike this film; it was just middle of the road for me.

    It pretty much played out exactly as I expected it to - a morality play. The lack of suspense dulled the excitement some, and the first resort of a director to add it is to have action, yet in a weird way I also found the battle scenes to be too long for me. They almost felt like distractions after a while.

    I agree both on the costumes (good) and the dubbing (bad).

    1. I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed it. A lot of that was, bluntly, that Franz is such a complete shit. More or less, this is the story of a woman who very much falls in love with the wrong man.

      I'd love to see an undubbed version of it.

  2. I am with you most on the way on this one. In fact on all key points. I actually see the ending as a twist, because it dares to go against the tropes on hopeless, romantic love. It is quite satisfying really. Not from some religious morality point of view, but because she has sold out completely.
    I only disagree on the dubbing, which frankly surprises me because normally I absolutely hate dubbing to foreign languages, but in this case I find it deeply satisfying that the Italians speak Italian and the Austrians speak German. I know there is an English language version (disk 2 on the Criterion edition), but I flatly refuse to watch it. This has to be in Italian and German.

    1. I get that on the dubbing, but I always find it distracting. I'd rather do subtitles than watch dubbed English, and I'd rather hear English than read subtitles when they weren't necessary but for the director's native tongue.

      I was a little surprised at how much I liked this.

  3. I watched Senso yesterday. I've seen it before - it was on a list of 100 Greatest Movies that I worked on for many years - but it's been a while and I didn't remember it very well, except that I didn't like it and that I thought Farley Granger was in over his head.

    I liked it a lot better this time around. I don't know why I ever had a problem with Farley Granger. Alida Valli is an actress I appreciate a lot more since I saw Eyes without a Face. I love the backdrop of Italian unification and the war with Austria-Hungary. (I kept expecting somebody to say "Look! I got Garibaldi's autograph!")

    And of course, it starts with a scene at the opera! I must have seen this before I started giving movies extra points for any scene about opera.

    (I'm starting to wonder if I watched it late at night on AMC or TCM back before I had a DVR. I might have been half asleep or cranky when I saw it the first time.)

    I know Visconti mostly from his later films Death in Venice and The Damned. I guess he's more famous for some other films because neither of those is on the List. I've seen The Leopard and Ossessione and I like them both, but I still think The Damned is my favorite Visconti movie!