It might be strange that in some seventeen years of writing about film for this paper, I don’t think I’ve ever felt a need to mention the name of Luchino Visconti. I mean, many commentators would place some of his works among the finest ever made: Martin Scorsese has mentioned The Leopard as one of his five favourites, and La terra trema was once listed on Sight and Sound’s ten-best poll of the ten best films. When I was first becoming aware of foreign language films in the late 70’s, Visconti’s name was unavoidable – Death in Venice in particular seemed to embody a certain category of stately, scenic, mildly transgressive art cinema. But those qualities never really resonated with me – I preferred the rough and tumble of the French new wave, or the slyer pleasures of Luis Bunuel, or the greater contemporary edge of Antonioni…or, now I think about it, just about anything. Whereas I’ve spent years meticulously trying to see everything ever made by most eminent filmmakers, I’ve never really worried about the gaps in my knowledge of Visconti: I’ve still never seen La terra trema for instance.
More recently though, I ended up watching a number of his later works, and found him occupying a somewhat larger place in my mental archive. At the very least, I might now disagree with David Thomson’s assessment, which no doubt influenced my own: “If there was a Nobel prize for cinema,” wrote Thomson, “Visconti would have had it long ago; he was as deserving as a Steinbeck, and he was very social. But he does not begin to rate at the highest level: his work is trivial, ornate, and unconvinced.”
Thomson actually has a field day with Visconti, saying for instance of Death in Venice that its surface is “a sticky crust, covering nothing.” Although “nothing” seems to be overstating the case a bit, I still find it hard to warm to the film. Made in 1971, it depicts an esteemed composer, resting at a Venice hotel, and increasingly obsessed by another guest, a young boy. Lasting well over two hours with minimal plot, it’s a film of magnificent compositions and cinematic landscapes; Dirk Bogarde in the main role registers less than as a character than as a tortured melody. In flashbacks, he and a colleague debate aesthetic matters, such as whether beauty can be created as an operation of art or can only exist as an operation of the senses, and to what extent the artist’s moral framework is vital to this function; these questions form a corollary to the film’s central question, of the nature and morality of his preoccupation with the boy (Visconti himself was openly homosexual, at a time when such openness was obviously far less common than now). It’s not an uninteresting creation, but as I say, if Death in Venice were the only evidence, it would seem to speak to a rather heavygoing artistic temperament.
It’s easier to praise some of Visconti’s other films. Rocco and his Brothers, made in 1960, depicts five siblings struggling for economic viability after traveling from the country to the city; with one foot in the neo-realist tradition and another in melodrama, it proceeds through muscular encounters, easily accessible contrasts between goodness and venality, a wrenching sense of steps taken counteracted by steps back, and of regret for what’s been lost. The Leopard, which came next in 1963, leaps from tenements to palaces, from Rocco’s expressionist black and white to some of the screen’s most celebrated colour compositions. It examines an old aristocratic family grappling with the new political and social realities of Italy’s unification, and is perhaps Visconti’s most intellectually engaging film, crammed with exchanges and ideas about the practical demands of revolution and the obligations of the ruling class. It’s far from the most intimate of epics – much of the film carries the sense of watching figures dwarfed by their settings. But this supports the conflicts at its centre – the central figure (played by Burt Lancaster) acknowledges the aristocracy will ultimately be short-lived, and yet the lifestyle and its trappings, as depicted here, seem to defy human transience (and to provide an intriguing contrast with the sense of sickness and corrosion that undermines the almost equally stunning settings in Death in Venice).
Lancaster also starred in Visconti’s penultimate film, the 1974 Conversation Piece, again embodying a character who glorifies in his accumulating obsolescence: a retired professor all but locked away in his magnificent apartment, who has his existence disrupted by an unruly family. It’s another calculated arthouse creation, conveying a sense of moral and intellectual and political siege, but with little feeling for real life and discovery. It’s an intriguing depiction though of the contradictions in the director’s sensibility – sympathetic to Communism and social progressivity, and yet seemingly helplessly attached to ornateness and grandeur (Visconti himself was one of seven children of the “Grand Duke of Modrone”). I found it preferable to his 1969 work The Damned, a tale of a powerful industrial family’s contortions in the face of Hitler’s rise to power – its portrayal of Nazism as a hodgepodge of opportunism and decadence seems, at best, incomplete, and it’s a largely dour and mechanical movie in other respects.
Visconti’s last film, The Innocent, was released in 1976, the year of his death (aged 70). It again has elements of the unrevealing “sticky crust” – another sumptuously rendered chronicle of the aristocracy, with bitterness and amorality below the finery. Its self-regarding character imagines himself a master of his fate, whereas in fact his existence is circumscribed in all directions; his lack of belief in an afterlife leads him into an unbearable moral hell, lacking a framework either to understand himself or to atone. Not one of Visconti’s best regarded films, it seemed to me to carry more contemporary resonance than many of them – for instance, as a posing of questions about whether our own increasingly separate social elite represents an extension of or a threat to universal interests. Despite his own status, The Innocent suggests Visconti would argue for the latter – the useless self-absorption of what he puts on display seems to contain a strong implicit case for usurping the order.
Returning then to Thomson’s comment, there’s surely much in his work (and I haven’t even mentioned Senso or Ossessione, which some might consider his best) that transcends trivia or lack of conviction, and as for the ornateness – if nothing else, one can view any excesses in that area with benevolent nostalgia, as an example of the kind of cinema they truly don’t make anymore. Visconti may not rate at the highest level, but perhaps we can say that not to disparage him, but rather to celebrate the even more remarkable achievements of those who do.