How Luchino Visconti Made History Sing

Posted June 7, 2018 5:41 p.m. EDT

Among the Italian filmmakers who achieved international prominence in the decades after World War II, Luchino Visconti possessed perhaps the sharpest historical insight and the keenest literary appetite. The 14 features he directed between 1942 and his death, in 1976, included adaptations of books by Dostoyevsky, Camus and Mann, a biopic about King Ludwig II of Bavaria and several forays into the political upheavals of mid-19th-century Italy and early-20th-century Germany. Visconti, a longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, was also one of the founders of neorealism, dramatizing the struggles of working-class Romans, Sicilian fisherman and migrants from the southern countryside to the factories of the north.

These descriptions — realist, historian, man of letters — while accurate, create a somewhat misleading impression, an implication of dryness or sterility that could not be further from the truth. Visconti, the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York starting Friday, was more sensationalist than scholar. His films are as intoxicating as they are illuminating, a welcome reminder, in this or any time, that seriousness and pleasure go hand in hand.

His historical films are essays disguised as operas. “Senso,” his 1954 tale of Venetian intrigue during the Third Italian War of Independence, begins at a performance of “Il Trovatore” and is swept along on the music of Verdi and Bruckner. “The Leopard,” set in Sicily around the same time (the 1860s), culminates with a scene at a formal ball that conveys the rhythms of radical political change through the intricacy and sensuality of dance. The protagonist of “Ludwig,” who ruled Bavaria from 1864-86, is less interested in statecraft than in the music of Wagner and in building palaces that resemble fantastical stage sets.

A restored print of “Ludwig” — almost four hours of opulent set design, languorous camera movements and ambient eroticism, featuring actors from various countries dubbed into Italian — will conclude Film Society’s program with a weeklong run starting June 22. It’s late Visconti (originally released, in truncated form, in 1973) and also what you might call advanced Visconti. The best preparation might be a half-dozen selections from earlier in the series.

To describe “Ludwig” (or Ludwig himself, for that matter) as decadent might seem like an understatement. Surrounded by gilt, velvet and crystal, a glass of champagne never far from his hand, the man known as the Swan King (played by Austrian actor Helmut Berger) literally decays before our eyes, his teeth blackening in his mouth and his blue eyes sinking into his perfectly sculptured cheekbones. Ludwig’s kingdom is gradually swallowed up by the bureaucratic Prussian empire, which sets a gaggle of officious black-suited doctors and politicians to investigate his majesty’s mental health.

Their inquiry is in part an act of implicitly homophobic persecution — among the “eccentricities” that concern the authorities is Ludwig’s taste for the company of gorgeous young men — and in part a symptom of encroaching modernity. An old aristocratic order, at once morally flexible and rigidly traditional, is giving way to something new, and the change is bittersweet, containing both progress and tragedy.

Ludwig’s fate is a variation on the one faced by Prince Fabrizio, the Sicilian nobleman played by Burt Lancaster in “The Leopard,” who contemplates the arrival of the new order with melancholy acceptance. Something beautiful is sacrificed on the altar of the future, which nonetheless must be embraced. This ambivalence is central to Visconti’s work and is often described in terms of the supposedly contradictory facets of his personality. He was an ardent Marxist who happened to be the scion of a wealthy, titled family, a gay man working in a profession (and a culture) steeped in machismo. His aesthetic temperament is often assumed to be in conflict with his political sensibility.

It is sometimes said that the visual and sensual pleasures of Visconti’s neorealist films undermine their austere moral intentions, or that their beauty transcends the grittiness of their settings. But it seems to me that his lyricism is its own argument, an insistence on the inseparability of art and life.

Visconti’s second feature (and first masterpiece) was “La Terra Trema,” originally commissioned by the Communist Party as a documentary on the exploitation of Sicilian fishermen. Instead, Visconti constructed a fictional story, using real people and locations, about the attempted rise and bitter fall of ‘Ntoni Valastra and his family. Moments of melodrama and scenes of everyday life are stitched together by deliberately dry third-person narration. You don’t forget you are watching a movie, but you are somehow simultaneously aware of the human reality in front of your eyes and the cinematic artistry that makes it visible. Early in the film, ‘Ntoni's boat and his fellow fisherman from the village of Aci-Trezza go ashore to unload the morning’s catch and sell it to wholesalers, who take most of the profit. The bustle and clamor make it seem as if a big-city stock exchange has been transported to a Mediterranean beach. There is no distinguishable dialogue, only a cacophony of shouting and haggling. The camera travels through it all in a single unbroken shot that lasts more than two minutes, a thrilling technical feat that manages to communicate an enormous amount of information about the political economy and social organization of Aci-Trezza. There are clear divisions of class, generation and status, but because of the absence of cuts, we see coherence within chaos. There is injustice here, but also a kind of stability.

In defiance of custom, ‘Ntoni tries to eliminate the middlemen, mortgaging his family’s house to buy a bigger boat. His rebellion, though ultimately futile, disrupts the old order and fully exposes its cruelty. His defeat is confirmed in another scene on the same beach, a ceremonial blessing of the fleet that brings out the whole town. This time, as the speeches of local authorities proclaim unity and harmony, the editing splinters the action into a series of discrete, disjunctive shots. People who had previously been joined in argument are now isolated from one another, alienated, at odds.

The relationship between the two moments is dialectical: The aural noise and visual integrity of the first scene are reversed in the second. An exploitative system held together by custom is now maintained by fraud and force. Justice lies over the horizon, and things may have to get worse before they get better.

“Rocco and His Brothers,” Visconti’s second masterpiece (and his contribution to the Italian cinematic miracle of 1960, the year of “La Dolce Vita” and “L’Avventura”), ends with a similar gesture. Again, a family trying to improve its lot has suffered devastating defeat. Rocco Parondi and his brothers, who migrated to Milan with their widowed mother, endure the fracturing of their familial bonds and the crumbling of their traditions. But their loss, like Prince Fabrizio’s and King Ludwig’s, is a toll paid on the road toward the future. The faith in that future might now count as an object of nostalgia in its own right, and it’s hard to deny that Visconti offers 21st-century audiences a banquet of voluptuously old-fashioned delights. The longing in some of these movies can transmute into a wistful regard for the world they come from. In that world, Marcello Mastroianni could be cast as the feckless protagonist of the Dostoyevsky adaptation “White Nights” in 1957 and then, 10 years later, as the existential anti-hero of “The Stranger,” based on the Camus novel. Dirk Bogarde could sit on the beach contemplating the passage of time and the torso of a young tourist in “Death in Venice.” The world could fall apart, slowly and beautifully. Decadence is not what it used to be.