Sunday, August 28, 2005

Life is Rife, But a Flicker is Quicker

Another trip to the dank and dismal Bleak House videotape cellar procured a VHS title of considerable interest. I am concerned that viewing too many good movies at once might raise my general estimation of the cinematic art all unconsciously, thus gently enticing me to give it thought, and thereby, ultimately, decaying my critical faculties to the level of gibbering enthusiasm affected by professed film fans. Then I'll just become another insatiable watcher of borrowed images who rises occasionally from his chair to shout "tour de force!" whenever something clever happens. Maybe I'm that already.

Senso (1954.) All right; this is a tour de force; so sue me. This truly magnificent film by Luchino Visconti seems to be all but unavailable. I've linked to the DVD version which, apart from being expensive and unplayable on most American devices, is evidently in Italian (the original language), and subtitled in Portuguese, of all things. The videotape I have, apparently from the mid-1980s, is from one of those foreign film series called The Higher Snob or something similar. It is wobbly and crackly but quite watchable, and is considerately subtitled in English -- not real English as it is spoken, of course, but English as it is used by subtitlers of the "I must die from the exhaustions of three labors, though the date be unrisen" variety. So one must watch it twice: once in order to get the gist of what's going on, which fortunately is fairly straightforward, and once to ignore the subtitles.

Mr. Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, thinks Visconti superficial, two-dimensional, concerned only with sweep and spectacle at the expense of the intricacies of society and the human psyche. He may think as he wishes; film does not convey complexities well (at least not in a discursive manner), although graduate school education may. Senso is operatic, in several senses, including the near-but-not-exactly literal. It's a fairy tale in which all of the gestures are as large as their consequences. It has no interest in psychology; it has no interest in society. It is about great motions of the human heart, set against the great movements of history.

Alida Valli (the woman of The Third Man) is ravishing and heartbreaking as a noblewoman who abandons everything for love -- and is herself abandoned. Those who know Valli only from her roles as a wicked harridan or psychotic schoolmistress, often clomping about in heavy shoes and alternately cackling and quietly raging, in 1970s Italian giallo thrillers, will barely recognize her here. The true surprise is Farley Granger, whom I had always thought of as a pleasant lead nonentity in American movies, who surprises with some quite subtle and effective acting as the dashing young Prussian officer who is in the end but a seducer, a coward, and a cad. But Granger brings to his performance a sense that he might almost wish to live up to the countess's romantic expectations, but cannot quite forgive her for having them, or himself for being innately unworthy of them.

The third character is the music by Bruckner -- which proves what I've long held, that he's better at riding the waves than he is in water-treading, and most of the tiresome musical water-treading is excised here -- to good effect.

This movie cannot be recommended too highly. (Well, yes, it can, but that's just something critics like to say when they've run through their store of adjectives.) I hope it will be available sometime soon -- even if as an overpriced, overmethodical Criterion Collection reissue. For anyone who can't find a rental copy, Visconti's great masterwork, The Leopard, from Lampedusca's sublime novel, is available from Criterion, and is a fine substitute.