“Senso:” the title of Camillo Boito’s 1882 novella evokes the senses, primal feelings that are more immediate than reason. A stunning work of decadent fiction, “Senso” is the story of Livia, a 22-year-old countess married to a much older man who recounts her obsession with her “strong, handsome, degenerate, reprobate” lover, the soldier Romigio. I have a soft spot for horrible leading characters, and Livia is truly dreadful: she’s vain, impulsive, and vengeful with a complete disregard for anyone by herself. The very name “Livia” evokes the deified wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, known as an idealized, queenly matriarch, but this Livia is called “Messalina” by her lover, linking her more closely to the wife of Emperor Claudius who was rumored to be wildly promiscuous. Romigio proves himself to be precisely the kind of scoundrel he’s always presented himself to be, wheedling lavish gifts from Livia, who delights in stealing her husband’s money for her roguish, beautiful side piece. Things turn sour when Livia discovers that—in addition to his gambling, drinking, and excesses—Romigio also keeps other lovers, she finds a final way to squeeze pleasure out of her relationship with him: ratting him out as a deserter and watching his execution. A story of lust, extreme selfishness, and power against the backdrop of war, “Senso” begs to be adapted for the screen.
Luchino Visconti’s 1954 version of “Senso” is a lavish period piece set, like Boito’s novella, in Italy during the 1860s at a time of escalating tension with Austria. Livia (Alida Valli) is married to an aristocrat with ties to Austria, but Visconti adds a “competing loyalties” storyline with the new character of Livia’s cousin, the leader of an Italian rebellion against the Austrian occupiers. Visconti’s Livia is not the arrogant young woman depicted by Boito; instead she an aging beauty plagued by anxieties who is swept away by the dashing Lieutenant Franz Mahler (the renamed Romogio, played by Farley Granger who used the time in between filming to carry on an affair with Jean Marais). It’s clear that Franz is bad news, but Livia convinces herself he loves only her, in spite of his known reputation as a drunk and a womanizer. Rather than being a headstrong femme fatale—the Satanic Female so favored by the decadent movement—Visconti’s Livia is a tragic figure and this is the story of her downfall.
Key moments of sensuality populate the novella: Livia examines bruises on her body, her first tryst with Romigio takes place while swimming nude in a public bath, and there are references to her body being “crushed” and “bitten” during sex. Visconti transforms this physical sensuality into a purely visual beauty. Bruised, bitten shoulders are replaced by sumptuous layers of silk gowns and crushing sex becomes smoldering eye contact of the kind Visconti films so adeptly. It’s a breathlessness not of exertion and exhaustion, but of constraint. This Livia doesn’t pant from her unrestrainable sexual urges, but is unable to breathe due to tight bodices and heavy gowns.
Toxic intimacy gives way to sweeping battlefield sequences, shifting focus from Livia and Franz to the greater impact of war on the country. Livia’s obsession feels trivial when contrasted with images of wounded soldiers and chaotic fighting. Livia isn’t so much driven by desire, as she is hysterical. In fact, her neglect of duties to her countrymen is made explicit when she gives money earmarked for her cousin’s resistance efforts to her lover so he can avoid active duty. The consequences of her choice are made terribly obvious when the Austrian army defeats the Italian partisans.
In a final departure from Boito, Visconti constructs a confrontation between Livia and her cheating lover that doesn’t exist for Boito. It is enough for Boito’s Livia to witness Romigio’s unfaithfulness without being seen, but Visconti depicts a heartrending scene in which Franz, caught in the arms of a prostitute and bragging about taking Livia’s money, rants his explanation at Livia, maddening her with grief and regret. This Livia musters the last of her dignity to turn him in, instead of ruthlessly informing on him and taking pleasure in his death.
Visconti’s film is a breathtaking one in its beauty, if not due to the dark sensuality evoked by Boito. To watch one of the director’s period pieces is to be put into an idealized, luxurious vision of the aristocratic past, where rooms are decorated in museum-worthy furnishings, every uniform is crisp and spotless, and one can hear the rustle of crinolines in the gowns worn by the women. While Visconti’s “Senso” leaves a lot to be desired in terms of decadence, it’s a stunner of a melodrama.
The view of Visconti’s “Senso” as a none-too-authentic adaptation Boito’s novella was one held by the director himself (who at one point wanted to rename the project entirely) as well as by Tinto Brass. Brass has mastered bringing the decadent aesthetic to the screen: plush, beautiful, immersive, horrific, and explicitly sexual, Brass fills his films with images designed to provoke a reaction. If decadence is defined as the rejection of realism in favor of artifice, then movies like “Caligula” and “Salon Kitty”—rooted in history but not terribly mindful of depicting it accurately—were cast in the decadent mold.
Tinto Brass’ 2002 “Senso ‘45” (aka ”Black Angel”) is the director’s attempt to connect the “Sensos” of Boito and Visconti, taking the latter’s adaptation and reworking many of the threads missing from the former’s novella. Revisiting the operatic fascism of “Salon Kitty,” though this time in the declining days of the German occupation of Italy, Brass recasts Livia (Anna Galiena) as the wife of an Italian fascist official and Romigio as SS Lieutenant Helmut Schultz (Gabriel Garko, sporting a regrettable bleach-blonde hairstyle).
The older woman/younger man dynamic of Visconti is present in “Senso ’45.” It’s noteworthy that the age shift on the part of the woman makes her a sympathetic figure—for a woman to begin to lose the beauty traditionally associated with youth is seen as tragic, but to depict a young woman in full realization of the power of this same beauty makes her demonic and threatening. To have the demonic female in a relationship with the demonic male (made explicitly demonic in Brass by his Nazi affiliation) creates an ambiguous balance of power and one that’s arguably closer to Boito’s original intent.
What Brass does bring to the forefront from Boito is the emphasis on sexual passion. The bodies so carefully disguised in meticulous period costuming in Visconti are on full display here—Brass’ no-less-gorgeous costumes are designed to be stripped from the players in moments of animal passion, with all the “crushing” and “biting” described by Boito. “Senso ‘45” is an extremely dark and cynical romance, with Livia frequently put into situations that force her to “overcome” some kind of inhibition (in contrast to the fully-realized sexuality of Boito’s protagonist). Of course, this being a Tinto Brass movie, we get a first row seat to Livia indulging in oral sex, group sex, public sex, anal sex, and transforming herself into a sexually awakened being as a result. There’s even a tonally bizarre scene—likely included to show us her point of view—where Livia and her SS boy-toy frolic at the seashore in a moment that feel like it would be at home in “The Blue Lagoon.”
Where Boito’s Livia is responding to her true nature and acting on her impulses, Brass’ Livia finds herself guided down a path of decadence. A character invented by Brass is Elsa, the procuress who ushers Livia into her first sexual encounter with Helmut and later is shown running a bordello and gambling den.
It’s noteworthy that, unlike the vast majority of Italian Nazi epics, “Senso ‘45” is set in and explicitly features images of Italian fascism. The streets of Venice are plastered with huge images of Mussolini and rifle-toting black-shirted troops roam the streets. While the movie never shows the front, the realities of war are present with blackouts and air raids a constant reminder that the social order is collapsing (or being returned to its proper alignment, with the ever-advancing Allies). World War II atrocities are evoked when Livia and Helmut witness the shooting of an unarmed woman in the streets. This does little to dampen their ardor, however, as they’re shown in their love nest apartment moments later.
The degree to which Helmut has exploited Livia is revealed when she discovers him spending the money she’d given him to save him from the front alongside a prostitute. The cruelty of the confrontation is emphasized here, with Helmut pointing out Livia’s age and laughing at her conviction that he loved her. What’s devastating to Livia has been obvious to the audience from the moment Helmut’s black-uniformed figure appeared on screen: he’s a vicious, amoral degenerate without a care for any other human being. The eroticism of Livia’s revenge on Helmut is emphasized in Brass, but a feeling of justification detracts from the shock at her final act of vindictiveness. Helmut/Romigio was not her equal in degeneracy, as is implied in Boito, but rather a far more horrible creature whose seductive power overwhelmed the already morally ambivalent politician’s wife.
This shift of power away from Livia as the stunning young noblewoman of Boito that transforms her into the elegant neurotic of Visconti and the late-blooming hothouse flower of Brass is an interesting choice. It’s almost as if the directors find it impossible to think the audience would be able to watch a movie focused on the demonic woman of decadent literature. Do they see her as a misogynist relic of a time past? Do they simply feel the viewer requires a sympathetic woman at the center of their stories in order to “sell” a narrative that hinges on revenge, rather than on Boito’s carnal death drive climax? Is it possible that, in recasting Livia as the “woman scorned” they’ve missed a key part of the power at the heart of the source novella?