Luchino Visconti, Senso, 1954, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Countess Livia Serpieri and Laura (Alida Valli and Rina Morelli). Right: Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli)

IT’S THE CONCEIT of historical melodramas that their characters’ passions overshadow the earth-shattering events going on around them. Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), set during the Risorgimento and the foreign occupation of Venice, willfully confounds love and war, with each having consequences for the other. Over the course of the film, the countess Serpieri’s amour fou for Austrian officer Franz Mahler will drive her to betray a movement (and her own family, given that the nationalist revolution is run by her cousin) and, fatally, the very object of her obsession. In Visconti’s framing, current events are cropped to spotlight a battle lost by the nationalists rather than the key victories on record, as if reflecting the turmoil of the relationship.

The filmmaker’s first color feature and post-Neorealist salvo is fueled by the tension between foreground and background, from the opening scene in which a performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore is first a backdrop for Serpieri and Mahler’s meeting, and then disrupted by nationalist pamphleteers. The man who made La terra trema (1948) with fisherfolk and grubby locations here directs two stars (Alida Valli and American import Farley Granger) in opulent settings and re-creations (La Fenice opera house, the Serpieris’ Aldeno villa amid painterly countryside). The resulting chronicle—touching on events in which Communist aristocrat Visconti’s own ancestors must have participated—was hotly debated in the journal Cinema nuovo by the likes of André Bazin, Vittorio Taviani, and Italo Calvino.

It’s the flame trail of all-consuming passion that inspires devotion among admirers of Senso’s Technicolor ardors (even if Granger, as a fresh-faced scoundrel, never seems entirely up to the cruelties he is asked to inflict on Valli’s veiled, cowering Serpieri). But in the film’s climactic long shot, which depicts Serpieri’s cowardly revenge on her venomously resentful lover, a chill falls that feels at once like a lover departing and like history moving on.

Nicolas Rapold

Senso is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.