Luchino Visconti | Subjects
| Visual Style
Films: Siamo donne / We, the Women | Senso
| White Nights
| The Damned | Death in Venice
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Luchino Visconti was an Italian film and stage director, noted for his artistic gifts.
Luchino Visconti: Subjects
Some common subjects in the films of Luchino Visconti:
- Ordinary people arriving at a city at night, to start film (White Nights, Rocco and His Brothers)
- Motorcyclists (White Nights, Rocco and His Brothers)
- Men obsessed with women in love with another man (White Nights, L'innocente)
- Class structure prominent (La Terra Trema, Rocco and His Brothers,
The Leopard, The Damned)
- Corrupt alliances of powerful groups (aristocrats and bourgeoisie: The Leopard,
industrialists and Nazis: The Damned)
- Marriages that advance sinister goals (marriage aligning aristocrats and bourgeoisie: The Leopard,
Nazi marriage celebrating racism and eugenics: The Damned)
- Characters who entertain with a song (heroine: Siamo donne, Berger: The Damned,
singer at Princess' soiree: L'innocente)
- Elaborate social dances at finale, in big rooms (White Nights, ball: The Leopard) Musical theater finale (Siamo donne)
- Opera (opera house: Senso, Rossini: White Nights)
Luchino Visconti: Visual Style
- Buildings with multi-story courtyards or central areas (police station: Siamo donne,
opera house: Senso, apartment courtyard: Rocco and His Brothers,
hall with mezzanine: The Damned)
- People in boxes or galleries at the opera or musical theater (Siamo donne, Senso, White Nights)
- Ancient, big rooms (room with rugs: White Nights, vacant apartments in the palace: The Leopard)
Costumes and Color:
- Green, red and white color schemes (opening protest: Senso)
- Green and white color schemes (opening: L'innocente)
- Green and red color schemes (concert: L'innocente)
- Men in groups of identical uniforms (sailors, police: Siamo donne,
Austrians in white, hussars in light blue, opera chorus in brown: Senso,
red Garibaldi, blue Government: The Leopard, waiters in white, waiters in blue, Nazi SS, SA: The Damned,
Siamo donne / We, the Women
Siamo donne (We, the Women) (1953) is a series of episodes
of a comedy film, each made with a different star and director. Visconti
directed the episode with Anna Magnani.
Visconti's episode is a sort of Utopian fantasy. It shows Magnani, playing herself,
wandering around Rome. Everywhere she goes, she spreads a bit of fun. The film
is a fantasy about being a diva, and what that might mean in terms of comic joy.
The brief film has a structure a bit like The Leopard:
- The first part of both films takes us to locations all over. In Siamo donne,
this is Magnani's taxi cab ride around Rome.
- The second part of both films is a bravura musical sequence. In Siamo donne,
Magnani sings a song on stage at a theater.
The police building has a huge, multi-story courtyard in its center. Other
Visconti films will involve such interior, multi-story areas.
We also see people in boxes at the theater, another Visconti favorite image.
This also involves a well-like, multi-story interior.
Everywhere Magnani goes, she meets crowds of young men in uniform: sailors,
policemen. They all smile, and have a brief holiday, showing her courtesy.
The film anticipates the interest Visconti will show in uniforms in The Leopard and The Damned.
But, unlike these later films, these are innocent, modern day Italian young men. None is associated
in any way with an oppressive regime, or any sort of sinister political program.
They are just young guys, getting a welcome break from their serious routine,
by meeting a movie star.
As usual in Visconti, the men are in groups of identical uniforms. Early on,
we see groups of sailors, all in the same uniform. Later at the police station,
there are large numbers of identically uniformed police. Such men in repeating clothes
form building blocks of Visconti's compositions.
Senso (1954) is a romantic drama. Like The Leopard,
it is a historical drama set against key events in Italian history.
The Opening: Color
The opening of Senso is one of the major set pieces in Visconti.
Ar first the colors are mainly neutral: an opera chorus in brown, officers in white uniforms,
civilian men in black-and-white white tie and tails. The opera house is spectacular in gold:
brilliant, but more a metallic tone than an actual color.
Then the display erupts, in the colors of the Italian flag: green, red and white.
First we see flowers, those softest of all objects, hurled by a woman in defiance against a soldier.
This contrasts softness with militarism. Then hundreds of paper manifestos in the same colors are rained.
This is the first real color. Color seems part of a social protest.
Later, we see a woman in the opera house lobby looking at a announcement of the opera Il Trovatore
on the wall. She is in a green dress, and soon we see another woman in a pale red gown.
The colors of the clothes echo the colors of the protest.
Visconti once again builds up images from groups of men in identical uniforms.
The opera is full of enemy Austrian officers in white uniforms. The uniforms are largely identical,
although some have red collars and some yellow.
Later, we see a smaller number of men at the opera in light blue hussars uniforms.
The contrast of white and blue anticipates the two colors of waiters' uniforms in
The Damned. White and light blue are hardly the most macho of colors,
and the pretty, light weight styling of the uniforms further undermines their wearers' gravitas.
Protest and Non-Violence
The opening is one of the most powerful depictions of a protest in film history.
The protest itself is non-violent. But what it is calling for is war.
This means that the event is hardly a pure expression of non-violence as a philosophy.
White Nights (1957) anticipates features of later Visconti
There are links to The Leopard:
White Nights also anticipates Rocco and His Brothers
- The large room with the rugs anticipates the trip through
the vacant apartments in the palace in The Leopard. Both
are huge, wide rooms with light colored walls, that seem ancient
and a relic of the past. Both are the settings of romantic encounters.
- White Nights climaxes with a lengthy dance sequence,
like the ball in The Leopard to come. Both involve crowds
or single couples dancing in a large cleared area inside a big
room crowded with people along its margins. Both films involve
complex dance moves, that Visconti enjoys filming for their own
sake, as the moves help create elaborate visual patterns on screen.
The visit to the opera in White Nights recalls on a more
modest scale, the opening of Senso. Both have the characters
in a crowded box or gallery, on the wall of the opera theater.
- Both films open with a group of ordinary people arriving
in a big city at night. (In White Nights, they have just been out for
a day's excursion; in Rocco and His Brothers, they are arriving
in the city for the first time.)
- Both films deal with young, ordinary men who get jobs in the big city.
- The hero's involvement with his
landlady, having her press and clean his clothes, looks forward
to the dry cleaning establishment run by women in the later film.
- Both films have characters riding motorcycles. White Nights
is much gentler than Rocco and His Brothers. While street
punks in the latter film are horrifying violent, here they merely
add some contemporary color. Visconti, like millions of regular
people in this era, felt that rock and roll added some bad boy
glamour and excitement to life.
The Damned (1969) opens with a family celebration among
the Essenbecks, a wealthy German family of industrialists. The
celebration reminds one of the aristocratic Italian family in
The Leopard. Just as the aristocratic family centered around
its patriarch, the Prince, so is this celebration the birthday
of the Essenbeck family's patriarch, the elderly Baron Joachim.
The wealthy characters seem infinitely powerful, and totally entrenched
in the social order. But this is not so. While the characters
and their political and social power seemed eternal in The
Leopard, we are in a startlingly different situation with
the Nazis in The Damned. This party will be the last expression
of capitalist "normalcy" for the characters. Their whole
world will immediately collapse, due to the destructiveness of
the Nazi regime.
The Hall: Multi-Story Architecture
Many of the opening shots are staged in an indoor hall that is
two stories high. Around the upper floor is a mezzanine, that
extends around the edges of the hall. The camera frequently looks
down from this balcony, into the deep well down to the hall below.
The staging is similar to the courtyard at the end of Rocco
and His Brothers, which looks at multiple levels of balconies
within the apartment building courtyard. And to the opera sequence
that opens Senso, which is set across a series of opera
boxes ringed at various levels around the theater. In both of
these early films, the staging is on three or more levels, but
here the hall has only two stories.
Colors are often repeated within a shot. Huge sections of walls
will all be the same color wood, while other sections with be
all white, for example. Or furniture pieces will be multiple instances
of a matched set, all in identical colors. Floral decorations
at the table will be repeated versions of the same shade of pink.
Groups of characters will share identical clothes. The two little
girls are in identical, light blue dresses. The attendants include
a group of young men all in blue uniforms. A second group are
all in white uniforms.
What this means is that most shots are
made up of a series of regions and figures, which are made out
of two to four colors, that repeat themselves throughout the image.
Each figure or piece of furniture or wall section has its own
geometric shape. But it is also matched to a whole series of other
shapes or regions, that are also in identical colors, spread across
the image. The figure or shape is not all by itself; it is part
of a larger series of shapes that function as a visual group.
A frame might have a series of shapes in blue, a second series
in white, a third in reddish-pink. The three series will all interlock
on screen, each color series with its own visual rhythm, spread
out across the image. The eye sees the whole color series at once,
as part of a pattern stretched across the frame. This can be quite
different from the compositions of other filmmakers, in which
each region onscreen has its own color, and functions as a shape
all by itself in the overall composition.
Visconti tends to keep his different regions with the same color
firmly separate from each other. If we see a series of waiters
in blue, each will be in a different section of the shot, isolated
from each other. Each waiter will be clearly marked out, forming
a distinct, individual shape within the image. The same is true
of identically colored furniture pieces, or wall sections. The
eye sees each as a well-formed, geometrically distinct region.
All of these separate shapes then form a color series spreading
out across the screen.
Characters and Class Imagery
When first seen, Aschenbach (Helmut Griem) is in a gray suit,
while Frederick Bruckman (Dirk Bogarde) is in brown. Visconti
uses the same color symbolism here that will later be part of
men's fashion in the 1975-1995 era, with gray symbolizing business
success, and brown being a color indicating subservience and lower
status. Aschenbach will always wear the most business-like clothes
in the movie. He will always be dressed to indicate his success,
competency and confidence within the world of the story. Here,
nothing could look more official or business-like than his sharp
gray suit and matching gray tie. He stops to adjust his perfectly
tied tie in the mirror, further underscoring how perfectly he
is groomed. The other male family members in the opening are in
tuxedos. Only Aschenbach and Frederick Bruckman are in suits,
and only Aschenbach's indicates business success. This immediately
characterizes Aschenbach within the world of the film.
Although Konstantin is a member of this same powerful industrial
family, Visconti associates him with working class imagery and
style. He talks constantly about the factory, and berates other
family members for being too snooty to want to enter it. The actor
portraying him is a big roughneck, who reminds one of such working
class icons as William Bendix in The Life of Riley, or
Ernest Borgnine in Marty. We first see Konstantin in his
bath, without clothes that might indicate any sort of upper class
status. Instead he is talking with a working class servant. This
anticipates Konstantin's later involvement in the SA, a group
of violent lower class thugs who enabled Hitler's rise to power.
The bathtub conversation with the servant, who rubs his back,
also foreshadows the gay orgy that the SA will stage later on.
This orgy will be friendly, abandoned, without any sort of cruel
imagery, vulgar, and strongly working class in feel, just like
the bathtub scene.
Sexuality as a Destructive force
Visconti often depicted sexuality as a destructive force. This
is true of both gay and heterosexual sex. This too is the exact
opposite of what any theory of the Male Gaze would suggest. Visconti
had a double vision: his films ferociously depict sexuality, so
that every viewer, gay or straight, gets a tidal wave like understanding
of the sexual feelings the characters are experiencing. AND he
shows the destructive political or social consequences of this
sexuality. It is not a simple vision, and one hard to keep in
Similarly, Visconti inverts millennia of dramatic traditions, with
the climatic marriages in his films. While such marriage is traditionally
seen as a happy ending, in Visconti marriage can be an expression
of evil. In The Leopard, the marriage cements the unholy
alliance of the aristocrats and the upper middle classes against
the poor. And the engagement party is intercut with the mass murder
of the Garibaldians, and seen as its cause. In The Damned,
the marriage is conducted as a Nazi ceremony. It centers entirely
on Nazi racism and eugenics, the two most evil aspects of the
Nazi regime, and a forecast of the Holocaust.
Both male and female characters in Visconti are overwhelmed by
the sexual attractiveness of men in uniform. The
uniforms worn by Delon in The Leopard and Aschenbach in
The Damned seem to have a hypnotic effect on everyone around
them, an almost irresistible sexual force. Yet the uniforms are
also symbols of right wing social corruption, something the left
wing Visconti viewed with abhorrence. When Delon and his friend
abandon the Garibaldians for the established government, and put
on their blue uniforms, it is the beginning of their embrace of
a corrupt social order, one that will keep Sicily in poverty for
another hundred years. And Aschenbach's SS uniform in The
Damned represents everything evil about the Nazi regime. (The
name Aschenbach anticipates Death in Venice.)
Aschenbach is the smooth-talking, manipulative SS man who seduces
everyone in the film. He uses his uniform as part of this seduction.
It has a powerful effect on Sophie (Ingrid Thulin), getting her
to support the Nazis. Later he tries to persuade both the liberal
Gunther and the psycho Martin to join the SS. Both listen to him
spellbound. We never learn the effect on Gunther (did he join
up? flee the country?) but we soon see Martin in an SS uniform
too, for the film's final scene. Aschenbach uses his uniform on
Frederick (Dirk Bogarde), too, but Aschenbach has more effect
with his spiffy gray business suit at the beginning - it represents
the business success that Frederick would like to have.
Similarly, the scene where Delon and his friend show up in government
blue uniforms is the moment of their political corruption in The
Leopard. Both are quite intoxicated with the sexual effect
they are having on everyone at the party.
Visconti sees both sides of all this. He presents the uniforms
as sexually irresistible. And also shows their connection to
sinister government regimes.
One has to add that there is a "good" uniform in The
Leopard, too - the red Garibaldi one. But still, Visconti
has quite a lot to say about uniforms as combining both sexual
appeal, and the exploitation of such appeal by right wing governments.
It is a major theme running through both films.
Death in Venice
Death in Venice views its protagonist's sexual obsession
with an underage boy with horror. In The Damned, Visconti
showed what happen when a pedophile obsessed with little girls
acts on his desires. It is a nightmarish descent into hell. It
inflicts incalculable harm on the man's victim. The director seems
no more endorsing of male pedophilia in Death in Venice.
The composer protagonist suppresses and refuses to act on his
feelings, which earns him far more sympathy from the director
than the character in The Damned. And Visconti also shows
that the man is not responsible for his feelings, which he cannot
control - only for his actions, which he can. But the director
does severely criticize the composer for not informing the family
about the cholera epidemic. This shows obsession trumping moral
This is part of what is problematic about the concept of "the
Male Gaze". It suggests that filmmakers simply take their
sexual obsessions, play them out on-screen, and expect the audience
to feel the same. There is no suggestion that a director's attitude
towards sexuality might be complex, or than the director might
be creating complex characters, rather than simple sex objects,
or exploring sexuality other than his own. Writings on Hitchcock's
Vertigo often rightly describe Scotty's romantic obsessions
in that film as "creepy", destructive, and condemned
by the director. Similarly, a gay director such as Visconti might
have similar negative feelings about something he is showing on-screen.
I am not an expert on Visconti's sexual life or personal sexual
behavior. But some arithmetic shows that Alain Delon was 25 when
he entered the world of Visconti's films, and Helmut Berger 22.
These well-documented romantic obsessions of the director suggest
he was attracted to good-looking men in their 20's. This seems
far removed from the world of Tadzio.
L'innocente (1976) is Visconti's last film.
The opening scene is another Visconti look at
men in identical uniforms. In L'innocente,
these are fencer's outfits, rather than military uniforms.
The opening is in green and white, with the white uniforms
standing out against the white background. It is an almost
ghostly color scheme. The opening shot shows equally white
light fixtures above the room. These anticipate the white uniforms,
in a sort of visual pun. The fixtures too are multiple
The concert is in red-and-green, with much gold ornamentation.
It is intense, the film's richest color scene.