Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Neil Sinyard talks about Luchio Visconti (director of The Leopard)

The Leopard plays at the IFI until this Thursday. Catch it before it goes. Watch the trailer or read The Irish Times' 5 star review.

Of the great Italian directors who emerged in the 1940s and early 1950s on the wave of the neo-realist movement (like Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni), the most emotive, extravagant and richly ambiguous was Luchino Visconti. He was a strange mixture of extremes. An aristocrat by birth, he became a Marxist by conviction. He made realist classics such as ‘Ossessione’(‘Obsession’, 1942) and ‘La terra trema’(‘The Earth Trembles’, 1948), but then graduated to vast historical frescoes like ‘Senso’ (1954) and ‘The Leopard’ (1963) or epics of decadence like ‘The Damned’ (1969). An immensely cultured man, his films were aimed at the connoisseur, yet he loved working with stars, cherishing them, in Parker Tyler’s phrase, “as if they were plants, revitalising their soil, framing them in the environment where they will grow, and show, at their very best.”

As ‘The Leopard’ and ‘Death in Venice’ (1971) demonstrate, nobody recreated the past more sumptuously on screen. Thomas Mann had a phrase for the kind of atmosphere at which Visconti excelled—“the voluptuousness of doom.” Both films luxuriously anatomise cultured societies in their death throes, sinking under the strain of spiritual corruption and historical change.

Visconti died in 1976. Dirk Bogarde, who worked with him twice, called him “the Emperor of my profession.” Think of the best work of, say, Francis Ford Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorsese and you will grasp the extraordinary legacy this maestro bequeathed to modern cinema: grandeur of conception, Italianate generosity of feeling, and an interaction of music and drama, history and politics, character and society as intellectually provocative as it is visually breathtaking.

Neil Sinyard
© Neil Sinyard and the Irish Film Institute

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