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Senso, the fourth feature by aristocrat turned filmmaker Luchino Visconti, was his color debut and the first of his films to leave the neorealist worlds of the impoverished and struggling poor for the elevated lives of the rich and privileged, a world he knew firsthand. This operatic, painstaking composed and choreographed cinema of elegance and decadence, set against the panorama of history and political upheaval, is what Visconti is most celebrated for, and it began with this lush melodrama.

The film opens in La Fenice, the magnificent Venice opera house, during a production of Verdi's "Il Travatore," and as the aria ends with a climactic call to arms, the upper balconies explode with their own call to arms with a hurricane of three-color leaflets (red, green and white, the colors of the Italian flag) and bouquets showered upon the soldiers on the floor. The sequence is a visual symphony conducted masterfully by Visconti: art and life mirrored in the dramas on- and off-stage, political action battling social decorum and conformism for dominance in a communal hub where everything is a matter of etiquette and codes of behavior, the occupying army an island of Teutonic white uniforms in the center of Italian color and culture.

Alida Valli (of The Third Man fame) plays the married Countess Livia Serpieri, a proud Venetian in 19th century occupied Venice on the verge of revolution, and American Farley Granger (recently of Hitchock's Strangers on a Train) is Austrian officer Franz Mahler, a ladies man of a lieutenant in a crisp white uniform. They are enemies by definition--Livia supports the revolutionaries while Franz is a member of the occupying forces--brought together when Livia invites him to share her loge so she can beg him to call off a duel with her passionate cousin, a leader in the brewing resistance. Walking along the canals at night, she falls in love, and Visconti offers us the glow of her flame in the light of the rising sun as she steps home in the dawn. As she falls helplessly, passionately in love with this handsome but mercenary officer, the country marches to revolution, but her dedication to the cause wilts under her desire and obsession.

Visconti maintains the tension between the personal and the national throughout. He frames her story with magnificent scenes of revolution and war staged on a vast scale and winds Livia's spiral through the pageant of history playing round her. Visconti's camera moves through these dense, richly-composed and vividly choreographed scenes with a grace and sensibility that tells the story of the war while making a grand action painting from the death and destruction.

Alida Valli and Farley Granger were not Visconti's first choices--the original script was written with Marlon Brando and Ingrid Bergman in mind, but Bergman turned it down and the producers reportedly turned down Brando for Granger--but they are effective in the leads. Valli tends toward the operatic expressions which would be overplayed in a realist film but seems right for a woman of impulse and emotion. At first glance Granger seems wrong for the role of an Austrian ladies man in uniform. Known mostly as a light lead, a tortured victim or a young, desperate naïf, Granger simply doesn't have Valli's presence or personality. But while he's hardly magnetic, he is handsome and tall and looks good in a uniform, with crisp military bearing and a way of appearing sincere as he woos and seduces. More importantly, Granger captures the arrogance and vanity of this shallow, cowardly cad of an officer who uses romance for his own pleasures and greed. (The Italian dubbing actor adds a little gravitas as well.)

A masterpiece of Visconti's career and a magnificent Technicolor production, this is also one of the most lavish restorations of a film classic ever. Funded by Martin Scorsese and the Film Foundation, it's a painstaking reconstruction of the original three-strip elements (which have all shrunk beyond repair for traditional photochemical reproduction) through digital means to preserve the filmic quality of the texture, the grain and the unique colors of this process. The image is mostly stunning, not showy but rich in subtle, quietly expressive colors (in the supplements, costume designer Piero Tosi describes the process as "like an oil painting instead of watercolor") and sharp enough to see all the way through his deep-focus shots. Only the opening and closing credits look soft, which is probably an issue inherent in the post-production process. The Italian soundtrack is in clean, clear mono.

The two-disc DVD and single disc Blu-ray editions are released at the same price point and both feature the same supplements. "The Wanton Countess" is the English language edition of the film, which is a half-hour shorter than the original cut (the entire first meeting between Livia and Franz, from the opera house loge to the walk along the canals, is completely chopped out) and features Farley Granger and Alida Valli performing their lines in English (though to be honest, that doesn't sound like Granger's voice to me) from a translation credited to Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles (thus their names on the credits of all versions of the film).

There are two original documentaries--the 33-minute "The Making of Senso," a largely first-person account of the production featuring new interviews with director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, assistant director Francesco Rosi, costume designer Piero Tosi and Caterina D'Amico (daughter of screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico and author of Life and Work of Luchino Visconti), and the 36-minute "Viva Verdi: Visconti and Opera," with Italian film scholar Peter Brunette, Italian historian Stefano Albertini and author Wayne Koestenbaum examining Visconti's love of and career directing opera (which, you could say, began with the opening scene of this film)--and a visual essay by film historian Peter Cowie. The 48-minute "Man of Three Worlds: Luchino Visconti" is a 1966 TV special made for the BBC in 1966, featuring interviews with Visconti as he prepares to stage a new opera. The accompanying booklet features an essay by filmmaker and author Mark Rappaport and an excerpt from actor Farley Granger's autobiography "Include Me Out" covering the production of the film.

For more information about Senso, visit Criterion Collection. To order Senso, go to TCM Shopping.

by Sean Axmaker