Respected Italian Director Luchino Visconti’s final motion picture, released in 1976, the same year as his death, is the polar opposite of his 1943 “Ossessione” (“Obsession”), a foundational film for the famed Italian Neorealism genre that burst forth after World War II. Instead of earthy underclasses, stolidly rendered in black and white, “L’Innocente” (“The Innocent”) wallows in the excesses of decadent aristocrats: there’s a surfeit of wealth, of hedonism, of moralizing, of color, and of (over) acting.
The theme of excess is due in part to the origin of the film, and therefore the setting; it’s based on an 1892 book by the dandy poet, Gabriele D’Annunzio, who had yet to become a World War I hero and then a Fascist. The opening scenes are dense with upper-class women in lavish red brocade gowns, lounging on settees during salon music performances, at the same time preening and gossiping about their friends’ sexual affairs.
A love triangle opens and dominates the story: aristocrat Tullio Hermil (a young, intense Giancarlo Giannini); his shy, petite wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli); and his dark, aggressive mistress, Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O’Neill). A morality play unfolds as an over-wrought Tullio anguishes over his love for the clever Teresa and tells Giuliana he loves her “like a sister,” attempting to enlist his wife’s help in controlling his passion for another woman.
Only when Giuliana attracts another man, the shadowy but moral poet Filippo d’Arborio (Marc Porel), does Tullio show an interest in her; à la Marcel Proust, he wants what he can’t have. Tullio articulates a hard-core atheism and insists he can’t be judged by heaven or any court on earth, as he—who has no job, no fixed abode, no relationships outside of his immediate family (he treats his servants as if they don’t exist)—lives only for himself.
“L’Innocente” is dated on every dimension: the source of the story, the setting, the moral codes and dilemmas it presents. Even the acting seems old-fashioned and over-the-top, shunning the “method” techniques of the postwar era for 19th-century melodrama. There are pleasures in the luscious look of this just-restored print, in its setting and excesses (the costume and set designers had a field day). But unless the setting is seen as ironized, as it was in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Favourite” (2018), Visconti’s film is out-of-touch with any modern reality—even the reality of 45 years ago.
Visconti’s film is out-of-touch with any modern reality—even the reality of 45 years ago.
D’Annunzio, a famously arrogant womanizer, may have been musing in his book on his own ethics and relationships. And in the film’s explorations of abortion and fidelity, Visconti may have found some resonance in 1970s Italy, a decade that saw the country’s divorce and abortion laws radically modernized.
There are awkward references to feminism at the beginning, when promiscuous Teresa proclaims she’s a free, liberated woman: “I won’t share a man with another woman, even his wife.” And in the final scene, when she tells Tullio that men pull women up with one hand and drag them down with the other, contemplating why men and women can’t walk hand-in-hand, side-by-side.
In a message arguably consistent with the sexual and gender climate of the 1970s, “L’Innocente” concludes that Tullio—and self-centered, narcissistic men like him—are doomed. If so, the path to that lesson is a tortuous one, strewn with the emotions and values of another century, the story complicated by its origin in the life of D’Annunzio, a man whose personal experiences and qualities had little to offer to the mid/late-20th century. Not Visconti’s best effort.
Available: Through independent movie house streaming services, including Film Forum and The North Park.
1976 (digital HD restoration 2020)
2.5 Stars (out of 4 stars)
Directed by: Luchino Visconti
Starring: Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli, Jennifer O’Neill, Marc Porel
Language: Italian; subtitled in English
Runtime: 112 minutes
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