Visconti, Luchino

   Screenwriter and director of opera, theater, and film. Acknowledged as one of the foremost directors of the Italian cinema, Visconti was born into a rich and noble family that traced its ancestry to the rulers of Milan during the Renaissance period. The family had always had an extremely close association with the Teatro alla Scala and Visconti's most passionate interests in his youth were music, opera, literature, and theater. After studying in the finest private schools in northern Italy, he joined the Royal Cavalry Regiment and was quickly promoted to the rank of officer. On his release from military service, having become an excellent rider and a passionate horse lover, he established himself successfully as a trainer and breeder of racehorses.
   In the early 1930s, during frequent stays in Paris, he became closely acquainted with many of the leading French artists and intellectuals and through his friendship with Coco Chanel was introduced to French director Jean Renoir. With cinema now added to his passionate interests, Visconti began working with Renoir, initially as an uncredited properties master on Toni (1935) and then hired officially as costume designer and third assistant director on Une partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936). The experience of working with Renoir in France not only introduced Visconti to filmmaking but also left him deeply and permanently influenced by Renoir's left-wing politics and by the ideology of the Popular Front.
   After extensive travels in Europe and America, Visconti returned to Italy and in 1939 moved to Rome, where Renoir and his assistant, Carl Koch, had arrived to direct a version of Tosca at the Scalera studios. Given their earlier experience and the friendship that had developed between them, Renoir invited Visconti to collaborate on the screenplay and to serve as second assistant director for the film. When the outbreak of the war forced Renoir to abandon Italy, Visconti helped Koch to complete the film, although the relative contribution of each to the final product has always remained unclear. During this time he also met, and became part of, a group of militant young critics writing for the prestigious film journal Cinema that included Giuseppe De Santis, Mario Alicata, and Gianni Puccini. It was with this group that Visconti would produce his first film, an adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice that, beginning as Palude (Swamp), eventually became Ossessione (Obsession, 1943).
   A steamy noir narrative in which a handsome drifter helps a beautiful woman to murder her older husband, effectively transposed from heartland America to northern Italy, Ossessione was stunningly innovative in both content and style and unlike anything previously produced in Italian cinema. The film was warmly acclaimed when first screened to an invited audience in 1943, but its morally questionable content and its powerful realism provoked a generally hostile reaction from conservative authorities in many places where it was subsequently shown. Consequently, the film, later acknowledged as a milestone in the history of Italian cinema, was not seen again in Italy until after the war. Meanwhile, as the war itself intensified, Visconti took an ever more active part in the Resistance movement. In April 1944 he was arrested and imprisoned, and was released only with the arrival of the Allied forces. Immediately following the war Visconti collaborated with Mario Serandrei and others on the making of Giorni di Gloria (Days of Glory, 1945), a documentary on the Resistance financed by the National Partisan Association, before devoting himself almost exclusively to the theater, soon becoming renowned for his superb productions of contemporary plays, among them Jean Cocteau's Les parents terribles and Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. A documentary about Sicilian fishermen commissioned by the Italian Communist Party expanded greatly to become Visconti's second feature film, La terra trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948). Based on Giovanni Verga's 19th-century novel, I Malavoglia, the three-hour film was largely improvised on location in the Sicilian fishing village of Aci Trezza, using as actors only the local people, who spoke in their own dialect. Although the film thus thoroughly exemplified what by now had become established as the major tenets of neorealism, it was received very poorly, in part because its all-too-genuine dialect was largely incomprehensible to non-Sicilians. A subsequent version dubbed into standard Italian fared little better at the box office. A disappointed Visconti returned to the theater and for the next decade and a half continued to divide his energies between the stage and the screen.
   After more theatrical triumphs, which included a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It designed by Salvador Dall, Visconti returned to the cinema with Bellissima (1951), the story of a Roman working-class mother obsessively trying to get her young daughter into the movies. By contrast with Visconti's previous film, Bellissima was warmly received and earned Anna Magnani, as the misguided mother, her fourth Nastro d'argento. Theater and screen began to come closer together in Visconti's next film, Senso (The Wanton Countess, 1954), an operatic melodrama that attracted much praise for its sumptuous elegance and pictorial style but which was also criticized for what appeared to some to be a negative portrayal of the Risorgimento. A more modest film, Le notti bianche (White Nights, 1957), adapted from a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was better received and awarded the Silver Lion at the Venice Festival. With Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960) Visconti returned to his neorealist roots to recount the tragic story of a southern Italian family disintegrating when transplanted into a northern city. Fiercely attacked for what conservatives saw as its left-wing political leanings and censored for some of its graphic violence, the film was nevertheless hailed as a major cinematic achievement, confirmed by the award of three Nastri d'argento, a David di Donatello, and the Special Prize at Venice, where political lobbying deprived it of the Golden Lion for which it had been nominated.
   After Il lavoro (Work), an episode of the compilation film Boccaccio '70 (1962), Visconti directed what remains one of his most celebrated films, Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963). A near-perfect adaptation of the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, set once again in the Risorgimento period, the film was a huge critical and box office success, although its budget overrun also contributed to bankrupting its production company, Titanus. Then, after more work in the theater, including a memorable production of Giuseppe Verdi's Il trovatore at Covent Garden in London, Visconti returned to the screen with Vaghe stelle dell'orsa (Sandra of a Thousand Delights, 1965), an intense family drama that finally brought him the Golden Lion at Venice. There followed the short La strega bruciata viva (The Witch Burned Alive), made as an episode for the compilation film Le streghe (The Witches, 1967), and Lo straniero (The Stranger, 1967), adapted from Albert Camus' popular novel of the same name, before the monumental La caduta degli dei (The Damned, 1970). Portraying the violent disintegration of a powerful German family as a mirror for the social dissolution of Germany itself under the onslaught of Nazism, The Damned was greater in scope and spectacle than any of Visconti's previous films, and proved to be an unqualified success, both critically and at the box office. A year later, Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971) adapted a novella by Thomas Mann to paint the elegiac portrait of another dissolution, this time of an aging composer identifiable with Gustav Mahler but with undeniable allusions to Visconti himself. A year later with his next film, Ludwig (1973), shot but still unedited, Visconti suffered a minor stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side. Nevertheless, in the next few months, with great will and determination, he struggled back to the point of not only being able to edit the film but also to accept an invitation to return to the theater and direct a much-acclaimed version of Manon Lescaut at the 1973 Spoleto Festival. Although this would be his theatrical swan song, he would manage, even if from a wheelchair, to direct two further films, Ritratto di una famigla in un interno (Conversation Piece, 1974) and L'innocente (The Innocent, 1976), passing away in March 1976 as this final film was still in the process of post-production.
   Historical Dictionary of Italian Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Visconti,Luchino — Visconti, Luchino. Duke of Modrone. 1906 1976. Italian stage and film director considered a founder of the Italian neo realist style, which focused on ordinary people and postwar social issues. His films include La Terra Trema (1948) and Death in …   Universalium

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  • Luchino Visconti — For the Milanese ruler, see Luchino Visconti (died 1349). Luchino Visconti Born Luchino Visconti di Modrone November 2, 1906(1906 11 02) Milan, Lo …   Wikipedia

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