Set in Venice and Verona on the verge of Garibaldi’s expulsion of the Austrians in the 1860s, this was Count Luchino Visconti’s third film, and his first in colour. It marked a complete departure from the working class milieu of the director’s earlier films, Ossessione (1942) and La Terra Trema (1948). Nevertheless, Senso’s overt theatricality is not so different from the extravagant passions in the former, and it is no less "authentic" for its sumptuous aristocratic setting (the director apparently insisted on daily fresh cut flowers in every room on the set, whether or not they would be filming there).
Alida Valli is the Countess Livia Sepieri, a Garibaldi supporter who intercedes on her cousin’s behalf when he suicidally challenges an Austrian officer to a duel. Lt Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) characteristically ducks out of the fight. A handsome, unprincipled charmer, Mahler seduces the Countess, who will recklessly betray her husband, her honour and even her country for his love.
With screenplay credits for both Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles among six writers in total, Senso is a distinctly high class melodrama. Eyes flashing, teeth bared, Valli seems barely able to credit her own actions as she flings caution to the wind and stakes everything on a feckless character who makes no bones about his own cowardice. (The film was actually retitled The Wanton Countess for its belated US release.) Fraley Granger is even better, especially in the big climactic scene where he lets rip with his self-loathing. Similarly unbalanced, sadomasochistic relationships recur in Visconti’s later films, especially The Damned (1969), and Death in Venice (1971), but neither quite matched the ferocity displayed here.
Senso begins at the opera, and Anton Bruckner’s score punctuates every dramatic turning point with an operatic thundercrack. "I like opera very much, but not when it happens off-stage," the Countess remarks, as she tries to dissuade Mahler from taking up her cousin’s challenge. Italy’s most renowned director of operas, Visconti clearly believed otherwise.