Luchino Visconti di Modrone’s directorial career was long, prestigious, and spanned not only decades of Italian history, but also a number of the major European film movements of the 20th century. He began working with Jean Renoir as an assistant director on movies that would provide one of the underpinnings for the French New Wave. He worked with Roberto Rossellini and then directed Ossessione in 1943, one of the first films in the Italian neorealist movement. As his career progressed through the 1950s and 1960s he continued to make epic, hard edged neorealist movies such as Rocco and his Brothers in 1960, but also balanced them with more elaborate, baroque films including his masterpiece Il Gattopardo in 1963. It is this movie that bears a closest resemblance to The Innocent. His final film has the same sense of precarious, aristocratic opulence, and the same feeling of the trappings of the upper-classes: the Austen-ish balls, the gold edged furniture, rich fabrics and dead-eyed, repressed characters. With The Innocent, it is almost a condensation of these tropes. For his swan-song, Visconti has taken the themes and preoccupations of his middle period movies and boiled them down. But unlike the epic and complex historical sweep of Il Gattopardo, here he focuses claustrophobically on a relatively simple triangular relationship between Tullio Hermil, played by Giancarlo Giannini, his wife Giuliana, played by Laura Antonelli and his mistress Teresa, played by Jennifer O’Neill). Tullio is restless. He has fallen out of love with his wife, who he now sees as a sister, and has instead openly formed a relationship with Teresa, a spiky aristocrat. When his wife has a love affair with a novelist, Tullio has as change of heart and finds his love rekindled, but Giuliana falls pregnant leading to him demanding she has an abortion. Her refusal leads to a tragic conclusion.
When watching this film, I found it difficult to reconcile the understated performances, particularly that of Giannini, with the melodramatic narrative, but on reflection his passivity is the key to the character and to the film itself. The Innocent is the story of bored, detached aristocrats entertaining themselves with piano recitals and fencing bouts in cold rooms. When real life strikes, when Giuliana falls pregnant, this empty hedonistic fantasy is suddenly flooded with the real world, almost as if Tullio suddenly finds himself caring for the first time, but has no idea how to deal with it. Tullio is a difficult character to like, but the story is told from his point of view, so we are forced to live with him. He’s an egotist, refusing to bow to anyone or thing including God and society. Filmed in the 1970s when Italy was a conservative enough country for divorce and abortion to still be taboo, the twists in this film are shocking, but Tullio’s sociopathic approach to love and, terribly, to fatherhood gives this movie its pitch black heart.
Surrounding these enigmatic performances is Visconti’s expert direction. The veteran filmmaker, despite being wheelchair bound and dying through the production, constructs a tightly styled but opulent world in which his characters play out their story. The sets are rich with expensive furniture and warm fabrics, but the rooms are somehow cold and sterile. Visconti’s camera fetishizes the sets, but also stays distance from the action, allowing the characters to move around them as if on a stage. The film uses real locations rather than studio sets, but throughout the director uses the outside world as a backdrop not least during the two key moments of the movie in which Tullio first deals with Giannini’s baby, and then finally deals with himself.
It’s not Visconti’s finest film. That, for me, would be a toss-up between Rocco and his Brothers and Il Gattopardo, but The Innocent certainly doesn’t feel like a movie made under duress by a director running out of physical or creative steam. Even though the director died soon after completing the film, The Innocent is a perfectly rendered, meticulously framed work of cinema. In many ways the film is a last showcase of Visconti’s immense and controlled talent, an intense culmination of a career rather than a last hurrah.