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Dual career of Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti on screen at BAMcinematek

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Although he was one of the pioneers of the Italian neo-realist movement of the 1940s, director Luchino Visconti is far better known for his later films, which are voluptuous, elegantly stylized epics as far from his humble cinematic beginnings as possible.

Those two sides of Visconti - and everything in between - are on display at the BAMCinematek from Nov. 22 to Dec. 14, when the retrospective "The Films of Luchino Visconti" presents all 14 of Visconti’s feature films, three of his shorts and an early documentary he codirected.

Visconti was born in Milan in 1906 into an aristocratic family; his full name was Count Don Luchino Visconti Di Modrone. Notwithstanding his wealthy pedigree, Visconti was an ardent Communist and a member of the Italian resistance movement during World War II.

Perhaps it is those two sides of Visconti the man that made his directing career so - to use a loaded term - schizophrenic. His first films were as important to ’40s Italian cinema as were Rossellini’s "Rome: Open City" and "Paisan." "Ossessione" (Dec. 8 & 16), made in 1942, is a brutal and steamy film noir based on James M. Cain’s novel "The Postman Always Rings Twice" - in fact, Visconti got into trouble with both Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s censors and MGM Studios, which owned the rights to the novel.

Following the Allied victory in Europe, Visconti was one of four directors to document a postwar trial of Fascists implicated in the killings of hundreds of innocent prisoners of war. "Days of Glory," which opens the series on Nov. 22, includes sequences shot by Visconti of one of the accused who was responsible for sending Visconti himself to prison the previous year.

Visconti’s reputation as a leader of neo-realism received a boost when his second feature, "La Terra Trema" (Nov. 29), was released in 1948. Shot entirely in Sicily with a cast of amateurs - actually, the real fishermen the film was about - "La Terra Trema" had among its adherents no less than critic Pauline Kael, who said that it "achieves a true epic vision."

After "La Terra Trema," Visconti spent the 1950s working out his transformation from neo-realistic to expressionistic director. The comic 1951 film "Bellissima" (Nov. 30) stars Anna Magnani as a ruthless showbiz mom who’ll do anything to help her young daughter win an acting contest. The melodramatic 1954 movie "Senso" (Dec. 1 & 2) has dialogue by Tennessee Williams and music by Anton Bruckner, both fever-pitched equivalents of Visconti’s overheated direction of a story demonstrating how love drives one insane. And 1957’s "White Nights" (Dec. 3), based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, stars Marcello Mastroianni and cements Visconti’s shift in style: it was shot entirely on studio sets, enhancing its dream-like aura.

In 1960, "Rocco and His Brothers" (Nov. 25 & 26) combined both of Visconti’s styles in a sweeping, three-hour epic study of a family who moves from Sicily to Milan: the boxing scenes have the verisimilitude of his neo-realist pictures and the inflamed emotions of the characters’ relationships anticipate the rarefied air of the films that follow.

Of course, Visconti was also a famous opera director in Europe, but the term "operatic" as it relates to his films from "Rocco" onward is simply a shortcut to pinpointing the visual and emotional extravagances that inform them. In 1963, "The Leopard" (Nov. 27 & 28) lavishly recreated 19th-century Sicily in a visually arresting if psychologically thin portrait of the twilight of the aristocracy to which Visconti himself belonged. Giuseppe Rotunno’s Cinemascope photography is simply stunning - particularly in the new print now available - and the film is crammed with sumptuous images, including the subtle final shot.

Visconti made his most intelligent picture in 1967 with his impressive adaptation of Albert Camus’ novel "The Stranger" (Dec. 9) starring Marcello Mastroianni. Too bad he bookended this triumph with two failures, the pseudo-Freudian "Sandra" (1965; Dec. 6 & 7) and the deadly-dull decadence on display in 1969’s "The Damned" (Dec. 4 & 5).

The final decade of Visconti’s career, in fact, is best described as a falling off in quality: the 1971 misadaptation of Thomas Mann’s novella "Death in Venice" (Dec. 10 & 11); the exquisite-looking but dramatically empty four-hour 1972 biopic "Ludwig" (Nov. 23), about the insane 19th-century Bavarian king; 1974’s more intimate but no more incisive "Conversation Piece," which closes the series Dec. 14; and his final film, "The Innocent" (Dec. 12), which was edited and released after his death in 1976.

The Dec. 13 program of three Visconti short films is quite intriguing: an extract from "We the Women," starring Anna Magnani; Visconti’s segment of the omnibus film "Boccaccio ’70" (which also contains shorts by Fellini and De Sica), entitled "Il Lavoro"; and the rarely-seen "The Witch Burned Alive," starring Silvana Magnano.

All in all, "The Films of Luchino Visconti" is a most welcome overview of one of cinema’s most masterly - and occasionally misguided - talents.

 

"The Films of Luchino Visconti" runs at the BAMcinematek (30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene) from Nov. 20 to Dec. 14. Tickets are $10. For a complete list of films, screening dates and times, call (718) 636-4100 or visit the Web site at www.bam.org.

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