Death in Milan (and Rome)

Luchino Visconti, auteur and film-maker, could have entered “Betwixt” in Paris, where, travelling, he met and worked with Jean Renoir on “Une partie de campagne” in 1936. His position as assistant helped by his boyfriend of the time, the German photographer, Horst, and Coco Chanel, another mate…

In 1941 Visconti began work on the production of his first film, Obsession. The film was based on “The Postman Always Rings Twice” by James M. Cain. The idea for the adaptation came from Renoir, and was aimed at righting a perceived romanticizing of the Italian people in domestic cinema up to that time.

“No men, not even Italian men, are plaster saints. Nor are women flowers of virtue. Yet go and find it in our films, if you can, a man who is a bastard or a woman who is a bit of a whore. In Italian films they’re all nice fellows, all honest, all above board.”

Scaramouche: “Cinema” 1941.

Cain’s novel was banned in Mussolini’s Italy, which added to the appeal of adapting it. Pavese, who we’ve met briefly in Turin, was one of many anti-fascists who saw American literature of the time as embodiment of the whole human condition. He had translated Faulkner, Steinbeck, Melville and Dos Passos. Pavese writes:

“America is not another country, a new beginning to History, but the gigantic stage, the giant screen on which, more frankly than anywhere else, our common tragedy is being played out.”

Visconti’s Obsession added a “Spaniard” – a not too oblique anti-fascist symbol (reminding audiences of the struggle in Spain against Franco).

Visoconti enters here because for centuries his family ruled Milan, in Tom’s time they had been replaced by the Szofsas. Luchino was a genuinely betwixt character, the aristocratic homosexual communist who is friends with Puccini, most of Europe’s nobility, and much of its cultural community. When, in the middle of planning Obsession Visconti’s father, the duke, died, Puccini was troubled. How could he, as a communist atheist composer, attend the funeral of such a symbol of old Italy?

De Santis writes:

“He [Puccini] returned from it with amazingly bizarre and luxurious tales, of people in medieval costumes, dwarfs swathed in red [hmm Don’t Look Now] music…”

This was 1941.

Of “Obsession” Visconti writes: “I am interested in the extreme situation, those instants when abnormal tension reveals the truth about human beings; I like to confront the characters and the story harshly, aggressively.”

That summer Visconti’s younger brother was killed fighting in El alamein. His older brother arrested for insulting Germans. He kept working. Obsession is a tough film, aggressively so. One critic writes:

“love and life are seen as curses, death omnipresent…[Obsession is] a slow carnal return to the sources of life, which are also the sources of death.”

“Obsession” was not screened until liberation in 1945. When it was Visconti was still “betwixt”, but he was established as not a dilettante film maker, but as potentially one of the great names in cinema. We will return to him in Venice, naturally; and in Germany too…

About robhunt510

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