BAMPFA Restrospective on Luchino Visconti Captues His Grit and Grandeur

The films of one of the most influential directors of the second half of the 20th century runs September through November in Berkeley.


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Visconti’s The Stranger in 1967 starred Anna Karina and Marcello Mastroianni.

Photo courtesy BAMPFA

One of the most influential directors of the second half of the 20th century, Luchino Visconti began his career as a pioneer and progenitor of neorealism. Ossessione (a 1943 adaptation of James M. Cain’s pulp drama The Postman Always Rings Twice filmed in the Po Valley) and La Terra Trema (an epic saga of exploited Sicilian fishermen made in 1948 and populated with nonprofessionals speaking a local dialect), awakened Italian audiences to the pleasures and possibilities of populist, literary movies. But Visconti was too restless—and too much in love with opera, theater, and literature—to confine himself to a single approach or style.

His next film, Bellissima (1952), which launches the perfectly titled BAMPFA retrospective Luchino Visconti: Cinema of Struggle and Splendor on Sept. 14, starred the amazing Anna Magnani as a Rome stage (well, screen) mother obsessed with launching her young daughter into the movies. Maddalena’s marquee dreams may be laughably (or humiliatingly) unrealistic, but her crusade to extricate the family from its working-class milieu is both understandable and timeless.

Visconti cast another icon, Marcello Mastroianni, in 1957’s White Nights (Sept. 23), and moved even further from neorealism by shooting entirely on studio sets. In Visconti’s hands, Dostoyevsky’s story of a man falling for a woman (Maria Schell) pining for a phantom ex-lover (Jean Marais)—she’s unavailable, in today’s parlance—became a beautiful, haunting classic. October brings the masterworks Rocco and His Brothers (a film that arguably inspired Martin Scorsese’s entire career, hence his eagerness in the ’90s to serve as presenter of a new restoration), The Leopard and Death in Venice, with the sublime Senso, The Stranger and Ludwig (among others) on tap for November. Visconti combined grit and grandeur with a power that would-be auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicholas Winding Refn can only dream of. If anything, his films have only gained in power over the years.

Luchino Visconti: Cinema of Struggle and Splendor, Sept. 14-Nov. 30, BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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