Talents tied up in the family

Luchino Visconti
August 1, 2003

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's study of Luchino Visconti (1906-76) was first published in 1967 and revised in 1973. This edition, published in a bigger format with high-quality stills, offers a new readership access to perhaps the most authoritative English-language study of the great Italian director. There are new chapters on the last three films, Ludwig (1973), Conversation Piece (1974) and L'Innocente (1976) and a new preface and retrospect. These provide a historically informed discussion of the changing reception of the films, and of the current status of auteur theory and art cinema. A comprehensive list of Visconti's opera and theatre productions is now included, along with a detailed filmography and suggestions for further reading. Revisions of previous errors are found in new footnotes.

A comparison between the original chapters and those written for this volume indicates Nowell-Smith's continuing command of cinema generally and Italian cinema in particular. The new chapters on the late films are provocative, but, with the exception of a thoughtful revaluation of Ludwig, their brevity is disappointing. The overviews reveal that the author remains as convinced as he was in the 1960s of Visconti's consummate skill as director, and he makes his case convincingly.

Visconti began working with Renoir in the 1930s, and Ossessione (1942), his extraordinary first film, bears the marks of that apprenticeship in its visual style. Its screenwriters were critics on the journal Cinema, which had become a standard-bearer for the renewal of the Italian cinema along realist lines. They were also members of the underground communist movement and, with them, Visconti developed the interest in Marxism that would shape his work until his death. He is regarded as a prominent neorealist, but even the film most clearly identified as part of this approach, La Terra Trema (1948), was regarded as preferring aesthetics to politics.

Nowell-Smith is good on Visconti's interest in history and his combination of a personal and philosophical involvement in Italian development since unification. All the films explore the impact of political and social change on the lives of characters who inhabit a wide variety of settings and periods. They do this through a focus on families and family bonds.

Passion, betrayal, love, solitude, isolation, nostalgia, homosexuality and death are the continuing preoccupations that lend some credence to the author's original claims for Visconti as auteur.

Nowell-Smith is an informed writer with very clear opinions, a robust style and an enviable command of films and film-making. He is also an intelligent critic of Italy and of the personal, social and artistic preoccupations that were Visconti's own. This edition of a well-known work is a welcome addition to academic film studies, but it also offers old and new readers the opportunity to discover forthemselves what now appears, unexpectedly, as Visconti's modernity.

Lesley Caldwell is associate fellow in Italian, University College London.

Luchino Visconti

Author - Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
ISBN - 0 85170 960 5 and 961 3
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £48.00 and £13.99
Pages - 250

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