Luchino Visconti , 1906-1976 ; One of the primary forces in the rebuilding of the Italian cinema after World War 2, Visconti was an enigmatic and influential figure. Born a count into one of Italy's most aristocratic families, the young Visconti lived a carefree life, cultivating a taste for opera and the theater. At the age of 30, he befriended Jean Renoir and followed him to Paris, working as a costume designer and assistant director. Here he also became influenced by Marxist ideology and, despite his family background, became an avid leftist and anti-fascist throughout the remainder of his life. In 1940 he returned to Italy to make films of his own, but his first feature, Ossessione (1942), came under fire from Mussolini's government. An unauthorized reworking of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the film angered authorities with its gritty representation of everyday life, and was severely censored.

 

After codirecting a documentary, Giorni di Gloria (1945), Visconti made his second feature, La Terra trema (1947), a story of class exploitation in a small Sicilian fishing village. Along with Rossellini's Open City and Paisan and De Sica's Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief, La Terra trema officially inaugurated the Italian neorealist movement. Notable for their use of nonprofessional actors and naturalistic settings, these films provided a sharp contrast to the ornate, studio-produced escapist fare officially sanctioned by the (now deposed) fascist regime. Visconti's subsequent films were deeply personal, and almost operatic in structure. His most prominent themes were class exploitation and the manner in which the upper classes responded to a changing, tumultuous world; moral decay within families of all classes; and male (and occasionally female) selfdelusion. In Bellissima (1951), he told the story of a movie-crazed stage mother obsessed with attaining stardom for her untalented young daughter. Senso (1954), set in Austrian-occupied Venice in 1866, when Italian partisans were scheming to repossess their land, detailed the relationship between an Austrian officer and his married Italian mistress. Here Visconti united the realism of his earlier works with the romanticism that was to categorize his later films. White Nights (1957), a further example of his break with neorealism, told of a shy young man who falls for a woman awaiting the reappearance of her lost love. He returned to neorealism one last time in the superb Rocco and His Brothers (1960), a gritty, tragic tale of Southern Italian peasants who relocate to Milan in search of economic stability.

 

The Leopard (1963), one of Visconti's all-time classics (with American star Burt Lancaster effectively cast in the leading role), was set in the same time period as Senso It dealt with an aristocratic Sicilian family responding to the death of its class and the rise of the bourgeoisie. The finale, a lengthy banquet sequence, remains one of film history's great set pieces. Sandra (1965) centered on an upper-crust woman's incestuous involvement with her brother (as well as her awareness that her mother had doubled-crossed her father, a Jew, during World War 2). After directing an excellent adaptation of Camus's The Stranger (1967) with Marcello Mastroianni, Visconti further explored the rise of Naziism in The Damned (1969), his most celebrated film, a pitiless look at the disintegration of a German industrialist family under the Hitler regime. Again he gathered an international cast (headed by Dirk Bogarde); the film won Visconti his sole Academy Award nomination, for best screenplay. In Death in Venice (1971), the filmmaker as never before focused on the theme of male vanity in telling of an aging homosexual's search for beauty and purity, in the person of a good-looking young boy. Ludwig (1973), another tale of decadent, declining European society, spotlighting the "mad" king of Bavaria, was seen as heavy-handed, and Conversation Piece (1975, with Burt Lancaster) was a talky tale of an aging intellectual, but Visconti was back in form for what would be his final film, The Innocent (1976), a melodrama about an aristocrat, married to a beautiful woman, who nonetheless feels compelled to take a lover. To the end, Visconti remained an individualistic-and inspired-filmmaker.