Classic Film Review: A simpler, more opulent time for Italy’s elite — “L’Innocente”

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The great Italian director Luchino Visconti made films across a variety of genres, some of them “neo-realistic” and contemporary, such  “Rocco and his Brother” and “Sandra.”

But like other Italians of his generation, his passion was opera — working in it, directing for it and transferring its production values into the opulent period pieces that became his late-career calling card. A lifelong communist, he set the standard for lush, ornate depictions of the Gilded Age affairs of the late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

“The Leopard,” “Death in Venice,” “Ludwig” and “L’Innocente” were so extravagant looking that they inspired documentaries, just for their costumes. When others made films from that era — “1900,” “Russian Ark,” “Nicolas and Alexandra” and even Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” — they were paying homage to his eye for detail.

“L’Innocente” (1976), his final film, shows us an awful lot of money on the screen — in silk and taffeta, lace and and leather.  The film, re-issued and restored by Film Movement Plus, touches on the amorality of the super-rich, the vapid hypocrisy they wrapped in stunning clothes, grand villas and shared evenings at the opera.

It’s low melodrama among the highborn, a “second-rate novel” that the characters are living through, as the anti-heroic aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini) muses.

And as it wanders through salons and recitals, chauvinism and infidelity, it pierces the viewer with its one major point. There’s little “noble” about the “nobility.”

The movie? It’s stately and dated. The following decades would see the producer/director/screenwriter team of Merchant, Ivory and Jhabvala invigorate overwrought, over-costumed melodramatic period pieces with films such as “Howard’s End.” By comparison. “L’Innocente,” based on a Gabriele D’Annunzio, is something of a stiff.

The plot is much simpler than the luxurious trappings. A rich womanizer (Giannini, of “Seven Beauties,” the original “Swept Away” and a couple of recent James Bond films) carries on an affair with the Contessa Raffo (Jennifer “O’Neill of “Summer of ’42”).

His wife, Guiliana (Laura Antonelli) suffers this in quiet shame, accepting his “explanation” in this most sexist of countries in a most sexist era.

“Love is only while it lasts,” he muses (in Italian, with English subtitles). After a while, marriage devolves into “respect, common interests…You’ve been my wife, my sister, but never my mistress.”

We meet his mistress as she is yanking him about like a lapdog on a leash.

“I don’t share a man with another woman, even if she’s his wife!”

The Contessa shamelessly flirts with an older, wealthier man, right in front of Tullio at the piano recital where Rome’s elite have gathered to be seen, and pretty much ignore the Mozart and Liszt virtuoso.

But Tullio’s fury at Count Egano (Massimo Girotti) for cutting in on his paramour is deflated when his wife locks eyes at the brooding novelist d’Arborio (Marc Porel).

All of a sudden, his wife’s attention and bed is what he craves. Her confession that she’s gotten even isn’t backed up with evidence. We don’t see her affair. Is she playing him?

But then the rabbit dies, and the sordid melodrama has higher stakes.

“L’Innocente” just floats along, with a sort of high-toned soap opera drift from bed chambers to salon to fencing academy, where Tullio and his Army officer brother (Didier Haudepin) vent their frustrations with foils.

The lack of pace tends to highlight the peacocking nature of the class that dresses for dinner, dresses for recitals, dresses for a carriage ride and undresses for arid delights of the boudoir.

Giannini simmers and sulks in high style.

O’Neill apparently wasn’t the first choice for the Contessa, and while she can strike a pose with the best of them, her vamping leaves a lot to be desired. Her voice is dubbed by an Italian actress.

Antonelli’s lack of status on the set is reflected by the film’s selection of nude scenes. Those are limited to her and a supporting actor in the fencing gym.

Visconti’s points about the emptiness and tawdry nature of the lives of Europe’s elite feel contemporary to anyone following decades of decadence among Europe’s surviving royals (“Prince” Andrew, are you blushing?).

But “L’Innocente,” despite some beautifully grim moments in the third act, never lets us forget it comes from an era when image was all among directors celebrated as artists or that the Italian master behind the camera would have been happier directing another opera.

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MPAA Rating: R, sex, nudity, violence

Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Laura Antonelli and Jennifer O’Neill

Credits: Directed by Luchino Visconti, script by Suso Cecchi D’Amico, based on a novella by Gabriele D’Annunzio. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 2:09

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