There’s a superficial version of this review in which I try to figure out what the title of Luchino Visconti’s final film, L’Innocente (newly restored in HD and opening at Film Forum this week), means. Well, obviously, it means “The Innocent” in Italian; even if you couldn’t work that out for yourself, you can look it up. No, what I mean is that I could spend paragraphs parsing who the “innocent” really is. It might have something to do with the way that, when powerful people get into interpersonal squabbles, the fallout is absorbed by the more vulnerable people around them. But, in this case, that’s boring compared to just enjoying those squabbles in all their excessive wickedness.
Giancarlo Giannini stars as Tullio Hermil, a fantastically wealthy nobleman in the late nineteenth century who lives with his wife, Giuliana (Laura Antonelli), in Rome. But everyone, including Guiliana, knows that Tullio’s in love with his mistress, Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O’Neill); Tullio makes sure of it, in fact. But when Giuliana finally moves on to another man, Tullio suddenly decides he cares. Now both of them must decide where their hearts–if they have them–really lie.
L’Innocente is, make no mistake, a full-blown melodrama. Visconti and his fellow screenwriters Suso Cecchi D’Amico and Enrico Medioli (adapting a novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio) are certainly aware of that; the importance to the plot of a tawdry novel read by all three main characters can’t be anything but self-referential.
All the soapy highlights–the fainting, the scandalous pregnancy, the “friendly” fencing match between romantic rivals–are all the more delightful for playing out against a backdrop of incomprehensible luxury. The fabric yardage worn by the characters in L’Innocente would have to be weighed by the ton, from lavish velvets and furs to diaphanous laces and veils. And the multi-winged homes, some of which spend months of the year inhabited only by staff, are giddily breathtaking.
Visconti fills these marvelous places with lush rugs, tapestries, upholstery, statuary, chandeliers and everything else he can fit into his wide frame. And then, almost prankishly, he and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis go on to repeatedly shoot the characters in shallow focus so that this alluring mise en scène, maids and butlers included, blurs into a hazy background.
Maybe that’s because, despite all there is to gawk at in L’Innocente, nothing is quite so captivating as Giannini’s galling cad. Tullio is a man who flat out tells his wife he doesn’t love her but that it would be better for him if they stayed together. And that’s just in the first act. Plenty of terrible things happen to Tullio after that and every one of them is his own fault. He knows it, too, but he’s so defined by his entitlement that he can’t conceive of changing. When his brother (Didier Haudepin) dares to even mention the family’s ludicrous privilege, Tullio refuses to listen. This fatal flaw makes L’Innocente a tragedy you love to watch.