Filming what many consider his apotheosis, The Leopard (TSPDT #71), Luchino Visconti landed on the theme that would occupy him for the remainder of his career: the imminent obsolescene of his own class, the aristocracy. In his follow-up to The Leopard Visconti revisits the Italian upper class in their crumbling modern environs, following the titular expatriate (Claudia Cardinale) and her American husband on a return trip to the family estate. Ghosts of the past take form in the suspected murder of Sandra's father by her mother and her lover, the family lawyer, and the incestuous desires of her estranged brother, compelling her to turn her family reunion into a series of ugly confrontations. Cardinale lends furrow-browed intensity to the most challenging role of her career, but her attempts at seriousness are undermined by Visconti's puzzling insistence to shoot her in as titillating a manner as possible, lingering on her cleavage, legs and bare back, reducing her to an arthouse Brigitte Bardot. Combined with her brother's anguished caterwauling, the affair risks being undermined by unintentional camp, sogged by the same hysteria that pushes Rocco and His Brothers (TSPDT #185) over the top. Visconti would do more interesting things with this undercurrent of self-parody in his later films; at best this is a puzzling transitional work, with outstanding gothic atmospherics to recommend it, courtesy of an outstanding antique villa for a set that speaks hushed volumes on its own.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa on the TSPDT 1000:
This film is an unusual "police" film. It was called Modern Electra but, in order to explain the term "police film", I will refer to another tragedy: Oedipus Rex, one of the first police films. In Oedipus Rex, the culprit is the least suspect (Oedipus who, at the beginning of the story, calls himself "the only stranger".)
Perhaps the ancient audience would leave the theatre convinced that the real culprit is not Oedipus but Fate; however, this convenient explanation is not sufficient for the contemporary audience. The audience dismisses the charges against Oedipus and makes him feel guilty only to the extent that the story affects him personally...
Sandra's conscience, motivated by the "event" (return to the family home), starts searching for the truth: a truth completely different to the one Sandra believed was ingrained in herself; a painful truth that a character like her might never manage to learn entirely.
Therefore, Sandra and her victims (or her persecutors) find their position in modern society or, rather, they discover that they no longer belong there and, through their own drama, help us to better comprehend the reality and the meaning of our historical condition.
If I am allowed to work again on a theme I loved at the beginning of my career, I would say that today, more than ever, I am interested in anthropocentric cinema. The film Sandra of a Thousand Delights is a verification - and not an exception - of this dominant interest. That's why I made this film.
- Luchino Visconti, Introduction to the publication of the screenplay, Capelli, 1965
If you are looking for the parallels in "Sandra," which opened at the Fine Arts yesterday (following its single showing at the New York Film Festival last fall), you will see that this dour Italian picture, which Luchino Visconti has made with the beautiful Claudia Cardinale in the title role, can be viewed as a modern adaptation of the dark and passionate tale of Electra and her brother, Orestes, as told in Greek targedy...
It is by pictorial suggestion that Mr. Visconti conveys the singular hollowness, remoteness, and morbidity of his tale. It is from the shadowy environment that the hints of shapeless mysteries emerge. And the passion that flames in the few clashes between Miss Cardinale and Jean Sorel as her indolent, decadent brother who wants to fix himself to her again acquires momentary convictions mainly from its setting within this ornate Borgian frame.
It is not an especially gripping story that this dimly reflective picture tells, nor is it one that resolves any interest in the impulses of incest or normal love. It is just an echo of far emotional thunder against which Miss Cardinale moves with a fine air of grim preoccupation and frequent startling exposes of physique. Mr. Sorel is slow and shaggy as her brother. Nothing really emerges from him. And Michael Craig is stolid as the baffled husband who finds his comfort in a well caressed pipe. Renzo Ricci is raw and realistic as the lawyer who is rightly peeved with the whole deal, and Marie Bell gives a vivid notion of the anguish of a demented woman in one strong scene.
More than a modernized "Electra," this "Sandra," which was known in Italy as "Vaghe Stella Dell 'Orsa" ("Dim Stars of the Big Bear") might better be viewed as an extension of the despair for a crumbling upper class that Mr. Visconti expressed in "The Leopard." It is an agonized farewell to the past.
- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, January 17, 1966
Luchino Visconti poaches on the neighboring property of Alain Resnais and Douglas Sirk in this melodramatic 1965 study of a woman's journey into her past, a past that contains a father murdered by the Nazis, a mother driven to insanity, and incidental implications of adolescent incest. Much maligned in its time, the film has been creeping back into critical respectability: thanks to Fassbinder, melodrama has become acceptable again. Still, it doesn't seem completely successful, even in the gentle light of revisionism--feelings and motives remain rather murky, and Claudia Cardinale's overambitious portrayal of the heroine does little to clarify things.
- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Visconti's retelling of the Electra story starts with Sandra/Electra (Cardinale) returning to her ancestral home in Italy - and reviving an intimate involvement with her brother (Sorel) which troubles her naive American husband (Craig) - on the eve of an official ceremony commemorating the death of her Jewish father in a Nazi concentration camp. As ever with Visconti, he is ambivalently drawn to the decadent society he is ostensibly criticising; and Armando Nannuzzi's camera lovingly caresses the creaking old mansion, set in a landscape of crumbling ruins, where the incestuous siblings determine to wreak revenge on the mother (Bell) and stepfather (Ricci) who supposedly denounced their father. Something like a Verdi opera without the music, the result may not quite achieve tragedy, but it looks marvellous. The title, culled from a poem by Leopardi, has been better rendered as 'Twinkling Stars of the Bear'.
- Time Out
Vaghe stelle dell'orsa removes the critique of the family from the social to the psychoanalytic plane. While death or absence of the father and the presence of an uprising surrogate is a thematic consideration in several Visconti films, he here explores it in conjunction with Freudian theory in this deliberate yet entirely transmuted retelling of the Elektra myth. We are never completely aware of the extent of the relationship between Sandra and her brother, and the possibility of past incest remains distinct. Both despise their stepfather Gilardini, whom they accuse of having seduced their mother and having denounced their father, a Jew, to the Fascists. Sandra's love for and sense of solidarity with her brother follows upon a racial solidarity with her father and race, but Gianni's love, on the other hand, is underpinned by a desire for his mother, transferred to Sandra. Nevertheless, dramatic confrontation propels the dialectical investigations of the individual's position with respect to the social even in this, Visconti's most densely psychoanalytic film.
- Joel Kanoff, Film Reference.com
As he did in Il Gattopardo (1963) and would do again in The Damned (1969), Visconti explores the decay and collapse of an aristocratic family as a reflection of national history. Both Claudia and Gianni feel driven to connect the dots of family history. Their stirring up a cauldron of secrets and suspiciousness ultimately shatters one of them, who commits suicide. Mourning may become Electra, but Claudia heads back to America—in its simplicity, heartlessness and obliviousness (qualities represented by her spouse), a refuge from her obsessions with father, brother, Italy, the past.
We have, then, a skeletons-in-the-closet film, one that generates ancient echoes through its absorption and delicate rendering of the Electra myth. Italy has made many haunted films about its Fascist past and the German oocupation, but this may be the most gripping. Armando Nannuzzi’s black-and-white cinematography encompasses claustrophobic darkness and sorely ironic ravishing light. It befits an operatic mood-piece about unsettled and unsettling events, both familial and national.
About Luchino Visconti
Biography at the BFI
A content-rich biographical entry by Michael Walford at the University of Warwick Kinoeye blog
Quotes found at the TSPDT profile page for Visconti
"This Italian director offered strong, stern, unremitting portraits of societies, often high, and veneers crumbling under exterior pressures. Most of them are impressive, and beautifully decorated with all the visual elegance of a man who was both set designer and costume designer early in his career. However, after 1960, they have progressively less to offer in terms of entertainment. A trip to a late Visconti film became increasingly an occasion for admiration rather than enjoyment." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)
"A Marxist aristocrat, Count Don Luchino Visconti di Morone was widely praised for both the realism and vaguely politicised tone of his early films, and the operatic sumptuousness of his later historical costume dramas. Throughout his career, however, style dominated content; all too often, the result was camp, decorative melodrama disguised as solemn, socially significant art." - Geoff Andrew (The Film Handbook, 1989)
"The films of Luchino Visconti are among the most stylistically and intellectually influential of postwar Italian cinema. Born a scion of ancient nobility, Visconti integrated the most heterogeneous elements of aristocratic sensibility and taste with a committed Marxist political consciousness, backed by a firm knowledge of Italian class structure...Visconti turned out films steadily but rather slowly from 1942 to 1976. His obsessive care with narrative and filmic materials is apparent in the majority of his films." - Joel Kanoff (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
"A director of intense, frequently opulent dramas, Visconti began his career as one of the purveyors of Italian neorealism (La Terra trema, 48) of a heavy, surging kind. Later he was more grandiose, cutting to the depths of human emotions in decadent atmospheres." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)
Luchino Visconti occupies a singular position in film history. He was instrumental in the creation of modern cinema by being the first to throw down the neo-realist gauntlet with Ossessione (1942) and later contributed one of the movement's canonical cornerstones, La Terra Trema (1948). Of the three giants of the first wave of post war neo-realists, he was the only one to maintain his position at the forefront of art cinema into the '60s, when Rossellini had moved to television and De Sica was making more commercial films. Visconti's later career was devoted to the creation of a series of period movies including Senso (1954), The Leopard (Il Gattopardo, 1963) and Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia, 1971) that are still without parallel in terms of atmosphere, detail and sheer dramatic force. It was in these that his genius, although often evident from his earliest work onwards, developed fully.
- Maximilian Le Cain, from "Visconti's Cinema of Twilight," published in Senses of Cinema
It is not the nicest face one ever saw on a film director: as cruel as a hawk, as supercilious as an aristocrat who does not expect to be understood, it glared out through the cigarette smoke of an 120-a-day habit. Luchino Visconti imposed himself on others and on his productions. On The Leopard, when he had to accept his producer's decision to cast Burt Lancaster as the Sicilian prince, he responded by ignoring the American actor. It was domination through distance. Yet observers noted how, gradually, the shrewd but insecure Lancaster began to pick up the lordly gestures, the sneers and the mannerisms, of Visconti himself. The actor had learned that you can't expect a real aristocrat to explain himself, or to be accessible. But he can offer an example. When the film was a triumph, and took the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Visconti must have been all the more resolved to stay aloof and alone.
Visconti, who died in 1976, has not exactly faded away. Yet surely he is not the power he was. It will be interesting to see whether the immersion that is coming our way will hasten his removal, or make this gloomy narcissist a model for much larger things. In 1962, in Sight and Sound's poll of the best films ever made, Visconti's La Terra Trema (1948) finished at number nine. Today that starkly beautiful and formal, yet allegedly neo-realist study of poor fishermen in Sicily is rarely seen. The gulf between the poverty of the people and the richness of the art is a little hard to take. In 2002, Visconti was not in the top 10, yet some critics and film-makers held out for a few films - Senso, Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Ludwig. There was even one vote for Death in Venice, which in some quarters is regarded as a gruesome parody of the "art film".
- David Thomson, The Guardian
The final state to be considered would be the crystal in the process of decomposition. The work of Visconti shows this. This work reached its perfection when Visconti was able both to distinguish and put into play, in varying combinations, four fundamental elements which haunted him. In the first place, the aristocratic world of the rich, the aristocratic former-rich: this is what is crystalline, but like a synthetic crystal, because it is outside history and nature, outside divine creation... The abbot in The Leopard will explain it: we do not understand these rich, because they have created a world to themselves, whose laws we are unable to grasp, and where what seems to us secondary or even inopportune takes on an extraordinary urgency and importance; their motives always escape us like rites whose religion is not known (as in the old prince who gets his country back and orders a picnic). This world is not that of the creative artist, even though Death in Venice presents a musician, but precisely one whose work has been too intellectual and cerebral. Nor is it a world of simple art enthusiasts. Rather, they are surrounded by art; they are profoundly 'knowledge about' art both as works and as life, but it is this knowledge which separates them from life and creation, as in the teacher in Conversation Piece. They demand freedom, but a freedom which they enjoy like an empty privilege which could come to them from elsewhere, from the forebears from whom they are descended, and from the art by which they are surrounded...
But, in the second place, these crystalline environments are inseparable from a process of decomposition which eats away at them from within, and makes them dark and opaque: the rotting of Ludwig II's teeth, family rot which takes over the teacher in Conversation Piece, the debasement of Ludwig II's love affairs; and incest everywhere as in the Bavarian family, the return of Sandra, the abomination of The Damned; everywhere the thirst for murder and suicide, or the need for forgetting and death, as the old prince says on behalf of the whole of Sicily. It is not just that these aristocrats are on the brink of being reuined; the approaching ruin is only a consequence. For it is a vanished past, but one which survives in the artificial crystal, which is waiting for them, absorbing them and snapping them up, taking away all their power at the same time as they become lodged it. Thus the famous tracking shot with which Sandra opens: this is not displacement in space but sinking into time without exit.
The third element in Visconti is history. Because, of course, it doubles decomposition, accelerates or even explains it: wars, assumption of power by new forces, the rise of the new rich, who are not interested in penetrating the secret laws of the old world, but aim to make it disappear...
And then there is the fourth element, the most important in Visconti, because it ensures the unity and circulation of the others. This is the idea, or rather the revelation, that something arrives too late. Caught in time, this could perhaps have avoided the natural decomposition and historical dismantling of the crystal-image. But it is history, and nature itself, the structure of the crystal, which make it impossible for this to arrive in time.
- Gilles Deleuze, from Cinema 2: The Time Image, Published by Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, pages 91-93
About Claudia Cardinale
Claudia Cardinale has a MySpace page
Cardinale was discovered during the era when Brigitte Bardot created one sensation after another both on screen and off. Cardinale could merely have become "the Italian Bardot," and, indeed comparisons have been drawn between the two actresses. But a number of factors helped lead Cardinale's career in a different direction. The publicity surrounding both Cardinale's films and her personal life was not nearly as sensational as that concerning Bardot. More importantly, Cardinale soon began appearing in the films of the major Italian auteurs. Minor, and later more substantial, roles in the films of Mario Monicelli, Mauro Bolognini, Luchino Visconti, and Federico Fellini made her a star in Italy and abroad.
- Susan M. Doll, Film Reference.com