It’s bizarre to think that in 2012 we are without a wonderfully restored version of every film from Luchino Visconti. One of the giants of Italian cinema, the director’s early to middle work oscillates between exploring the country’s lower class through Neo-Realism and criticizing the aristocracy with Romanticism. The best example of this is seen when we compare 1954′s Technicolor Senso to 1960′s monochrome masterpiece Rocco and his Brothers.
Visconti would stray from his iconic styles later, with films like The Damned and Ludwig, but not before Sandra in 1965. Made two years after The Leopard, the director combines his solemn black & white with his proclivity to critique Italy’s upper class. Visconti employs his cold style to view the decrepit aristocracy after World War II - techniques usually reserved for films like La Terra Trema and Bellissima. As we watched the final twilight days of Italian ruling class with Don Fabirzio in The Leopard, we now experience the sad aftermath in Sandra.
When a memorial for her father’s efforts in World War II is erected, Sandra (Cardinale) and her American husband, Michael Dawson(Craig) return to Tuscany. Though, after only an evening in his wife’s childhood home, Michael notices an “odd” relationship between Sandra and her brother, Gianni (Sorel). The situation is further complicated by the sibling’s mother, who closes herself off in an adjacent wing of the worn-out palazzo. As you can imagine, when these cloistered relationships come into the light they cause quite a stir.
One of the most disquieting effects in Sandra, aside from the incestual narrative, is Visconti’s film style. There are countless seemingly obnoxious (and vividly apparent) zooms juxtaposed with the same elegance that we enjoyed in The Leopard. Judging by the use of transistor radios, popular songs (which are credited in the opening) and even a guerrilla POV of Andrew Dawson’s camera in the antiquated palazzo, Visconti is critiquing the world around him. Even in the opening of the film we find ourselves driving quickly down an Italian highway, making us stop and wonder which Visconti are we watching? I also point to the use of a flashback during Sandra’s confrontation with her Mother. Though the director would employ this technique later in his career, the choice feels uncanny surrounded by the aristocratic ruins. Godard, despite doing this in nearly every film, implements a similar modern satire in Vivre sa Vie.
Who does Cardinale work the best with? Fellini, Leone, or Visconti? (Or Monicelli’s ‘Big Deal on Madonna Street?) While I couldn’t personally pick, these directors know the actresses’s inherent charm and versatility. Notice the seductive nature in Fellini’s 8 1/2 and The Leopard to her tragic character in Sandra. She later proves herself as a heroine in Once Upon a Time in the West. Nevertheless, Cardinale isn’t perfect in her role as Sandra, but always entertaining to watch.
Renzo Ricci is my favorite character on screen. He emulates his role as the Italian lawyer with a sleazy sincerity – after spending a lifetime with a despondent and suicidal Gianni, we forgive whatever misgivings he committed to his father. Jean Sorel, remembered best for his work in Bunuel’s Belle du Jour, plays Gianni, the corrupted Italian debutante. Sorel only finds enthusiasm when someone mentions his lack of it or when Sandra is present. Contrary to the NY Time’s review, Sorel isn’t boring. His fragile characters cracks with every appearance, until he only exist in pieces. Sorel also gives a hint of the theatrically reamed characters of Visconti’s later efforts – notice the emphasis on the actor’s eye make-up and abstract screen presence.
The only offense I can see, albeit a highfalutin one, is Visconti’s re-imagining the myth of Electra. While most of our minds wouldn’t entangle Electra and her brother Orestes with incest, the Italian director has. Fans of a more true (and better) version of the Greek tale will turn to the Oscar nominated Mihalis Kakogiannis’s 1952 adaptation, but no one can doubt Visconti’s spin.
As much as I loved Sandra it is surely only for seasoned fans of the director. The film is very theatrical and requires a good deal of patience from the viewer. Even my friend and fellow Visconti fan, the great Jim Clark, views Sandra as a misstep. Despite the density and criticism, Sandra goes hand-and-hand with Rocco. Both films, with Visconti’s masterful eye, paint the picture by sucking us in. Notice how Visconti’s slight-of-hand consistently catches us off guard; a distant approach to the material, only to slyly entangle us with his close-ups. My advice, enjoy Sandra, but know what you’re getting yourself into.