Showing none of the decadent, camp indulgence of some of his later films, Luchino Visconti’s 1976 film, L’Innocente returned to the lush and stately grandeur of the Italian aristocracy of the nineteenth century seen in The Leopard. Certainly, there is still indulgence and extravagance in the director’s magnificent final film, but they are all pertinent to the subject and none of them are directorial.
Italian aristocrat Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini) is bored with his wife and under demands from his mistress leaves her to indulge his affair with the wealthy widow Countess Teresa Raffo (Jennifer O’Neill) and in doing so runs up against the Count Egano. Tullio soon finds out that he is being toyed with and returns to his wife, hoping to be able to rid himself of Teresa’s powerful attraction. His wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli) however has, in his absence, attracted the attention of a young writer Filippo, a friend of Tullio’s brother. Returning to find his wife pregnant by another man, the situation develops into a struggle between husband and wife over family honour with tragic consequences.
Visually, L’Innocente is extravagantly lush and beautiful, in the set designs, in the costumes, in the elegant tone, timbre and pacing of its measured structure. Delicately scored to music from Gluck, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt, L’Innocente’s pacing and choreography have all the characteristics and intensity of an opera seria, the dialogues of the characters an impassioned recitative to the underlying plaintive piano score. A lush costume drama, a romantic melodrama, the whole tone of the film is certainly elegant and mannered, but nothing here feels false or costume-dramaticised. The locations and furnishings feel utterly real, not museum pieces, but the lived-in homes of the extravagantly wealthy. The characters inhabit this milieu with perfect naturalism, strikingly beautiful, immaculately groomed and costumed and proudly ostentatious. But it’s more than a story of the indulgences of spoilt aristocrats and the film is restrained where it counts. The actors capture perfectly the courteous mannerisms demanded by society, while at the same time seething with real-life emotions and passions. While their real feelings are rarely demonstrated, they can be seen flickering across their faces (Giannini can glower with the best of them) and when they are given expression they are all the more powerful and convincing.
Based on an 1892 novel by Gabriele D’Annunzio, the subject matter – examining infidelity from both male and female perspectives, as well as from the perspective that society judges the respective transgressions – is hardly original from a modern viewpoint, but the human elements are certainly still relevant. The real strength of the film is in the dramatic playing-out of the human drama, the emotional voyage of each of the characters, the realisation that they are powerless to act against or master their own passions, or the passions and actions of others. Here in the faces of the protagonists you can read their internal scheming and manoeuvring, their pain, anguish and torments as they react to the playing-out of events. As Mike Sutton observed in his review of Death In Venice, Visconti is fascinated by characters who have reached a turning point in their lives, are faced by circumstances or personal revelations about themselves that lead them inexorably, tragically and unavoidably onto a path of self-destruction. That is the case here with Tullio and the viewer can’t help but be entirely immersed in his and the other characters' predicament, forced into examining expressions for clues to what they are thinking, wondering what is flashing through their minds at any given point and trying to think ahead with them what their next move should be, feeling apprehensive about the eventual and almost inevitably tragic outcome. L’Innocente is a deeply involving drama, played-out with conviction and great skill by a superb cast and directed with supreme skill by a legendary director in the final days of his life.
The quality of the transfer presented on the Nouveaux Pictures Region 2 DVD release frustratingly gives some indication of the fantastic beauty of the film while being technically inadequate. The film’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio is retained, but the transfer is not anamorphic. The image is moreover pushed towards the top of the 4:3 frame making it look truly letterboxed. An example of the non-anamorphic full-frame picture with subtitles can be seen below. The image appears reasonably clear and colourful. The first half-hour of the film certainly looks marvellously rich, perhaps a touch over-saturated, but different tones of reds, for example, stand out well against each other, showing some level of detail and texture. This becomes less stable after the 40 minute mark when the quality varies, some scenes looking quite flat, with blacks dulling into browns and greys, and at other times looking quite clear and bright.
There is a fair amount of print damage evident. Most of it is inconsequential dustpots and light scratches, but occasionally there are some larger marks and lines. It rarely causes much of a problem though. Much more distracting is the amount of shimmer throughout with edges looking rather harsh and showing instability. Compression blocking and pixellation are evident as is a touch of edge enhancement. At times the transfer can look fabulous because of the photography, the richness of colour and the immaculate lighting of the film itself, but the transfer is really far from the standard we would expect. The cover states that the film has been digitally remastered from a restored print, but it looks like it has been restored as a master for a video release, where the problems here would be less noticeable. It certainly hasn’t been restored for DVD release. In this respect, the picture quality is certainly watchable if not examined too closely, giving some indication of the glory and magnificence of the original print, while being technically far from perfect.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track presents the original mono soundtrack, which is rather harsh here, crackling on voices, with a fair amount of background noise, and the occasional pop. It’s hardly impressive, but it is generally audible. Like most Visconti and Italian films of the period, the voices are dubbed in post-production, so any lip-sync problems are on account of the original production and the international cast – Jennifer O’Neill for example, is clearly speaking her lines in English – but the Italian dub is better here than in many other Italian films.
The subtitles are fixed and displayed in the large area below the letterboxed picture frame. They are not widescreen friendly – ie. you cannot zoom the letterbox picture to widescreen without cutting off some of the subtitles. Not that you would want to, the low resolution of the image only emphasises the failings of the transfer described above. The subtitles are also far from clear, pixellating and breaking up frequently, but they remain readable and translate the film reasonably well, if losing some of the poetry of the original language.
The only extra included here is a Photo Gallery which displays eleven stills taken directly for the film at 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The nineteenth-century period of the film, the subject matter and moral attitudes in L’Innocente may seem out-dated and the director’s style and pacing indulgent and out-moded when compared to modern cinema trends, but it is entirely appropriate for a film whose real human concerns are still completely relevant and meticulously depicted on the screen with all the finesse of a real cinematic master. Visconti’s final film is a worthy testament to the director’s talent. Unfortunately its transfer to DVD is not.