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Life and Times of Count Luchino Visconti, The
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by Chris Parry

"The quintessential look at a man who helped shape modern Italian cinema."
4 stars

Luchino Visconti lives large over the Italian cinema landscape. To be remembered and recognized as a genius in a nation that has produced so many genius filmmakers, a director really has to be at the top of their game all the time. Visconti, the creator of such films as Death in Venice, Ludwig, La Terra Trema, The Leopard, The Damned, and Rocco and His Brothers, rarely put a step wrong, putting some of the most memorable images of Italian cinema to film. But in his private life he led the kind of adventures that, even today, would have seen him branded a heretic in the puritanical USA. An open homosexual, an avowed Communist, and a silver-spoon-fed Aristocrat, his films echoed his life in ways that were rarely complimentary, but always stunning. Just like this documentary.

If you've never heard of Luchino Visconti, don't be ashamed - there are plenty out there like you. Though his films were often memorable, his death in 1976 ended his filmmaking career just before filmmakers began to be feted like rock stars. He worked with the best of both Italian film and Hollywood, including Burt Lancaster, and Dirk Bogarde. He trained great filmmakers like Franco Zeffirelli, who would go on to make a mark every bit as big as his own. He commissioned operas, going on to become one of Italian opera's most respected directors. He even bred champion racehorses, winning the Milan Gold Cup at the age of 26.

And perhaps most remarkably - he didn't have to do any of the above. He was born into wealth and power, his father having built himself a castle, bedded a Queen, and designed a medieval village that he had built as his own personal plaything. His sister married a prince. His brother fought in Mussolini's army.

But Luchino wanted to create art. And he did just that, taking life experiences and memories and turning them into memorable classic works. When the desire took him, he would take a boy he'd meet in a hotel and turn him into a movie star. Then he'd take the boy to bed. On other days, he'd hide Communists in his home as the Nazis stamped up and down the streets. And when the money ran out on his films, he'd simply sell an heirloom and keep the cameras rolling.

This fantastic documentary, put together for the BBC's Arena series, leaves no stone unturned and paints a picture of Visconti that is by no means merely complimentary. Visconti is portrayed warts and all, with interviews with his friends and colleagues intercut with old footage of the man himself explaining his professional process and philosophies on life.

Director Adam Low has put together a tremendous look, not only at the man himself, but at the city that made him, the masterpieces he gave back, the people that were affected and the legacy we've been left with. If you've never seen a Visconti film, this documentary will force you to seek one out. Scenes shown from Death in Venice and Rocco and His Brothers don't just give you a glimpse into why Visconti was so respected, they give you enough of a sniff of his work so as to leave you wanting more. In fact, if you can watch the segment on Rocco and His Brothers and not be compelled to find a copy on video, you're a far more cynical type than I - and that's not easy.

In his home country, Visconti was celebrated like a deity. Despite what could be called a checkered past, his private habits didn't concern most Europeans. Luchino likes boys? (shrug) Luchino admits to being a Communist? (shrug) Perhaps Europe is more forgiving for such transgressions from the norm, but it's odd to note that not only would Visconti have been damned in the US as an enemy of the state, but he would have been barred from the film industry altogether for fear that he might spread Communist ideals to the people.

And I'm not talking about the 1950's here. Imagine if Spielberg announced tomorrow morning, "I'm a Communist - I've always been a Communist. And I regularly sleep with 20-year-old boys..." If you think he'd ever be allowed to make another movie in Hollywood, you're mistaken.

And that's perhaps the one sad thing to come out of Arena: The Life and Times of Count Luchino Visconti. There can be little doubt that Viscontis' life was filled with the kind of niceties and achievements most of us only dream of, as well as the kind of narcissism and aloofness we could only hope to avoid. But when it came right down to it, all that mattered for him was the he created art and relayed his thoughts, experiences and lessons in life to the population at large. He was no man of the people, but the people connected - and still connect to this day.

If you're in any way devoted to the artform of cinema, you need to see this documentary and learn more about the small corner of our cinema history that is the life of Luchino Visconti. This is a work that must not be missed.

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originally posted: 09/09/03 15:06:43
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Vancouver Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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  18-Jun-2003 (NR)



Directed by
  Adam Low

Written by
  Adam Low

  James Fox
  Luchino Visconti
  Franco Zeffirelli
  Helmut Berger
  Charlotte Rampling
  Dirk Bogarde

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