‘The Innocent’ or — Infantile Thanatos?

‘The Innocent’ (1976) is visually and morally decadent, obsessed with mortality, existentially isolated, riddled with thematically profound chintz and uncompromisingly bleak which can mean only one thing — it’s a Luchino Visconti movie, folks!

Tullio (Giancarlo Giannini) is an aristocratic Italian suffering from depression, possibly because he’s realised he’s stuck in a fucking Visconti film and can’t escape. Tullio has a mistress (Jennifer O’Neill), a mistress he constantly complains about to his wife, Giuliana (Laura Antonelli), so it’s quite understandable when the poor woman decides to have an affair of her own.

The thing is Tullio is a decadent nihilist who, in the absence of God and (in his mind) social laws, has painted himself into an existential corner: he feels free to do as he wishes yet is consumed by jealousy when others do the same; he proclaims to be greater than others by facing the emptiness of existence yet yearns for intimacy more than anything else; he revels in “primitive liberty” yet is needy beyond belief. So he is not truly an atheist; he is a petulant child still grieving for the irrecoverable loss of idealised, oceanic mother-love.

He is an abandoned infant who has abandoned himself by cutting himself off from others, a non-believer who has personally “killed” God (and will do so again and at Christmas no less) and so, therefore, must exact his infantile revenge on an enemy as a way of dealing with his narcissistic rage. Tullio’s victim, and the way he commits the crime, only emphasises how pathetic this supposed “liberated” human being really is and just how dark his isolating void within is. In short, Tullio’s an asshole who has forgotten we are social creatures.

‘The Innocent’, based on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novel, was Visconti’s final film as he died on its completion and it is remarkable for a number of reasons. Most striking is how measured ‘The Innocent’ is with it lacking a lot of the emotional histrionics, excessive ridiculousness, operatic lunacy and crazed theatrics of the director’s previous works, although this could also be down to the fact Visconti was also seriously ill at the time. Gone are the huge swathes of Mahler, lavish balls and countless extras. Instead there is a laser-focus on mortality and the approach of that final breath and this, ultimately, seems to be what’s driving this work.

I’m not sure I can think of another movie, with the exception of Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue’ (1993), made by a filmmaker so aware of their own imminent death. The black and red colours are spectacular but as funereal as the inside of a coffin whilst the clashing of whites frequently augments the sensation we’re viewing persons already in the act of disappearing.

By the end it almost feels as though Visconti is identifying with both Tullio and his victim with the two being snuffed out of existence in acts that encompass decadence, self-destruction and innocence. This is a film totally dominated by the inevitable cold of death and easily Visconti’s most downbeat work, and that’s really saying something.

Still, ‘The Innocent’ is both fascinating and immaculately handled. When the film finally cuts away from the claustrophobic blacks and reds of those oppressive interiors to the blazing, yet comforting, creams and greens of a country house the effect is startling, almost as though this is Visconti saying goodbye to these colours one last time, practically embracing them in farewell.

Yet watching this morbid procession of a movie left me feeling it was TOO much, TOO embracing of what is a natural process of existence to the exclusion of life itself. So, unlike with ‘Death in Venice’ (1971) or ‘The Damned’ (1969), I never once found myself rolling about on the floor in hysterics at the film’s flamboyant idiocy meaning, to utilise a cliché usually reserved for Woody Allen, when it comes to ‘The Innocent’ I prefer Visconti’s earlier, funny movies.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.