While working on a Strangers on a Train blog for the Cafe earlier this year, I took a side trip into the career of one of its stars, Farley Granger. I'd been barely aware of his work, so when TCM devoted an evening to films "Starring Farley Granger" in April, I recorded and watched them all. But one film eluded me, a film that is among Granger's own favorites, along with Hitchcock's Strangers... and Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night (1949) - Luchino Visconti's lavish period spectacle, Senso. Soon fate kindly stepped in and tossed a bit of synchronicity my way. A few days after TCM's Granger showcase, I received a pair of passes to this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Leafing through the program, I was surprised to find Senso listed among the screenings.
The well-established 53-year-old San Francisco's International Film Festival primarily focuses on contemporary films from around the world; this year 150 films from every corner of the globe were featured as well as events honoring Robert Duvall, Roger Ebert, Walter Murch and others. 57-year-old Senso (newly restored) might seem an unlikely entry, but the film is of elemental significance to the festival; its U.S. premiere took place at the inaugural San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957.
Opulent, operatic and visually rich, Senso is set in Venice during the 1860's, when Italy was occupied by Austria, and tells the tale of an Italian countess (Alida Valli) whose intense illicit affair with an Austrian military officer (Granger) ends in betrayal and mad revenge.
It is said that Italian neorealism began with Luchino Visconti 's Ossessione (1943). With Senso, Visconti made his first departure from the genre he helped pioneer. And what a departure - grand and grandiose, vivid and sensuous. This is a truly beautiful film (three-strip technicolor), an epic of passionate romance and passionate rebellion...accented with wit and humor. Though Alida Valli's performance as the excitable countess is at times near hysteria, Granger delivers one of his best performances as her good-looking and manipulative good-for-not-very-much lover.
Visconti has been credited with influencing great filmmakers of later generations and there were moments during the film when his profound influence on Francis Coppola was never more apparent.
In introducing the film, a festival VIP declared that Senso should only be seen at the Castro Theatre. I couldn't agree more; the film and theater together created an experience of unforgettable grandeur.
(Screenwriter Suso Cecchi D'Amico who worked with Visconti on all but two of his screenplays passed away last Saturday at age 96; D'Amico collaborated on Senso)
G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) - 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 17, Castro Theatre
Diary of a Lost Girl headlined the 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival's Saturday night program. Set in Germany's Weimar era and replete with cruelty, betrayal and debauchery, the melodrama follows an innocence-downfall-redemption trajectory.
The film opens as Thymian Henning (Brooks) celebrates her day of confirmation - but the festivities come to an abrupt end when a just-fired servant takes her own life. Undone by events and their implications, Thymian is seduced by her father's assistant (Fritz Rasp). Sent to a reformatory run by proto-Nazi grotesques, she escapes to a brothel and goes on to become a countess by way of a dissipated (and disinherited) aristocrat. Miraculously, a transformed Thymian eventually takes charge of the reformatory where she was once locked away.
Pabst, the story goes, actually had a very different plan for the film's ending. His original intent was for Thymian to become a wildly successful madam, a woman who scoffed at the German bourgeoisie...
G. W. Pabst's cinematic mastery and intelligence along with Louise Brooks' star power envigorate a potentially trite tale. Supporting players Fritz Rasp, Andrews Engelmann and Valeska Gert enrich Pabst's dark potion. Brooks navigates Thymian's travails from naive girl to worldly woman with lithe physicality and subtlety. She and Dietrich could together have ruled the femme fatale corner of cinema for years, if only...As it was, Brooks functioned as Pabst's muse in two of his best-known works and, decades later, achieved screen immortality.
The world famous Mont Bela Motion Picture Orchestra premiered its new score for Diary of a Lost Girl at this screening. The chamber ensemble orchestra is dedicated to reviving the authentic period sound of the silent film orchestra.
The Castro was built in 1922 by San Francisco theater pioneers, the Nasser brothers. It was designed by well-known Bay Area architect Timothy Pflueger. The theater's exterior design suggests a Mexican cathedral and the interior is decorated in the Spanish Renaissance style with Moorish Tent, Oriental Zodiac and Art Deco touches.
From 1922 to 1976, the Castro showcased first and second run mainstream films. In 1976 the theater, under new management, began to present repertory cinema, foreign films, film festivals and special first run presentations. This continues today with the Castro's ongoing schedule of special programs.
In 1977 the theater was designated San Francisco's registered landmark #100 and in 1982 the Castro's Conn organ was replaced with a "mighty Wurlitzer."
In 2001 the Nasser family took over operation of the theater once again and made extensive improvements and upgrades.