Also showing: Luchino Visconti

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, Nanni Moretti ... Italy has a long tradition of producing left-leaning directors whose films go to extremes to portray the country's reactionary political culture.

But none can rival Luchino Visconti as one of the most unlikely characters to spearhead the country's Marxist filmmaking. After all, this is an aristocratic playboy with a passion for fine art and horses, and someone whose noble lineage goes back to the 12th century.

Just like Bertolucci and Bellocchio - who hail from well-heeled, but less distinguished families - Visconti sets himself apart from those of his class by seeing through the decadence that permeates political and social elite.

Take Bellissima, one of Visconti's first films from 1951. Hard on the heels on the more pastoral-minded and documentary-like drama The Earth Trembles (a 1948 piece about the predicaments of exploited Sicilian fishermen), the film articulates the misguided and desperate measures a young woman (Anna Magnani) takes to make her daughter a movie star, draining the family financially, physically and emotionally.

Rather than chiding the woman as manipulative (as Noel Coward's song Mrs Worthington did almost two decades earlier), Visconti is firmly on her side. Magnani's ravishing presence is unable to conceal the fact that Italy, in the years after the second world war, was infested with a social disease, something that receives even more ruthless scrutiny in Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and - despite its focus shifting to an heiress-in-distress - The Job (1963).

It's in his historical epics - beginning with The Leopard (1963), set in Sicily during the Italian reunification wars in the late 19th century - that Visconti left his mark as a director determined to puncture the amorality of the privileged classes through the prism of noble families in decline.

The Damned (1969, left, starring Visconti's lover Helmut Berger) has at its centre a German industrialist working with the Nazis to hold on to his fortunes. Ludwig (1972) explores the life of the delusional Prussian monarch with a penchant for extravagant castles. And then there's the more delicate but no less damning works of the filmmaker's last years: Conversation Piece (1974) is perhaps Visconti's account of his own slow demise, his doppelganger on screen being Burt Lancaster's dying art historian wallowing in self-pity at his family estate; while The Innocent (1976), Visconti's last film, ends with the breakdown of the traditional family.

Luchino Visconti retrospective, Apr 14-May 6. For programme details, go to eng/programme