A torrid tragedy? A turgid travesty? A lurid melodrama? I've never read Gabrielle D'Annunzio, from whose 1892 novel L'Innocente this film was scripted, but I suspect the scriptwriters have been devoutly faithful to the author. The film is torrid, lurid, melodramatic, and tragic enough for the most romance-obsessed viewer, and yet it also rather sardonically depicts a moral travesty. The consequences of Love -- passionate Love, Eros rather than Agape -- are disastrous: cruelty, immorality, betrayal, murder, and suicide. Yes sirree, it's a red velvet, diamond-choker, bodice-ripper of a melodrama. Since I haven't read D'Annunzio, I don't know how stylish his writing was, but the plot of this film could be handled very neatly in a Harlequin Romance. It's also a bit of a skin flick, with righteously torrid scenes between Laura Antonelli (the neglected wife) and Giancarlo Giannini (the neglectful husband whose concupiscence is re-invigorated by jealousy). Antonelli is gorgeous, but her 'rival' Jennifer O'Neill (Tullio's mistress) is even more gorgeous, wherefore one could complain that she isn't given equal uncoverage in the film.
Oh, it is a gorgeous film. The salons and boudoirs of the elite effete of Italian wealth and 'family' are sumptuously photographed. The costumes of the ladies wafting their beauty like potent perfumes through those salons are delectable to the eyes. Life among the aristocracy of the late 19th C was, it seems, deliciously lax and lazy ... and I wish I'd been there! Gabrielle D'Annunzio was prolific, flamboyant, an adventurer and aviator, and a devout voluptuary, so there has to be an intended ambiguity in the film's portrayal of the husband Tullio, in that Tullio's expressed values are exactly what d'Annunzio manifested, yet Tullio's fate implies the inevitable failure of those values.
D'Annunzio was fabulously popular as a writer but his career extended into politics and social agitation. He was an immense influence on the thinking and the behavior of Benito Mussolini; it's said the Mussolini modeled his public image on a character from a d'Annunzio novel. ""D'Annunzio has been described as the John the Baptist of Italian Fascism, as virtually the entire ritual of Fascism was invented by D'Annunzio during his occupation of Fiume and his leadership of the Italian Regency of Carnaro. These included the balcony address, the Roman salute, the cries of 'Eia, eia, eia! Alala!', the dramatic and rhetorical dialogue with the crowd, the use of religious symbols in new secular settings. It also included his economics of the corporate state; stage tricks; large emotive nationalistic public rituals; blackshirted followers with their disciplined, bestial responses and strong-arm repression of dissent."" One of D'Annunzio's most revealing novels is Il Fuoco of 1900, in which he portrays himself as the "Nietzschean" Superman Stelio Effrena, in a fictionalized account of his love affair with Eleonora Duse.
And there we have it again, the Romantic cult of the Exceptional Individual, the World Hero, the man superior to the morality of and indifferent to the welfare of the 'common horde' of humanity. D'Annunzio was indisputably the Ayn Rand of his land and language.
But hey, let's not hold THAT against this voluptuous film by the brilliant Italian director Luchino Visconti. In fact, Visconti's keen eye for the repulsiveness and emptiness of D'Annunzio's "beautiful people" is what saves this film from being mere over-ripe escapism. Pay attention, if you watch it, to the dignity and disapproval of the servants in those salons. They're the monitors of sanity and decency in this lascivious culture.