Luchino Visconti’s The Innocent is coldly distant, even as its characters are put through the ringer. Visconti’s last film, it is a period 19th century tale of manipulation and jealousy, set within the restrictive social mores and aristocratic decadence of the time.
Giancarlo Gianni stars as the thoroughly unpleasant Tullio, who abandons his wife Giuliana (Laura Antonelli) for more exciting and demanding mistress Teresa (Jennifer O’Neill), only to become furious with jealous rage when Guiliana in turn takes up with her own lover, novelist Filippo d’Arborio. Tullio sets out to win his wife back at any costs, even though he doesn’t actually love her, and succeeds. Unfortunately, Giuliana is already pregnant with her lover’s child, and refuses to have an abortion. When the child is born, Tullio hates him immediately as a physical reminder of his wife’s infidelity – and so, it seems, does Guiliana, both refusing to have anything to publicly do with the child. Eventually, Tullio’s jealousy pushes him to do the unthinkable, and kill the child. But this move doesn’t have the effect he had hoped for, and his seemingly controlled life quickly spirals out of control, as we discover that he is not the only person playing games.
Visually gorgeous, The Innocent is sometimes heavy going as a story, it’s distant characters and mannered approach not exactly drawing the viewer in, the film progressing at a determinedly slow pace. But as the story progresses, the characters start to lose their sense of control, and reveal their true emotions – and the film becomes more intriguing as a result. Tullio is one of the great cinematic monsters, a man so self-absorbed and so possessive that he will destroy any life and do anything just to feel in control. The fact that he increasingly loses control over both his wife and his mistress is the thing that sends him off the deep end eventually.
Gianni plays this villain with aplomb, while Antonelli – better known for sex comedies than costume dramas – is impressively fragile as Guiliana, a woman who seems to be manipulated throughout most of the film, but ultimately reveals herself to be quite the manipulator. She also shares some surprisingly frank nude love scenes with Gianni, which seem infused with passion, hatred and despair – there’s certainly no love in this lovemaking. Indeed, there are no really likeable or identifiable characters in this story – everyone is out for themselves, everyone is manipulating others to get what they want. Tullio might be the most openly monstrous, but he’s certainly not the only monster here.
Visconti’s final film may not be his best work – and it’s certainly not the best known – but it remains, nevertheless, an impressively bleak drama that combines some of the lushest visuals that you can hope to see with one of the darkest stories ever committed to film. Admirers of the great Italian director – or, for that matter, fans of dark costume drama – will find much to appreciate in this film.