Italian director Luchino Visconti died just months before the premiere of his final film, the grim period melodrama L’Innocente. (Advertising materials in English-speaking territories bore the translated title The Innocent.) In some ways, the picture makes a fitting cinematic epitaph, since it touches on issues of class and morality that infuse Vischonti’s more celebrated films, but in other ways, it’s a comedown from the intellectually ambitious triumphs of The Damned (1969), Death in Venice (1971), and Conversation Piece (1974). By comparison to those films, L’Innocente is a lurid soap opera without enough thematic weight to support its narrative extremes. The picture also suffers for inconsistent acting among the leading players, because American actress Jennifer O’Neill delivers merely serviceable work. (During post-production, O’Neill’s dialogue was dubbed into Italian by another performer.) Costar Laura Antonelli gives a more impressive performance, though her many nude scenes are distracting; as always, Antonelli’s erotic presence receives more attention than her respectable acting skills. Of the three principal players, only leading man Giancarlo Giannini truly elevates the material, investing his role as a borderline sociopath with real menace.
Taking place in Italy circa the late 1900s, L’Innocente tells a simple story about lust, pride, and revenge. The marriage of rich Italians Guiliana (Antonelli) and Tullio (Giannini) has gone cold, not least because of Tullio’s open-secret affair with another wealthy aristocrat, Teresa (O’Neill). As tension grows because Teresa finds her position as the other woman more and more untenable, Giuliana begins an affair of her own with Filippo (Marc Porel). He treats Giuliana with respect, and their intimacy burns with a passion long missing from Guiliana’s marriage, hence the extensive bedroom scenes between Filippo and Guitliana. Despite having taken her for granted, Tullio becomes jealous of his wife’s newfound romance, and his jealousy informs the dark events of the movie’s second half.
Based on a novel by Gabriele d’Annunzio, L’Innocente could easily have been presented as a taut morality tale running perhaps 90 minutes. As directed by Vischonti with his usual stately pacing, the movie loses intensity at regular intervals, even though the final half-hour, which is filled with horrific tragedy, commands attention. The question, of course, is whether the preceding hour and a half is enough to pull viewers along. For some, the answer will be yes, thanks to sumptuous costuming and production design, in addition to Giannini’s performance, the beauty of the leading ladies, and the general tawdriness of the storyline. For others, getting through the film’s slow stretches to reach the climax will require considerable willpower. And if there’s a profound theme buried inside L’Innocente, beyond trite assertions about how selfish men pay terrible costs for living empty lives, it’s not immediately apparent after one viewing.