American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Visconti's "Senso" (1954) opens in an opera house and in a way never leaves it. This is a passionate and melodramatic romance, with doomed lovers, posturing soldiers, secret meetings at midnight , bold adultery and dramatic deaths. That it mostly takes place in Venice is appropriate — Venice, that city where every view is a backdrop for an aria.
The opening sequence brings all the characters on stage and sets up their stories of doom. Visconti films on location inside the city's La Fenice, that beloved music box of an opera house, destroyed by fire in 1836 and 1996, rebuilt both times. The tiers of boxes are unusual in that they rise straight up one above another, so the patrons are all fully on display. La Fenice is known for more intervals than most houses; in the winter opera season the regulars often know one another, and love to mingle and gossip. As they kept track of the comings and going in other boxes and followed each other's eyes, the theater must have worked in earlier centuries like Facebook.
It is 1866. Intrigue is afoot. The best orchestra seats up front are filled by officers of the occupying Austrian army, dressed in showy whites. In the galleries, patriots distribute leaflets, and these shower down upon the foreigners as, in Verdi's Il Trovatore, the hero cries "To arms! To arms!" The leaflets call for an end to the Austrian presence and the unification of Venice with Italy, then in the making by Garibaldi.
In the melee, sharp words are exchanged between an Austrian soldier and a young Venetian partisan. A duel is set for the following morning. This is observed from a box by Countess Livia Serpieri, whose wealthy husband is one of the aristocracy. Her favorite cousin, Marquis Roberto Ussoni, was the offended partisan. She summons an Austrian officer so she can beg mercy for her cousin. And now all the parts of the tragedy are in motion.