Senso is a 1954 film adaptation of Camillo Boito's Italian novella, Senso, by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, with Alida Valli as Livia and Farley Granger as Lieutenant Franz Mahler (a name change for the Remigio Ruz character and Visconti's tribute to Gustav Mahler, one of his favourite composers whose music features in the later Death in Venice).
Originally, Visconti wanted Ingrid Bergman and Marlon Brando for the starring roles but the producer denied it. Both Franco Zeffirelli and Franco Rosi, later well-known film directors in the their own right, worked as Visconti's Assistant Directors.
Visconti strayed so far away from the original source, that at one point he thought of renaming the film Custoza, after the big battle that occurs during the climax, but was denied due to legal reasons.
Visconti's original ending where Livia wanders like a whore through the ransacked Venice in a nearly catatonic state while being accosted by drunken Italian soldiers was banned by Italian censors because it was regarded as an outrage to the Italian army. The final scene that closes the film was shot later, in order to wrap up Senso in a more-or-less positive light.
The film opens in the La Fenice opera house in Venice with a performance of Il Trovatore. The opera is interrupted by a major protest of Italian Nationalists against the occupying Austrian troops present in the theatre. Livia, an Italian Countess who is unhappily married to a stuffy old aristocrat, bears witness to this and tries to conceal the fact that her own cousin Marquis Roberto Ussoni organized the protest. During the commotion, she meets a dashing young Austrian Officer named Franz Mahler, and is instantly smitten by him. The two begin a secretive and highly forbidden love affair. Despite the obvious fact that Franz was responsible for sending Roberto into exile because of his radical behavior, Livia vainly pretends not to be aware of it.
Although he is obviously using her for her money and social status, Livia throws herself into an affair of complete sexual abandon with Franz, giving away all her money and not caring what the high society thinks about her. But soon, Franz begins failing to show up for their trysts and Livia is slowly consumed with jealousy and paranoia.
The war finally forces the lovers apart, with Livia's husband making her move away to their villa in the country in order to avoid the carnage. Late one night, Franz sneaks his way into Livia's bedroom, where he asks her for more money in order to bribe the army doctors to have him stay away from the battle field; Livia complies, giving away all of the money she was holding for Roberto, who intended to supply with it the partisans who were fighting the Austrians. Livia's betrayal leads to tragic consequences; the Austrians brutally slaughter the under-equipped Italians.
Eventually, Livia is almost driven mad by the fact that she is unable to see Franz and rejoices when a letter from him finally arrives. In it, he tells her how much he loves and misses her and that the money she gave him helped him stay away from the front. He advises Livia not to look for him, but she does not listen. As soon as possible, Livia, still grasping the letter, boards a carriage and returns to Venice to find her lover, where she soon discovers what her indescretion has caused amidst the chaos of corpses and gloating Austrian soldiers.
Once there, Livia makes her way through the carnage; to the apartment which she herself had bought for Franz. But all she finds is a drunken, self-loathing rogue in the company of a prostitute, who openly mocks Livia for letting him use her like that.
Franz brutally throws Livia out of his apartement, and the cuckolded woman finds herself in the streets full of drunk, sleazy soldiers. Livia soon realizes that she still has Franz's letter in her hands, and nothing remains now but mutual self-destruction.
Tinto Brass remade the story as Senso '45 (retitled Black Angel for the international release) in 2002 when he read the novella and found himself unsatisfied with Visconti's version. The film starred Anna Galiena as Livia and Gabriel Garko as her lover. The story of the film is much more faithful to Camillo Boito's work than the earlier adaptation in terms of tone and story, but the action was transported from the War of Unification to the end of World War II, with Remigio becoming a Nazi Lieutenant and Livia updated to being the wife of a high ranking Fascist official. Brass later explained that the change in time was made because he couldn't possibly bring himself to compete with Visconti's vision of Risorgimento-era Italy.
Unlike the 1954 version, Senso '45 did not romanticize the affair between Livia and Mahler (Helmut Schultz in the 2002 film), the film showed it for what it was: a clinical study of vanity and lust.
The film went on to win Italian cinema's "Silver Ribbon" Award for best costume design.