The Futility of the Past: Vaghe Stelle Dell’Orsa/Sandra (1965)

In an early scene, Sandra (Claudia Cardinale) and her American husband, Andrew (Michael Craig) drive through Volterra. Volterra is the Tuscan town she calls home and to which she returns for the dedication of a park to her dead father, a distinguished scientist killed in the camps at Auschwitz. Volterra was also an important Etruscan center before it was taken over by the Florentines (via the Medicis); she points out various Etruscan landmarks and structures to her husband, who documents the past dutifully with his camera. When they reach her family’s stately and decaying palazzo, there are more Etruscan objets d’art which she rapturously and romantically points out. It quickly becomes apparent that the far past of Etruscan civilization stands in for the more recent past of Sandra’s childhood, given her strong emotional reactions to everything in her childhood home. Andrew, recently married to Sandra, looks on with a quiet and romantic delight—he wants to learn more about his wife, whom he feels was born when he met her in Geneva. But he is resolutely apart from it all, noting that her family’s palazzo feels like a “museum.” For in this film, the past is Italian, and the future is American.

Films about the decline of the Italian aristocracy were not new by the time Visconti’s Vaghe Stelle D’Orsa was released in 1965. However, this emotionally and physically violent film may be one of the least subtle. Sandra and her family are not just haunted by the troubling secrets of their past; they continue to relive it and perversely relish it in the present. Her family are illuminated against a long backdrop of the past that includes a pre-Roman civilization; the art and bourgeois legacy of the Medicis; World War II and the camps at Auschwitz; antisemitism and betrayal; a childhood marked by an incestuous love between her and her brother Gianni; her mother’s storied past as a concert pianist; and finally, the inevitable decay of their family’s palazzo, the treasures within which they must sell. The future, by contrast, is much more promising and desirable. The future holds Andrew, who represents a certain kind of more modern bourgeois—sport coat, fluency in several languages, residences in Geneva and New York, a sports car, a portable camera. His distaste for the past and its murky melodrama grows as he watches his newlywed wife be consumed by it and as he realizes how nasty the family secrets really are. But, he is still a modern man: he can forget the past if Sandra will, too. The future is also kindly and ably represented by the young doctor Pietro, who has let go of his past love for Sandra and is focusing on a more modern cure for the illness of Sandra’s mother. Both Andrew and Pietro are “simpatico”; they have a certain integrity and innate kindness which Visconti hints is lacking in Sandra and her family.

For Visconti, the past does not do anyone any good, and the filmmakers make that clear. The reveals of the past are shot in extreme shadow, with faces mostly covered by the darkness, as though in shame. Reveals also take place in spaces of the past: a gallery which contains Etruscan cinerary urns; a disused water tower whose puddles distort realities; an unused wing of the palazzo not lit by bulbs, but by a fireplace. A fierce wind accompanies the revelations, keeping the tellers’ faces covered and their voices partly distorted. The past is also a ghost which must be revealed and conquered. While the bust of Sandra’s father is covered by a white sheet for most of the film, it nonetheless reveals his children’s shame at their mother’s betrayal, and reveals all the ghosts of the past which have remained. In the final scene, Sandra herself dresses in ghostly white as her father’s past is dedicated and her brother’s death is sealed.

The past is also a great source of loneliness, for it encourages a certain kind of self-obsession which cannot be matched or overcome with love. Sandra, Gianni, their mother, and their mother’s husband Gilardini create their individual cocoons of the past, effectively shielding them from true love. Sandra’s cocoon is the possessive love given to her by her brother; Gianni’s is his fantasy novel of a past in which he desires a certain kind of consummation; their mother’s is her music; and Gilardini’s is his fierce denial of Nazi sympathies. Even when they are all together (this film has a marvelous and gripping dinner-table scene near the climax), they are resolutely lonely.

The film beautifully captures that precise moment during which Sandra must decide whether she will move forward toward the future. This film’s greatness is partly attributed to the careful accretion of stories and visual layers which force her toward a decision. We see that the past is hopeless—does she? Will she have the courage to save herself, at the expense of a past that is far longer than her future?

Vaghe Stelle Dell’Orsa (Sandra), dir. Luchino Visconti, 1965. 105 min. Vides Cinematografica, Italy. In Italian, French, English, and Hebrew.

Winner of the 1965 Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, and recently restored by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna in collaboration with Archivio Storico delle Arti Contemporanee (ASAC).