Sandwiched between the Verdian canvas of The Leopard and the succès d'estime of The Stranger, this Luchino Visconti houthouse opus remains relatively obscure, more compact in its scale yet a key transitional work. The promised exoticism of the title's idiotic English translation aside, Claudia Cardinale's eponymous heiress is less odalisque than jet-setting Elektra, returning, American husband (Michael Craig) in tow, to her roots in a palatial Volterra manor. In town to honor her dead father, Cardinale is faced with a nightmarish gallery of figures from her past, including her babbling wreck of a mother (Maria Bell), rancorous stepfather (Renzo Ricci) and, most notably, her younger bro (Jean Sorel), a layabout lothario primed to exploit their unwholesomely close youth with a roman à clef. The movie is no less operatic for being deprived of the director's trademark Technicolor delirium -- it abounds in hushed scandals, subterranean rendezvous, characters moving in and out of chiaroscuro and pounding out their turmoil onto pianos. Visconti's atmosphere is voluptuously contaminated, with family as the main source of rot: perched somewhere between the elegiac dignity of Leopard nobility and the free-flowing depravity of The Damned clan, the familial laces are so knotted by unsavory phantoms (there's much whispering about concentration camps and bungled suicides) that incest starts looking merely like the logical extension. The erosion of family is linked not to outside forces but to internal, oppressive tensions inherent to the structure (and, by extension, to the aristocracy), links that bridge Cardinale with her brother's passionate decadence, no matter how hard she tries to towel off the past. From there, it's only a step to the complete pollution of The Damned. Screenplay by Visconti, Suso Cecchi d'Amico and Enrico Medioli. Cinematography by Armando Nanuzzi. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce