There are several reasons why the Luchino Visconti film called Lo Straniero (The Stranger) in Italian is splendid, but the biggest reason is because it doesn't in the least bit seem like a Luchino Visconti film. This could explain why Visconti's fans never liked it, because it lacks the idiosyncratic qualities that marked - and, in my opinion, marred - most of his films: the attention to a sometimes suffocating production design, the preoccupation with cultural decline and decay, and with love which time or circumstance make impossible. The Stranger (1967) lacks these qualities, and is a quite arrestingly beautiful achievement.
When he approached the widow of Albert Camus (Camus had been killed in a spectacular car crash in 1960 at the age of 46) for the rights to make his novel L'étranger into a film, Visconti wanted to update it to avoid having to re-create French colonial Algiers and to give the story more topicality, since Algerians had recently managed to persuade the French to abandon their colonial designs on their country. Mme Camus, however, insisted on total faithfulness to the book, down to the most insignificant period detail. Despite the passage of thirty years, however, Visconti managed to appease Mme Camus and make the pre-war era seem closer than it was.
Once he got down to making the film, with a honed-down script by himself and Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Visconti had a few things in his favor. The location shooting in Algiers exudes - thanks to the irreplaceable presence of Giuseppe Rotunno behind the camera - the striking beauty of Camus's city, and catches the right sensual atmosphere of his "summer in Algiers." Marcello Mastroianni is noticeably not French - an inescapable fact that caused some critics to grumble; but he is near-perfection as Meursault.(1) And Piero Piccioni contributed to the film a subtle and suitably alienating modernist musical score.
When I first saw Visconti's film more than thirty years ago, it was the French-dubbed version. Although Mastroianni spoke passable French, he was dubbed by another (French) actor, which effectively cut his performance in half. I have lately - last week - had the pleasure of seeing the Italian version, with Mastroianni's own voice restored,and the difference is crucial. Hearing the first line of the novel in Italian, "Oggi mama e morte" ("Mother died today") was perfectly apposite to the balmy atmosphere of the film.
Visconti knew that what was central to the story of a young Frenchman's misadventure one summer in Algiers is the portrait of a man out of sync with his surroundings, a truly estranged man. The plot of one Arab's efforts to defend the honor of his sister against the abuses of a Frenchman (Masson) and Meursault's chance involvement in the feud becomes, in Camus's sensual prose, a pretext for the portrayal of a man who lives in a world that expects from him things that he can't bring himself to give. He can't show grief at his mother's death because he doesn't feel it. He begins an affair with a girl while he is supposed to be in mourning. He is sickened by a pathetic old man's attachment to his dog, and the old man's bewildered sadness when the dog runs away. And he befriends an obvious pimp, and shoots an Arab to death with the pimp's gun because the sun at the beach was so overwhelming. Asked at his murder trial to say something in his defense, all Meursault can say is "It was because of the sun."
The novel was a collection, really, of scenes in which Meursault isn't so much involved with events in the world around him as he is diverted by them. After his girlfriend departs his flat one Sunday morning, he spends the rest of the day eating and smoking in a chair, watching the life of the city below his window parade past. The scene seems meaningless, but it is central to the novel, and Visconti realizes it beautifully. At the close of the scene, Meursault sees his reflection in the mirror and thinks (in Stuart Gilbert's translation), "It occurred to me that somehow I'd got through another Sunday . . ." How many times have I recalled those very words, having got myself through innumerable Sundays?
The OTHER great scene in the novel, when the prison chaplain visits Meursault's cell uninvited, is integral to advancing Camus's peculiarly sensual atheism. Visconti and Rotunno put us in Meursault's cell, cut off from the light and life outside of his barred window. We are drawn, like Meursault, to peer out through those bars at the tiny patch of sky and its changing colors as night passes into day.
The chaplain, whom Meursault had repeatedly refused to see, tells Meursault: "These stone walls, I know it only too well, are steeped in human suffering. I've never been able to look at them without a shudder. And yet - believe me, I am speaking from the depths of my heart - I know that even the wretchedest amongst you have sometimes see, taking form against that grayness, a divine face. It's that face you are asked to see."
And Meursault narrates: 'I informed him that I'd been staring at those walls for months; there was nobody, nothing in the world, I knew better than I knew them. And once upon a time, perhaps, I used to try to see a face. But it was a sun-gold face, lit up with desire - Marie's face. I had no luck; I'd never seen it, and now I'd given up trying. Indeed, I'd never seen anything "taking form," as he called it, against those gray walls.'
A pleasant surprise in the cast is Anna Karina, freed from Godard's clutches, in the role of Marie. She sweetly elicits her love for Meursault, which is most touching in the trial in the trial scenes and in her visits to the jail in which Meursault is confined. She makes one feel keenly the pang of regret that he must have felt when she stops writing to him or paying him visits.
Camus's novel has been a disturbingly cool favorite of mine ever since I was lucky enough to read it when I was twenty. And Visconti's film is as lovely and faithful a companion piece to the book as I could have wanted.
(1) In the novel, Camus never told us Meursault's first name. In the film, he is dubbed "Artur."