Death In Venice

aka MORTE A VENEZIA

Movie Review by S Felce

Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Silvana Mangano, Marisa Berenson, Bjorn Andresen
Director: Luchino Visconti

Visconti started his career as a filmmaker in Italy in 1942 before joining the Italian Neo-realism movement together with De Sica and Rossellini. Since the 1960’s he focused on more personal films, such as his masterpiece THE LEOPARD (1963).

DEATH IN VENICE is one of the later Visconti’s films, and it is his personal adaptation of a novel by Thomas Mann. A famous German composer, Gustav Von Aschernbach (Dirk Bogarde), goes to spend a holiday in Venice to get over his wife’s death and to get his inspiration back. At the hotel where he is staying, his attention is caught by a fourteen year-old Polish boy called Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen), who is in the city with his mother (Silvana Mangano) and his three sisters. Von Aschernbach is struck by the boy’s beauty. But his interest in Tadzio is not malicious. What Von Aschernbach is looking for is an example of pure beauty, which he thought up to then, could only be found in art such as music. After seeing Tadzio, he believes he embodies that ideal of pure beauty. However, as the days go by, his interest in the boy becomes more and more an infatuation. He cannot stop thinking about him or chasing him through the hotel or on the beach but at no point in the film does he talk to him – he just watches him from the distance.

In the meantime, an epidemic that turns out to be Asian Cholera, is killing a lot of people in the city. The guests of the hotel start leaving one by one and Tadzio’s family also gets ready to leave. Von Aschernbach goes down to the beach and watches Tadzio for the last time while the sun is fading away in a stunning Venice landscape.

DEATH IN VENICE received a lot of criticism at the time of its release in 1971, especially for its homosexual connotations. Producers even tried to persuade Visconti to change the character of Tadzio into a woman. However, watching the film today there is nothing outrageous in it. What Visconti is keen to show us is the relationship between art and life, and what Von Aschernbach is searching for is something profound and sacred. The beauty of art, which has always seemed so spiritual and pure, is in front of him in the body of a fourteen year-old.

Sometimes the rhythm of the story seems too slow for a modern audience, yet the whole film never fails to fascinate the viewer. It is just superbly made. Visconti is a master when it comes to exploring people’s deep feelings and you find yourself completely absorbed by the characters’ minds.

Screening of DEATH IN VENICE now will give a young audience a chance to see it for the first time and if they have never come across Visconti before, they will probably want to discover more of his films.

3 out of 6 stars

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