Death in Venice

Director: Luchino Visconti
Screenplay: Luchino Visconti & Nicola Badalucco (based on the novella by Thomas Mann)
Stars: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Thaddeus, AKA Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Thaddeus’s mother), Romolo Valli (Hotel manager), Nora Ricci (Governess), Franco Fabrizi (Barber), Carole André (Esmeralda the prostitute), Sergio Garfagnoli (Jasiu, Polish youth)
MPAA Rating: GP
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Italy / France / U.S.
Death in Venice Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Death in Venice

Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Thomas Mann’s celebrated 1911 novella Death in Venice is visually beautiful and emotionally and thematically hollow. While the film should be simmering with emotional conflict and artistic torment and philosophical despair, it is instead a mostly tedious paean to Romantic ideals set against drab gray skies. In lieu of emotional engagement, Visconti and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis (who had recently won an Oscar for his work on Franco Zefferilli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet) instead supply us with no end of languorous pans of well-appointed rooms full of handsomely clothed aristocrats and other wealthy denizens of the early 20th-century European upper crust. The film’s production design has rightly been celebrated, as it impeccably evokes a cloistered world of wealth and privilege (one that the director knew firsthand, having been born into a wealthy Italian family), but Visconti fails to dramatize anything of substance in that world, leaving us with little more than a pretty shell to admire.

Dirk Bogarde, who also starred in Visconti’s previous film, the notorious rise-of-the-Third-Reich psychodrama The Damned (1969), plays Gustav von Aschenbach, a famed composer who is retreating to Venice for personal and health-related reasons. While in Venice, he becomes obsessed with a teenage boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), who is staying at the same hotel with his family. Tadzio is an androgynous beauty with flowing blonde hair, long limbs, and perfect cheekbones who alternates between boyish naivete and an disturbing self-possession that he uses to tempt Gustav whenever he is in his presence. Far from an abstract vision of idealized beauty, Tadzio is a knowing tease who stokes Gustav’s desire, although he always remains at a coy distance. While Gustav’s longing in Mann’s novel was deeply complicated, Visconti reduces it to simple lust for a self-aware tormenter, which undercuts the film’s higher aspirations to engage in a genuine exploration of the nature of art and beauty (in a television interview Visconti argued that the film is a love story about a “higher love,” one that is neither sexual nor erotic, but the film definitely suggests otherwise). Visconti and his co-screenwriter Nicola Badalucco (with whom he had previously collaborated on The Damned) handle this somewhat clumsily by adding flashback scenes in which Gustav debates with a fellow composer (Mark Burns) about beauty, which for Gustav is the product of intellectual and artistic creation, while his friend insists that it is an inherent part of nature.

Such debates are purely academic and really have little bearing on our experience of the film, as these flashbacks play mainly as respites from the growing tedium of the Venice scenes, in which Gustav gazes on Tadzio from afar while a cholera epidemic slowly engulfs the city. According to Visconti, one of the primary themes of the film is Gustav’s realization that beauty does indeed exist apart from artistic creation, which intellectually explains his obsession with Tadzio, but doesn’t make the film any more emotionally engaging. We get bits and pieces of Gustav’s life, including the fact that he has a younger wife (Marisa Berenson) and a deceased child, but it makes little difference since he exists largely as a stand-in symbol of the tortured artist; par excellence; he’s a type, not a character. Visconti doesn’t give Bogarde much to do but pine and fuss, instead handing most of the heavy lifting over to Gustav Mahler’s Third and Fifth Symphonies, which blanket much of the soundtrack. (Mann apparently based Aschenbach on Mahler, but turned him into a writer in the novella; Visconti changed him back to a composer and had Bogarde made up to look like Mahler.) There are moments of intense visual pleasure in Death in Venice, but they are scattered in an ocean of increasing monotony that even the film’s arguably unseemly subject matter is powerless to disrupt.

Death in Venice Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, 2008 documentary
  • Alla ricerca di Tadzio, 1970 short film by Visconti
  • New program featuring literature and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini
  • Interview from 2006 with costume designer Piero Tosi
  • Excerpt from a 1990 program about the music in Visconti’s films, featuring Bogarde and actor Marisa Berenson
  • Interview with Visconti from 1971
  • Visconti’s Venice, 1970 behind-the-scenes documentary
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Dennis Lim
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateFebruary 19, 2019

    COMMENTS
    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Death in Venice reflects a joint restoration effort by the Cineteca di Bologna and Instituto Luca Cinecittà in collaboration with Warner Bros. and Criterion. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 4K and color correction was supervised by cinematographer Marco Pontecorvo, who is described in the liner notes as a “disciple” of Pasqualino De Santis, the film’s cinematographer (who passed away in 1996). Thus, it is not hard to see that the presentation here is a true representation of its 1971 theatrical look, which is quite soft, even hazy at times, with a great deal of film grain (the opening shot, which is slow, slow fade from black to an image of a ship on the ocean against a sunset, is positively swirling with it). I was pleased to see how true to the soft-focus photography the transfer has remained, with no attempts to artificially sharpen it or otherwise force it to look “modern.” Colors are generally muted, and contrast and detail are both very good. The original soundtrack is presented in Linear PCM monaural and sounds quite good. The excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s symphonies are rich and deep, and dialogue is always clear (note that, this being an international coproduction, all the voices have been dubbed in postproduction, which means a lot of words not synching up to actors’ mouths very well). This being Criterion’s first release of a Visconti film in a number of years (their last was Senso, which was more than 400 spine numbers ago), they have definitely piled on the supplements, starting with Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, a nearly hour-long documentary from 2008 about the director’s life and career that features then-new and archival interviews with Visconti; actors Burt Lancaster, Marcello Mastroianni, and Silvana Mangano; and fellow Italian directors Francesco Rosi and Franco Zeffirelli; among others. From the deeper archives we get Alla ricerca di Tadzio, a 30-minute program from 1970 about Visconti’s European search for an actor to play Tadzio; a short, promotional behind-the-scenes documentary made in 1970 that features interviews with Visconti and actor Dirk Bogarde; an 8-minute excerpt from Musiques Au Coeur, a French TV documentary about the use of music in Visconti’s films that features interviews with Bogarde and actor Marisa Berenson; a 2006 TV program Talking About Italian Cinema in which production designer Piero Tosi discusses his work on the film; and a 3-minute interview with Visconti in June 1971 on the news program Midi. Finally, Criterion has produced “Showing the Story,” a new 24-minute program in which literature and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini discusses the film in relation to Italian culture and Visconti’s long career.

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2)



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