Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice" is a masterpiece of utterly haunting beauty that will capture the imagination of anyone interested in the screen's capacity for breathtaking images. It is a poignant tragedy based on Thomas Mann's classic novella of the same name. Visconti has captured many of the essential qualities of the book and employed a superb visual style (with the assistance of the great cinematographer Pasqualino DeSantis) for a story which is essentially an interior one. It is about the struggle within the soul of a man, Gustav von Aschenbach, a composer vacationing in the Venice of 1911. In Mann's book Aschenbach was a writer, but Visconti asserted that the book had been inspired by events in the life of Gustav Mahler, whose music, mostly the haunting adagietto of his Fifth Symphony, is used as background (and foreground) music, helping create an almost tactile mood of melancholy. Dirk Bogarde plays Aschenbach, a man possessed by feelings of failure, haunted by the grief he and his wife (Marisa Berensen) shared over the death of their daughter. He is a man on the precipice of emotional collapse who finds both redemption and destruction in the contemplation of beauty. "The creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual act." God and composers are alike. In this film beauty becomes incarnate in the form of a young Polish boy vacationing at the same hotel, the Hotel des Bains on the Lido. The boy's stately mother is played by Silvana Mangano. The long-haired blond boy is Tadziu, aged 14, played by the Swedish Bjørn Andresen. Aschenbach is smitten by, then obsessed with, the boy's beauty, in a manner that is more spiritual than sexual, but which must also contain a good deal of sublimated sexual longing. At first he merely steals opportunities to look at the lad. They never speak. Gradually he starts to seek him out, self-destructively spurred-on by the boy's coquettishness and knowing glances. Bogarde makes the character's longing as tangibly moving as it is ultimately pathetic. All this takes place in a misty Venice dense with metaphorical gloom and a mysterious plague (cholera) carrying death to its inhabitants. In one horrifying scene a barber "re-makes" Aschenbach's face so that it is both a grotesque parody of youth and an ominous death mask. Visconti's skill in recreating lush period detail, to paint family-album poses of aristocracy, to make beauty seem dangerous, to underline the complexity of human psychology, are all in evidence here. The color photography by Pasqualino De Santis, and the costumes by Piero Tosi are excellent. The ending of the film is unforgettable: Gustav languishing on the beach, the Polish folk song in the background, the boy Tadziu in the water turning into an angelic apparition with extended hand. Overwhelming! I cannot imagine a better film ever being made of Mann's great and essential work.
Death in Venice
Death in Venice
While recovering in Venice, a sickly composer becomes dangerously fixated with a teenage boy.
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April 1, 2019