(25th Anniversary Prize Winner at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival) Based on the novella by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice is the story of a composer who is entranced by the beauty of a young boy who is staying at a hotel in Venice where the composer is recovering from illness. Directed by Luchino Visconti and screenplay by Visconti and Nicolas Badalucco, the film is an exploration of a relationship between this ailing composer and a young boy that is set during the turn of the century as it explores a man’s obsession with beauty. Starring Dirk Bogarde, Mark Burns, Marisa Berenson, Romolo Valli, Silvana Mangano, and Bjorn Andresen. Death in Venice is a majestic and evocative film from Luchino Visconti.
Set in turn of the century Venice, the film revolves around an avant-garde composer whose ailing health forces him to go to the Italian city where he stays at a hotel where he is stunned by the beauty of a young boy. It is a film that explores a man coping with loss and disappointment as he is also dealing with this search for ideal beauty as he would find it in this young Polish boy while also dealing with what is happening with the city as the hotel staff and some of people in the posh areas of Venice refuse to tell him. The film’s screenplay by Luchino Visconti and Nicolas Badalucco is straightforward as it plays into the world of Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) who is trying to recover from his illness as he would look back at parts of his life from his family life and his own desire to find beauty and perfection through his music that often lead to arguments with his colleague Alfred (Mark Burns).
While in Venice trying to recover from illness, Gustav sees the young Polish boy Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen) who is with his mother and sisters at the Venetian resort. Tadzio is really more of a presence and idea of what Gustav is trying to find in his idea of beauty while the script also suggests homoeroticism where Gustav often stares at Tadzio and would follow him whenever Tadzio is with his family.
Visconti’s direction is ravishing for the world that he creates where much of the film is shot on location in Venice as well as locations in Germany while much of the interior scenes of the hotel is shot at Cinecetta Studios in Rome. Visconti’s compositions capture so much attention to detail the world that Gustav is living in as there is this air of disconnect with all of the people living in the hotel resort with its open beaches and exquisite meals are unaware of what is happening in the city. Something Gustav would notice as Venice is having this season where the hotel manager (Romolo Valli) is claiming that it’s just rumors as Gustav doesn’t notice anything about what is happening in the newspapers as well. It adds to the atmosphere of the film where Gustav’s flashbacks are often seen as idyllic and dream-like in scenes with his wife (Marisa Berenson) but also filled with unease in scenes with Alfred including a chilling flashback of Gustav at his lowest. They’re presented largely in medium shots and close-ups to play into Gustav’s own sense of longing and despair as he is in Venice in this hotel where nothing feels real except for this young boy who represents this idealism of beauty.
Visconti’s wide shots really capture not just the scope of the beach as well as a room where the guests are waiting to be served in the dining room. It also has him creating some unique compositions and visuals that add to the atmospheric beauty that surrounds Gustav and Tadzio where the former watches the latter from afar who is playing a piano piece as it would have Gustav go into a flashback. It’s among these images that also include a band playing music to the people at the hotel with Gustav asking the singer about what is going on in the city. There are also some homoeroticism that occurs but it’s only in subtle bits in the way Gustav looks at Tadzio as there is a beautiful shot in the film’s final minutes as it play into Gustav’s own desires despite his ailing health. Especially in a brief moment where Gustav briefly meets Tadzio as he begs his mother to leave Venice because of what is happening as it plays into a man who is trying to hold on to this idea of beauty. Overall, Visconti crafts a somber yet intoxicating film about an ailing composer’s fascination over the beauty of a young boy.
Cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis does amazing work with the film’s cinematography with its sunny look of Venice in the daytime along with lush colors for a few of the flashback scenes as well as some unique lighting for the interior/exterior scenes at night. Editor Ruggero Mastroiannni does excellent work with the editing as it does have a bit of style in a few jump-cuts yet much of it is straightforward to play into the drama of Gustav’s obsession. Art director Ferdinando Scarfioti does brilliant work with the look of the hotel interiors with its spacious dining and waiting rooms as well as the room that Gustav stays in.
Costume designer Piero Tosi does incredible work with the costumes from the sailor-like clothes of Tadzio to the suits of Gustav including a white suit he would wear in the film’s final moments. The sound work of Giuseppe Muratori and Vittorio Trentino is superb for the atmosphere that is created including scenes in the dining hall and the way the city sounds in its quiet yet unsettling moments. The film’s music from Armando Gill as well as pieces from Ludwig Van Beethoven, Gustav Mahler, and Modest Mussorgsky is phenomenal as its usage of classical music with Mahler being the dominant force in the film while Gill provides some of the operatic pieces as it adds to the rapturous tone of the film.
The film’s marvelous cast feature some notable small roles and appearances from Dominique Darel as an English tourist, Mascia Predit as the Russian tourist, Marco Tulli as the man who faints at the train station, Leslie French as a travel agent warning Gustav about what is going on in Venice, Nora Ricci as Tadzio’s governess, Franco Fabrizi as a barber in the film’s third act, Sergio Garfagnoli as a boy that Tadzio befriends, Luigi Battaglia as a peasant performer named Scapegrace who gives Gustav a slight clue of what is happening in Venice, Carole Andre as a young prostitute that Gustav meets in a flashback, and Romolo Valli in a superb performance as the hotel manager who tries to shield the truth about what is happening in Venice from Gustav. Marisa Berenson and Silvana Mangano are fantastic in their respective roles as Gustav’s wife and Tadzio’s mother with the former being an object of simplicity and joy in the former via flashbacks while the latter is someone that is unaware of what is going on in Venice.
Mark Burns is excellent as Gustav’s colleague Alfred as a man who is seen via flashbacks as someone questioning Gustav’s ambitions and aims while also vilifying him for his faults. Bjorn Andresen is incredible as Tadzio where despite his lack of dialogue where he is just this object of beauty. Andresen is still this astonishing presence where he provides an innocence but also someone who is aware of his beauty despite not really knowing who Gustav is. Finally, there’s Dirk Bogarde in a phenomenal performance as Gustav von Aschenbach as an avant-garde composer who is coping with ailing health as he is transfixed by Tadzio while dealing with what is happening in Venice as well as coping with his own past, failures, and loss where Bogarde maintains a restraint in the way he gazes at Tadzio as a way to deal with the fact that he is possibly dying and is hoping to connect personally with this young boy.
Death in Venice is a tremendous film from Luchino Visconti that features a sensational performance from Dirk Bogarde as well as an entrancing appearance from Bjorn Andresen. Along with its ensemble cast, gorgeous music soundtrack, its intoxicating look, and it study of obsession and longing. The film is a somber yet exhilarating film about a man’s fascination for a young boy and his search for beauty in a city that is unraveling from afar. In the end, Death in Venice is a spectacular film from Luchino Visconti.
Luchino Visconti Films: (Obsessione) – (Giorni di gloria) – (La Terra Firma) – (Bellissima) – (Appunti su un fatto di cronaca) – (We, the Women) – (Senso) – White Nights (1957 film) - Rocco and His Brothers - (Boccaccio ’70-Il lavoro) – The Leopard - (Sandra) – (The Stranger (1967 film)) – (The Witches (1967 film)) – (The Damned (1969 film)) – (Alla ricerca di Tadzio) – (Ludwig) – (Conversation Piece) – (The Innocent (1976 film))
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