Criterion Review: DEATH IN VENICE (1971)

Visconti’s adaptation of Mann’s novella moves at its own pace — extremely slow

My curiosity about Visconti’s Death in Venice was piqued by a biography of author E.M. Forster I read a few years ago, although I can’t recall the context for the novella by Thomas Mann being mentioned. I came to the film aware of the basic premise: an artist past his prime wastes time in Venice fixating on an attractive boy.

Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) changes the main character of a writer in Mann’s original material to a composer. Dirk Bogarde (I Could Go On Singing) stars as Gustav von Aschenbach, a graying, baggy-eyed German musician who visits the Italian city to improve his health. From the first night in the hotel, which is packed with wealthy tourists from all over, Aschenbach can’t stop staring at Polish teen Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). Tadzio encapsulates what Aschenbach no longer has access to: youth and beauty (a pale, blonde, European ideal of beauty, to boot).

The aging composer grows obsessed. He doesn’t act on it, but a majority of Death in Venice is the older man quietly stalking a boy. In one of the featurettes included with the new Criterion Blu-ray release, film scholar Stefano Albertini notes that the 1971 film is as “close as you get to Visconti addressing the issue of homosexuality.” It’s a notable work of queer art, but given the pedophilic vibe and the fiercely closeted main character, Death in Venice plays like the relic of the past it is.

There’s a dreamlike quality to the setting — verging on nightmarish by the end— and a keen yearning for the sublime. In flashbacks, Aschenbach argues Romantic themes with an associate, and motifs from Mahler’s 3rd and 5th Symphonies provide a soundtrack throughout the movie. Visconti is in no rush to tell this story, and I found myself growing impatient with the slow pacing. Certain scenes in the hotel and at the beach seem like excuses to show off extras in turn-of-the-century dress, surrounded by symbols of privilege, without moving the story forward.

The filmmaker’s use of long takes leads the viewer to share the main character’s anxiety and worry as he tries to find out what the tourists aren’t being told about the city. There’s a sinister element which creeps in by the third act of the film, the illness besieging Venice. Even as he depicts the changing look of the city, with Aschenbach and Tadzio’s family meandering through burning trash fires, Visconti’s work lacks momentum and movement. Not to discount Bogarde’s performance and the director’s talent for immersing the viewer in such a setting, but Death in Venice is too tedious for me ever to want to revisit.

Death in Venice is now available on Blu-ray from Criterion. The package includes special features such as:

  • a 4K digital restoration of the work
  • a 1971 interview with Visconti
  • a featurette with film scholar Stefano Albertini (referenced above)
  • Visconti’s short film from 1970, Alla ricerca di Tadzio, about the casting process for Tadzio
  • 2008 documentary Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, featuring filmmakers and actors, along with the director himself
  • many, many more
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