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Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971)

Italo Calvino wrote a book called Why read the Classics (originally Perché leggere i classici) and sometimes it’s only natural that we ask ourselves `Why watch a cult movie?` Exposing the reasons why Ovid, Homer, Twain, Flaubert, Hemingway, Borges and others are yet still very much alive, Calvino makes us understand that “a classic book [or movie] is one that has never finished to say what it has to say”. Death in Venice (Luchino Visconti, 1971) is considered a cult movie, a masterpiece. Let’s follow what it still has to say after half a century of its release.

Visconti shoots Death in Venice more or less a decade after the death of Thomas Mann, the writer of the book upon which the film was based. It’s one of the rare cases in which an adaptation is as successful as the book. Cinema and literature are completely different forms of art, and in order to transfer a bunch of words into image and sound one needs to let the original source rest a little bit. During an interview in Cannes, where the movie debuts in great style, Visconti said: “I didn’t choose Death in Venice; Death in Venice chose me”.

In fact, it is well known that Visconti used to carry a copy of Mann’s book with himself wherever he went, since a very young age. The book’s story is quite straightforward and there’s no mystery to it. By the title, we all know that someone will die in Venice. And it’s not difficult to guess who will die, as the protagonist Aschenbach travels to Venice.

The classic composer and conductor Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) goes to the Lido, at the Hotel des Bains, for a rest period in order to recover from a heart attack he had suffered some time before. Here, the mature protagonist is struck by the ephebic beauty of a very young Pole, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), who frequents the hotel beach with his aristocratic family. Aschenbach falls in love with the 12-year old boy and decides to follow, better say stalk, the boy around the streets of Venice. The city suffers a devastating wave of cholera, but Aschenbach is unaware of the danger; in fact he seeks danger blindly. Aschenbach doomed himself to die in his quest for love and beauty.

The film opens on Aschenbach’s arrival in Venice. He takes the vaporetto to the hotel and in a nostalgic scene powered by Gustav Mahler’s score. (see image below) The sequence is pretty much an incarnation of the myth of Charon, Hades’s boatman who carries the souls of the newly dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron, that divide the world of the living people and the world of the dead ones.

The myth of Charon, according to Visconti.

The choice to pick excerpts from Gustav Mahler’s 3rd, 7th and the Adagietto of the 5th Symphony is not an accident. Mann’s inspiration to create Aschenbach was Mahler himself, although in the book he is a writer. Visconti affirms with confidence that “there isn't a word of dialogue that isn't taken from something that concerns either Mann, or Mahler. There may also be a small intervention by the author of the film, that, I do not deny it, it is possible”.

The pace is generally slow and the dialogues are obviously very few. The pace changes when it shows the composer’s life previous to his trip, in flashback, picturing why he is in crisis. Then we watch the vibrant conductor being wooed in a concert. His attempts to justify his lack of inspiration, his search for perfection in vain, the loss of a happy family, come faster than the rhythm of the rest of the narrative. Other than that, Death in Venice is a pleasure to the eye because it concentrates on the act of looking, shaping the platonic homosexual and pedophiliac desire arising in an old man.

The change of perspective that Visconti introduces is right there in the form of zooms. The camera slowly and constantly zooms in and out as to present the libido and the attempt to refrain it. The relationship between Aschenbach and Tadzio is rough. They know each other only through the gaze. There is never a suggestion of sex -- it’s much less scandalous than Lolita (Kubrick, 1962), for instance. But even so, Death in Venice was not critically acclaimed unanimously, despite the Cannes award. The famous Chicago-based critic Roger Ebbert wrote that the movie “lacks ambiguity. (...) The boy could have been accused of hustling”.

This is exactly why Visconti’s take on the film is so avant-garde. He made history. He opened the doors to the public and to other filmmakers. A recent example is Call me by your name (Guadagnino, 2017) who twisted Death in Venice, centering the stalker on the younger character.

Tadzio is an idea of pure and enigmatic Beauty. He represents an immortal, unreachable Beauty, just like a Greek statue. In fact, the way Aschenbach stares at the boy on the beach at the end of the movie is symbolic of that notion. Tadzio raises his arm (see image below), and Aschenbach waves at him, but the boy doesn’t reply. It’s sunset time and the composer is very close to death.

Tadzio represents an immortal, unreachable Beauty, just like a Greek statue.

It’s clear that what Aschenbach could not reach was pleasure, carnal Dyonisiac pleasure. He became lost in his thoughts and hesitations to the point it affected his performances as a musician. Aschenbach struggles in life and in his career because he aims for the impossible Apollo. Music and desire become constricted to the field of mind and mind only. Aschenbach’s compositions were mathematical, not inspiring or sentimental. He was unable to cause a commotion.

Visconti cast Bogarde for the role of Aschenbach early in pre-production. It was a natural choice, as filmmaker and actor have worked before in The Damned (1969). Bogarde considered the part in The Damned one-dimensional and was hesitant to accept it. So Visconti promised him another role.

For the role of Tadzio, Visconti had no idea who to cast. Just as the composer, Visconti wandered in Europe searching for the perfect boy. The documentary Alla ricerca di Tadzio (In search of Tadzio) presents the Italian director travelling to Stockholm, Warsow, Helsinki, Munich and Budapest. In Budapest, he went to a skating rink where young blond boys go. It’s with grace that they move, almost levitating -- Visconti seems to grasp Tadzio's image well -- but it was in Sweden that he found Björn Andrésen. Curiously, the young actor became a musician years later. Sometimes art plays with life.

Death in Venice portrays in detail the aristocracy in the beginning of the 20th century. Visconti meticulously scrutinizes setting, fashion and characterisation. He chooses the Hotel des Baines at the Lido for film location. The marvelous art-deco lounges and its white curtains reveal once again traces of the book. Thoman Mann was a guest in Hotel des Baines in 1911. Today, the hotel is closed and derelict.

The feeling of decay and slow degeneration prevails. In one scene Aschenbach is very eager to know the truth about the cholera in town. As he is resting and smoking after a meal, he sees a popular group of musicians approaching and begging for money. The band leader is a toothless beggar, dressed up as a clown. Clowns are known to tell the truth to kings and nobles, so our protagonist risks the uncomfortable question. But all he hears is a disturbing laugh coming from a “rotten” mouth. (see image below)

Clowns are known to tell the truth to kings and nobles.

Somehow Aschenbach insists on trying to deceive Time. His refusal to age becomes pathetic when he decides to dye his hair. What comes next as a consequence is an imposition of Decay and Time, as the tint slowly melts under the sun.

The sequences that convey Venice under the threat of death, the disinfection due to a surge of cholera, are in the plot to magnify Aschenbach’s death. All around him is putrefying, derelict, as a sign that the aristocracy is falling too. There is a change of time that anticipates the I World War. Surely the current pandemic is the perfect time to visit -- or revisit -- this classic masterpiece.

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