For my 26th birthday, I gave myself the blu ray remastered version of Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice released by the Criterion Collection as a present, a masterpiece I haven’t re-watched since the first time I saw back in 2012. Considered as one of my favourite movies of all times and probably one of the best films ever made, I’ve decided to talk about it on a revisiting article. For people who have not seen the film yet, this article contains spoilers.
Based on the famous novel by Thomas Mann, Death In Venice tells the story of the composer Gustav von Aschenbach (a writer in the novel), who goes to spend a time in a luxurious hotel in Venice to rest from his non mentioned illness. Being an observant himself, it doesn’t take much time for him to lay his eyes on a beautiful Dionysian Polish young boy named Tadzio. More than being hypnotized by his beauty, Gustav finds him the perfect personification of beauty itself, which is a major theme in the film.
I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s novel, so I can’t talk about the comparisons between the movie and the book – something many reviews criticized at the time of the film’s release. But when it comes to film grammar, Visconti has certently mastered what the film proposes by making a movie that is almost silent to rely its narrative entirely on images. Death In Venice is in fact a movie about voyeurism, and Gustav von Aschenbach’s habits of contemplating Tadzio’s beauty creates a complex relationship between the two characters, rasing questions about the purity of art and the search for the sublime.
In several flash-backs, we see the composer arguing with a friend about the concept of art, the beauty and the feelings of the artist towards reality. Something is lacking and Gustav can’t really know what it is. These flash-backs appear during moments where Gustav is observing Tadzio from distance, making us wonder if he had finally found this mysterious search on Tadzio’s features, an image so beautiful and pure that Gustav himself doesn’t dare to even speak to him. He only observes. And Tadzio realises the gaze that falls upon him and teases Gustav with a simple light smile, where the audience never really knows what his true intentions are. A male friend from the beach kisses him on the cheek, and questions about his sexuality arouses but are never fully explained.
In the meanwhile, rumours of a disease is spreading through the streets of Venice. No one wants to talk about it, but the more time Gustav spends on the italian city, the more he realises something terrible is going on. Buckets of a white liquid are spread on the streets and Government signs cover the walls of the buildings. Through a banker, Gustav learns that cholera has reached Venice, but no one wants to talk about it because it would prevent tourist from coming to the city.
As the film progresses, the city starts to deteriorate. With its 130 minutes, the film goes from beautiful shots of Venice to dirty streets until by the end of the movie, Visconti shoots dirty streets of slums, where trash is spread through the sidewalk and fires are draw everywhere. This deterioration is not only physical, but also spiritual. It’s the deterioration of Gustav von Aschenbach, not only because he is ill, but also because of his relationship with Tadzio, who appears to be a beauty so sublime that just like his art, Gustav will never be able to achieve it – he will never be able to possess. As soon as the composer learns about the deadly disease, he tries to warn Tadzio in his family, but the only response he gets is still his lustful and never-ending search for Tadzio through the streets of Venice.
What Luchino Visconti does with Death In Venice is what cinema was meant for. With almost no dialogue, his camera passes through the habitants of the luxurious hotel to contemplate the lives of those sophisticated creatures, wearing extravagant clothes and behaving like monarchs while classical music is played. The disease that is spread through the city and its deterioration can also be seen as a critique to this bourgeois life-style, as they act indifferent towards what is happening in the city. During a moment in the film, a band of gypsies enter the premisses of the hotel and start singing silly songs, annoying the costumers, who are expelled from the place as soon as possible.
The fact Gustav von Aschenbach is also one of the few people who are interested in what’s going on outside the hotel’s walls and ends up dying from the disease by the end of the movie, can also be seen a metaphor for someone from the upper-class who is rejoicing his lifestyle. By the end of the movie he no longer believes on his work and the concepts which he has lived by. Through flash-backs, we learn that he has recently been criticized by the music community and we follow a scene where his friend judges him by what he has become. The fact that Gustav later falls in love for an extremely young boy can be seen as a transgressive act, which only death will put an end to his bourgeois life-style. Luchino Visconti even makes a small joke – which I’m not sure if it’s in the book – by showing Gustav going to hair dresser and putting make up on to look younger. When he dies at the beach alone, longing for Tadzio, his make up is all swiped up from his sweat, making him look like a clown.
To have so many symbolic and umbiguous figures in such a contemplative film is something I haven’t seen in many movies, making me put Death In Venice in a pedestal of one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a movie about beauty, art and search of the sublime. It’s also about the fall of the bourgeoise, a theme that is constantly present in Luchino Visconti’s cinema. The special attention to the costume and set design in Visconti’s films are impeccable, transforming his body of work in something that we could compare to Shakespeare’s writing. Instead of words, however, Visconti uses images. And what incredible images.