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DEATH IN VENICE (MORTE A VENEZIA) (director/writer: Luchino Visconti; screenwriters: Nicola Badalucco/from a Thomas Mann novel; cinematographer: Pasqualino de Santis; editor: Ruggero Mastroianni; music: Gustav Mahler; cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Bjorn Andesen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio’s mother), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Romolo Valli (Hotel manager); Runtime: 128; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Robert Gordon Edwards/Luchino Visconti/Mario Gallo; Warner Bros.; 1971-Italy)
“Can never get to the literary heart of the novel without stumbling along on a curiously suffocating course.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It follows the spirit of Thomas Mann’s masterful novella, but is not a particularly enjoyable cinematic experience even though it’s a well-acted, well-accomplished and sensitive film. It stubs its toe because of its funeral-like somberness, its controversial jettisoning of the author’s metaphysical musings on art for its own overwrought art musings, and its impossible to depict on film inner workings of a pederast’s lust for a beautiful young boy named Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen) in a sailor-suit and blond locks. This is certainly an example of the book being a great read while the movie, even if intelligently done and with the right filmmaker doing it, decidedly pales when compared to the novel. But no one should question it as a work of great visual beauty. Cowriter and director Luchino Visconti (“The Damned”/”Ludwig”/”Rocco and His Brothers”) turns the hero writer of the original into a composer–supposedly modeled after Gustav Mahler, so Mahler’s haunting compositions can fill the background sounds. Visconti keeps it campy, lushly photographed and has too many overblown hollow emotional scenes that seem ludicrous and hardly poignant to warrant too much praise. Also the flashbacks are awkwardly handled, as the filmmaker and his cowriter Nicola Badalucco can never get to the literary heart of the novel without stumbling along on a curiously suffocating course.

At the fin-de-siécle, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), an aging celebrated German composer goes by train to vacation in Venice while on the brink of a physical and mental breakdown, suffering from poor health and fretting about the loss of his creative powers. The composer fears he can longer relate to others, as he can no longer feel the joys and pains of life. He’s therefore indifferent to the obnoxious behavior of the bourgeois who vacation at the same ritzy hotel. Things change when he obsesses over young Polish boy Tadzio, a guest staying with his family at the same hotel. The youngster embodies the composer’s ideals of physical beauty, innocence and spiritual purity. So taken with obsessing over the kid, the composer remains in Venice despite a cholera epidemic. In the end, this obsession and his poor health serve to kill him.

The Cannes Film Festival awarded Visconti its special twenty-fifth anniversary prize for this film and his overall oeuvre.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”