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Morte a Venezia


(Death in Venice)

Italy, 1971

Director: Luchino Visconti

Production: Alfa Cinematografica (Rome) and P.E.C.F. (Paris); Technicolor, 35mm, Panavision; running time: 131 minutes, some versions are 128 minutes. Released 1971.

Producers: Mario Gallo with Luchino Visconti, Nicolas Badalucco; and Robert Gordon Edwards; screenplay: Luchino Visconti and Nicolas Badalucco, from the novel by Thomas Mann; photography: Pasquale De Santis; editor: Ruggero Mastroianni; sound: Vittorio Trentino with Giuseppe Muratori; art director: Ferdinando Scarfiotti; music: Gustav Mahler; music director: Franco Mannino; costume designer: Piero Tosi.

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach); Romolo Valli (Director of the "Hotel Des Bains"); Nora Ricci (Governess of Tadzio); Mark Burns (Alfried); Marisa Berenson (Mogol of G.V.A.); Carole André (Esmeralda); Leslie French (Cook's agent); Sergio Garfagnoli (Jasciu); Franco Fabrizi (Barber); Dominque Darel (English tourist); Masha Predit (Russian tourist); Silvano Mangano (Tadzio's mother); Ciro Cristogoletti; Antonio Apicella; Bruno Boschetti; Luigi Battaglia; Mirella Pompili; Björn Andersen (Tadzio).

Award: Cannes Film Festival, Special Prize, 1971.



Visconti, Luchino, and Nicolas Badalucco, Morte a Venezia, edited by Lino Miccichè, Bologna, 1971.


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* * *

Director Luchino Visconti's screen adaption of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is both a triumph of visual style and a problematic study of literature-into-film translations. In collaboration with cinematographer Pasquale De Santis, Visconti captures Mann's haunting story in images of hypnotic beauty, yet they are images which the film's verbal exposition cannot always equal.

One of the themes of Mann's brilliant novella has to do with the artist's recognition of the power and validity of physical beauty, and Visconti's cinematic approach conveys his understanding of this theme in every frame. The splendor of Venice, the elegance of Aschenbach's seaside hotel, the androgynous perfection of the boy Tadzio—all are photographed in a lush, unhurried manner that allows the viewer to linger on a detail or to simply absorb the richness of the scene as a whole. This is a story—and a film—of contemplation, and Visconti permits his audience to share in the overwhelming sensuality that will penetrate Aschenbach's emotional reserve and shatter his lifelong convictions about philosophy and art.

Yet as this is also a story of death—Aschenbach's own, as well as the destruction of his rigidly-held ideas—Visconti has permeated his film with an atmosphere of decay. Images of death are everywhere. Indeed, when Aschenbach at last allows himself to be powdered and rouged into a pathetic parody of youthfulness, his face resembles nothing so much as a death mask, streaked with black as the sun melts the paint around his eyes. This pairing of beauty and death, which lies at the heart of the story itself, lends the film an unsettling, almost oppressive air, reminiscent of flowers on the verge of wilting. Visconti himself was close to 70 when Death in Venice was made and would complete only three more pictures after its release. It is clear from the film's painful illumination of the gulf between youth and old age that it was a concern much on the filmmaker's own mind.

The shortcomings of Death in Venice are those which every film adaption must face, i.e. the nearly insurmountable difficulties inherent in transposing interior thoughts into visible images. To understand the effect that his obsession with Tadzio has on Aschenbach, one must first grasp the rejection of emotion and the physical senses that has informed Aschenbach's work as an artist. Mann conveys this information through straight-forward description of his character's meditations on art, a method not available to Visconti. Instead, the director resorts to a series of flashbacks in which Aschenbach and a friend argue bitterly over their opposing views on art and life. The resulting scenes seem static and talky when juxtaposed with Visconti's fluid— and virtually wordless—presentation of the delicate interplay between Aschenbach and the enigmatic Tadzio.

The flashbacks, however, merely lay the groundwork for most of the film's action, and in depicting Aschenbach's growing love for Tadzio and the older man's subsequent decline, Visconti's strong cinematic sense serves him well. He is aided by a finely textured performance from Dirk Bogarde, who has been made up to resemble composer Gustav Mahler, upon whom Mann is said to have based his character, and by Mahler's stirring Fifth Symphony which is the basis of the film's soundtrack. Despite its flaws, Death in Venice remains an absorbing and visually stunning adaption of Mann's challenging work.

—Janet E. Lorenz

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