To outwardly loathe, or the very least deny the power of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice is like ignoring cinema as an artform. There are a few films in the history of celluloid that could split audience opinion as sharply as a guillotine could chop heads, and this is one of them. For a great number of puritanical critics, Visconti’s screen adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella had been chewed, spewed and spurned, reduced to being nothing more than a pointless, ponderous pile of paedophilic wetdream, with a central protagonist obsessing with a pretty boy he cannot obtain. Meanwhile, the liberal-minded leftists champions this a sublime study of humanity’s search for beauty, the inevitability of death and the profundity of Great Art. Whatever field you stand on, Visconti might have had the final laugh: he made a film that drew controversy, attention and a big confusion.
The question: is Death in Venice really that good? Yes, it is. Sure, it wallows into an excruciatingly slow pace that often you could allow an actual funeral pass through most scenes that allow Dirk Bogarde’s beleaguered German classical composer Gustav van Aschenbach eternally sitting on a beach, contemplating his existence, walking through Venetian streets and gazing longingly at his object of desire. Or obfuscation, rather. But most people who gripe about this are usually those with virtually sub-zero attention, those that cannot comprehend depth and implications, and cannot stand wordless sequences. Death in Venice is not supposed to be entertainment, for god’s sake. That’s why there’s ‘death’ in the title, you dweebs. For all Visconti’s abstraction, this is a sombre, melancholic mood-piece, with Venice so beautifully photographed like a vintage postcard, and a burnished cinematography that very well matches the city’s old grandeur. There are scenes which you can literally freeze-frame and hung it on your bedroom wall. The opening scene alone is perhaps one of the most gorgeous opening scenes I’ve ever seen in film. Visconti also deliberately changes Aschenbach, a novelist in Mann’s novella, into a classical composer and tailors Gustav Mahler’s elegiac compositions, the Third and Fifth Symphonies, into the film’s most devastating scenes.
Yet, Visconti’s vision is far from being perfect. It is deeply flawed, such as his reckless and haphazard use of zooming throughout the first half, a lazy technique that blemishes this exquisite vista. It’s narrative also meanders too often into aimlessness, such as a rather stale and contrived sequence in an outdoor restaurant as the hotel guests are being serenaded by a street musician. But most gripes are really centred on the tale’s homosexual undertones, an unrequited yearning of a stressed-out, middle-aged gentleman with a beautiful youth Tadzio, whose appearance had been hailed by feminist Germain Greer as “the most beautiful boy in the world“, resembling like those portraits painted by the Renaissance masters. If we’re all being unintelligent, we could easily dismiss this as a film about an unfulfilled, repressed homosexual going to Venice for a last gasp of sexual fervour for an unsuspecting thirteen-year old. What is the point of cinema and literature but to explore even the darkest, meanest side of humanity? Aschenbach is portrayed as a struggling artist, fleeing his debilitating work and even condescended by his best friend that his music bears no meaning anymore. He is an artists in self-exile, whose craft is bereft of beauty and seeks refuge in Venice to find peace, only to find beauty and perfection in the form of an innocent youth. Even Tadzio may be unaware of his own actions, or even his own sexuality. He’s thirteen, lacking of any wisdom and experience of the world. And Aschenbach follows him throughout, lured into obsession, yet so terrified to taint Tadzio’s purity. There’s a magnificent scene where Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde gives a legendary performance) has a makeover, dying his hair, restoring his own lost youth, and trails Tadzio around the city amidst the spread of cholera and sirocco and ends up sprawled on a fountain, weeping and laughing at the same time – bemused, bewildered and dripping with self-pity. Bogarde achieves this without even saying a line of dialogue. That closing scene alone where he dies in his chair is a moving paean to performance and filmmaking.
Never has a film about dying so beautifully photographed. This is also a sombre, melancholic mood-piece that daringly explores hefty subject matters such as the inevitability of death, unattainable perfection and cruelty of youth. Visconti’s vision of beauty and Great Art maybe flawed, but such is life.