Death in Venice (1971): Luchino Visconti's haunting tale of thwarted homosexual love

Bogarde mesmerizes in the role of an avant-garde composer in search of ideal beauty

By Martin Bradley

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews 

Death in Venice, Poster, Directed by Luchino Visconti
Death in Venice (1971) By Luchino Visconti
IMDb Ratings: 7.6
CastDirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns
Country: Italy | France
Language: English | Italian | Polish | French
Runtime: 130
ColorColor (Technicolor)

Summary: In this adaptation of the Thomas Mann novel, avant-garde composer Gustave Aschenbach travels to a Venetian seaside resort in search of repose after a period of artistic and personal stress. But he finds no peace there, for he soon develops a troubling attraction to an adolescent boy, Tadzio, on vacation with his family. The boy embodies an ideal of beauty that Aschenbach has long sought and he becomes infatuated. However, the onset of a deadly pestilence threatens them both physically and represents the corruption that compromises and threatens all ideals.

Death in Venice (ItalianMorte a Venezia) is a 1971 film directed by the late Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. The second installment in Visconti’s "The German Trilogy"—the other two being The Damned (1969) and Ludwig (1973)Death in Venice isn't perfect; there are cumbersome flashback sequences that add nothing to the film but for a good deal of the time this is often as great as movies can get. It was made in English, (the Italian supporting cast are dubbed), by Luchino Visconti and it's based on Thomas Mann's novella but with the central character of Aschenbach changed from a writer to a composer and obviously based on Gustav Mahler, whose music is used to sublime effect. The opening sequence alone, as the small steamer chugs up the Lido to the strains of the Adagio from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, is one of the finest opening passages in all of cinema. Nor is it quite as ambiguous as many people claim.

Dirk Bogarde as Gustav von Aschenbach, in Death in Venice, Directed by Luchino Visconti
Dirk Bogarde as Aschenbach in Death in Venice
On its most basic level this is a picture about a middle-aged man's passion for a young boy, (some people simply see it as an artist's struggle to preserve beauty which just happens to be represented by the boy, Tadzio, played by Björn Andrésen), but as Aschenbach becomes more obsessed with Tadzio it's difficult not to see this as a tale of thwarted homosexual love, (the homosexual element is clearly indicated from the start as a rouged and perfumed old man comes on to Aschenbach on his arrival). And in the role of Aschenbach, Dirk Bogarde is simply magnificent. This is one of the greatest performances in all cinema; every movement, every gesture disguises the Bogarde we think we have come to know and creates rather a character so rounded and so individual that the actor disappears into his skin.

Dirk Bogarde (as Gustav von Aschenbach) and Björn Andrésen (as Tadzio) in Death in Venice, Directed by Luchino Visconti
Björn Andrésen as Tadzio in Death in Venice
Aschenbach is dying all through the film and he has come to Venice, a city that is also dying, to recuperate so that when death finally catches up with him, alone on the beach, his beloved Tadzio a distant figure on the horizon, it is not unexpected but nevertheless no less heartbreaking. Tadzio, however, isn't given anything like a personality, (he's virtually silent throughout), so his presence could be read as purely symbolic, (the personification of the Angel of Death, perhaps), while Bjorn Andresen plays him with such a lack of feeling you wonder what it is, other than his natural beauty, that Aschenbach sees in him, (and there is something of the little tease about him; he seems aware from the outset of Aschenbach's interest in him).

Dirk Bogarde (as Gustav von Aschenbach) encounters Björn Andrésen (as Tadzio) in Death in Venice, Search of Ideal Beauty, Directed by Luchino Visconti
A Still from Death in Venice
Death in Venice is also one of the most gorgeous films ever made. The cinematography, in Panavision, of Pasqualino De Santis, the designs of Ferdinando Scarfiotti and the costumes of Piero Tosi are simply perfect. If it weren't for those darned, and unnecessary, flashbacks this might have been a serious contender for any list of all-time best films.

About Author - 
Martin Bradley, Guest Reviewer, A Potpourri of Vestiges

Martin Bradley is a film aficionado based out of Londonderry, Northern Ireland. Martin fell in love with cinema as a 5-year-old when he was first taken to see THE WIZARD OF OZ in one of its many re-runs. While the sight of flying monkeys got him a bit jumpy, the experience nevertheless served to be an everlasting one. And, needless to say, he never looked back. Even after joining the Civil Service at the age of 21 he never let the movie buff in him drift away and kept the passion alive. For about a decade he wrote articles and reviews for City Lights magazine (a local arts magazine which is now defunct) while simultaneously reviewing films on BBC Radio Foyle. During this semi-professional stint he also got the opportunity to interview a wide array of people connected with the arts. These days he mainly expresses his opinion on cinema through channels like facebook and IMDb. Martin plans to get all his reviews published in form of a book once he retires from the Civil Service. Meanwhile, his love of cinema grows with each passing day. In fact, it would be safe to call Martin a walking talking film encyclopedia. On IMDb alone, Martin has written over 500 film reviews which can be read here

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  1. Martin, your review is delightful. The film remains as one of my top 100 films four decades after I viewed it. The best work of Visconti.

  2. I agree, Jugu, that this is a magnificent achievement on so many levels though I can't say it's Visconti's best work simply because of those damned flashbacks. I can see why they are there but I think he handles them badly. Consequently they diminish the overall effect of the film. For the record my own personal favourite Visconti film remains "The Leopard".

  3. Martin, having read the original literary works of both films, I felt Visconti could not improve upon the di Lampedusa novel's brilliance. Not that the movie The Leopard is a pushover--it is great. But what Visconti and di Santis achieved together in the final sequence of Death in Venice surpasses the surpasses the magic of the Nobel Prize winner's verbal brilliance. And I loved Sylvano Mangano's brief appearances as Tadzio's mother.

  4. I agree the opening and closing passages, as well as many inbetween, surpass Mann's novella.


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