Blu-ray Review: Death in Venice | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, August 6th, 2020  

Death in Venice

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Mar 08, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Arguably, one of the most hotly debated novels of the 20th Century is Thomas Mann’s 1912 Der Tod in Venedig - a story of an acclaimed author suffering writer’s block, who becomes increasingly obsessed by a beautiful teenaged boy. This meanderous infatuation is hallmarked by ruinous passion and self-destructive loathing, set against the height of a deadly cholera outbreak in Venice. Based on Mann’s personal trip to the city, the death of composer Gustav Mahler, and littered with heavy influences from Plato, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, the novella’s array of themes and motivations have lead to numerous interpretations and re-examinations of the text over the years, resulting in several differing translations and adaptations. The only film adaptation (to date) of the title was directed, produced, and co-written by famed Italian artist Luchino Visconti in 1971 as Death in Venice, which would go on to garner far more controversy and argument than even its source.

Visconti’s unique cinematic career began in the late 1930s, assisting Jean Renoir on Toni (1935), Partie de campagne (1936), and (initially) La Tosca (1941). He soon was off making his own neorealist films, though his formal involvement with the movement would be relatively brief. The latter half of his career (starting in the 1960s) became a time where his fame and rough consistency as a box office and critical draw allowed him far greater freedom in his projects. His style and narrative focus would hereafter be defined by his personalized adaptations of famous literary works, which would would culminate in some of the most highly-lauded films in Italian history. While he would play with many tropes throughout his films, the consistent denominators were his intense desire to break the cinematic form, and his deep respect and love for his family’s heritage as Milanese nobility (with the director being known formerly as Count don Luchino Visconti di Modrone).

Death in Venice follows the great composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), who has come to Venice to ease his failing physical and mental health, following several personal tragedies and his waning professional career. While staying at the famous Grand Hôtel des Bains, Gustav soon becomes obsessed with the Polish adolescent Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). After initially gazing intensely over newspapers across dining rooms and beach fronts, Gustav soon starts shadowing the youth’s family all over Venice, with Tadzio silently acknowledging and basking in his distant adoration. Apart from Gustav’s art changing from books to music, the film is kept quite faithful to the original story, while adding the musician character Alfred (Mark Burns) in flashbacks to debate Gustav on artistic merit and aesthetics.

When Visconti screened the completed cut of Death in Venice to the Warner Bros. executives, they were borderline mortified, and were convinced the film (if released as it was) would be banned in the United States for obscenity. While the movie was primarily centered on a juxtaposition between youthful beauty and aged decay, the studio’s apprehension was directed toward the film’s exploration of its protagonist’s repressed homosexuality. Though the former thematic contrast was fully present in Mann’s novella, with Gustav’s implied infatuation with Tadzio in the original text having a stronger focus on classical Platonic ideas of love and desire, it was made more sexually explicit in the movie. This distinct decision by Visconti (who was openly gay) would eventually go on to anger and spawn fierce debate between many then-contemporary audiences, film critics, and literary scholars. After a London gala to raise restoration funds for Venice organized a screening of the film, attended by members of the British royal family, the studio executives relented and released it.

Despite mixed reactions, the movie would be championed in many filmic circles after its screening at Cannes, eventually being nominated for and winning multiple BAFTA and Nastro d’Argento awards. Death in Venice would be released on DVD by Warner Home Video in 2004, on Blu-ray by Naxos Blu-ray Video in 2018, and now it has been added to The Criterion Collection’s esteemed catalog - digitally restored, presented in 4K with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. The stunning restoration is accompanied by a sizable inventory of supplemental features, including the 2008 documentary Luchino Visconti: Life as in a Novel, the 1970 Visconti short film Alla ricerca di Tadzio about his casting Andrésen as Tadzio, numerous interviews from former crew, cast, and Visconti. The release is rounded out with the short behind-the-scenes documentary Visconti’s Venice, a special program by literary and cinema scholar Stefano Albertini, and the film’s theatrical trailer. A fascinating and lengthy essay by critic Dennis Lim is included in the Blu-ray’s case. There are no subtitles in any language.

While the cultural lens in which this film is viewed today has shifted greatly from the general morality of the early 1970s, and homosexuality is more globally embraced as a normal lifestyle, the lens in which this story is experienced still isn’t any less complex to dissect. Its adapted themes are constructed around a profound adulation for natural beauty and personal expression, drizzled over a twisted combination of stunningly beautiful cinematography, artistic pontification, and Gustav’s utter futility and humiliation. Death in Venice equally impresses as a unfulfilled love story, a contemplation on human decay and inevitability, and a predator becoming increasingly unhinged the closer he gets to his prey. There cannot be a single determination of what this film actually is, with it ultimately more complicated than Visconti and Mann themselves. Both attractive and off-putting aspects in the characters and narrative cannot be left by the wayside if any core interpretation requires them to be - with Gustav, we empathize, we question, we scorn, we pity, we experience all of his person. However, the efficacy of his attributes amounting to a complete character (whether relatable or alien) is entirely up to personal preference.

The film does trip into common pitfalls of Italian cinema from the 1960s-1970s, such as a gratingly repetitive abundance of zooms. There are so many damn zooms in this film, I genuinely lost count - commencing as a play on manipulating expectation, evolving into an emblematic observation of voyeurism, and ending as an utterly derivative gimmick to direct the audience’s gaze. Many instances are masterpieces of arthouse meandering, other moments are overfull with confused and conflicting messages that became more contentious as they continue, and finally there are segments where the movie smacks headlong into straight mannerist kitsch. Death in Venice is many things, and as our era continues to evolve, and perspectives continue to shift, what it most certainly is not is easily definable - nor is its artistic and meritorious contributions easily determined.



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