Monday, June 8, 2015

Death in Venice (1971)

          “Sometimes I think artists are rather like hunters in the dark,” remarks composer Gustav von Aschenbach. “They don’t know what their target is, and they don’t know if they’ve hit it—but you can’t expect life to illuminate the target and steady your aim.” Heady ruminations of this sort permeate the elegant but slow-moving Italian drama Death in Venice, which was produced, cowritten, and directed by the venerable Luchino Visconti. Based on Thomas Mann’s novel, the stately film tells the sad story of a middle-aged artist becoming fascinated by a beautiful young man—while, at the same time, the artist faces the bitter inevitability of mortality. Pictorially beautiful and underscored with transcendent selections from Gustav Mahler’s canon, Death in Venice is designed to cast a hypnotic spell even as it presents extended discussions about the nature of art and the tragic impermanence of human existence.
          For viewers who lock into the film’s singular frequency, Death in Venice undoubtedly has the impact of classical art. For mere mortals, it’s a highly admirable work that combines challenging subject matter with challenging themes.
          Set early in the 20th century, the film opens with well-dressed but desperately uptight gentleman Gustav (Dirk Bogarde) arriving in Venice by launch. Simultaneous with using point-of-view shots to revel in Venice’s architectural beauty, Visconti situates Gustav perfectly. The composer is first seen on the deck of the launch, slumped in a chair with a blanket over his legs, like an invalid. Then, when he squabbles with a gondola driver and fusses over his luggage, Gustav reveals his distance from the common man. This distance remains intact for nearly the entire story.
          As Gustav relaxes in a luxury hotel, occasionally venturing out to walk around the city, he spies Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), a gleaming blond lad visiting the city with his wealthy family. Sometimes Gustav regards Tadzio like a piece of exquisite architecture, and sometimes he regards the boy with romantic longing. Although they share enigmatic glances, they never speak. Meanwhile, Visconti cuts to flashbacks of Gustav in healthier times, when he debated lofty topics with colleagues while exploring the limitations and potential of his own talent. Cast over the whole movie is the ever-present specter of death, since Gustav and Tadzio had the bad luck to arrive in Venice just before an outbreak of cholera. The irony of the story is that Gustav rediscovers emotional and spiritual virility too late to make a second run at life. (In the flashbacks, a friend accuses Gustav of having shut down his sensuality in favor of pure intellectualism, making his slow death seem like a decay of the soul.)
          At 130 minutes, Death in Venice has the pacing of an epic even though the story is quite contained; one can imagine a truncated version of the movie gaining urgency while losing none of its potency. Sprawl aside, Death in Venice is dark and resonant. Gustav’s journey says something profound about the way we all struggle to find our places in the world, often mistaking false rewards for real ones, and his preoccupation with Tadzio dramatizes the trap of pursuing unattainable dreams.

Death in Venice: GROOVY

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