Death in Venice Review

As that steamboat in the opening moments of Death in Venice breaches the darkness, the orchestral notes pick up. They are heightened by the appearance of something that we can identify as a hopeful entrance. The violins crescendo, and soon simmer once the boat has left the shot. It is within these moments that we are introduced to Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde). He has the look of a man fed up, ill, and alone. Luchino Visconti paints a vast landscape in these opening moments of the Thomas Mann novel, one that is both empty of real, connected life, and full of horrible anguish for Aschenbach. Therein lies the issue of Visconti’s predilections toward the leading man. He can never be at fault for he does not know the country.  

Death in Venice can doll itself up with fantastic visual and technical merits for as long as it likes, in the end, it is a repugnant and rotten film. Visconti has a delightful eye for detail, it is just a shame the detail he picks out from Mann’s novel is of absolutely vehement horror. We are challenged to look past that issue, yet it is hard to do so when Aschenbach struggles to give us any reason to sympathise or care for him. Bogarde performance is fine. He plays the part of a sickly-looking man as best as anyone. Its subject matter of adult love for adolescence is troubling at the best of times. A cholera outbreak is a mere backdrop to the relationship Aschenbach and Tadzio (Björn Andrésen) have. It is not much of a relationship, though. Aschenbach stares off into the distance, admiring from afar the boy he lusts for. He is a dying man, so the outbreaks of cholera do not affect either his heart disease or his lack of morality. 

Should it be an issue that he admires Tadzio from afar? Yes. Visconti shows no infliction of guilt as he prepares Aschenbach. Much of our time with the famed composer is spent looking at him ogle patrons of the hotel, particularly Tadzio. A sad shame, for everything that surrounds Bogarde, is the stuff of true talent. There is a period piece setting here that brings out such fantastical elements, ones that contrast nicely with the death that surrounds the inhabitants of Venice. Paired with a magnificent soundtrack, it is clear to see why Visconti portrays Aschenbach as a composer, rather than a writer.  

There are times within Death in Venice where I am reminded of Call Me by Your Name. It is challenging and uncomfortable, propagating a moral debate that filmmakers have not yet captured, mainly due to the side they take. Visconti is no doubt a fine craftsman. His direction is brooding and capable of bringing light into some of the darkest, most repugnant characters. It is not enough to elevate Bogarde’s performance and the tension that comes between himself and his desires. Nothing could be enough to dispel the intention Aschenbach has, for his motive may be immoral, but there is no expansion or thought from Visconti that could suggest why or how this character is justified in either what he does, or why he does so.  

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