Saturday, July 10, 2010

Review – Death in Venice

July 10, 2010

Death in Venice – Italy/France, 1971

Let me be the first to say it – I just don’t get Death in Venice. I start with this admission because I suspect that if I didn’t say it, someone would say it for me eventually because to many, Death in Venice is nothing short of amazing. After all, how could it not be? The film is directed by the legendary Luchino Visconti, it’s filled with impressive visuals and ingenious camera work, and it contains a rather impressive performance by Dirk Bogarde. What’s not to get then? A lot apparently.

First, there’s the odd argument between Professor Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) and his “friend” Alfred (Mark Burns). I use quotation marks here because Alfred does not act like any friend that I’ve ever known. He seems to get a great deal of delight from Aschenbach’s despair and failure. Throughout the film, we see a rather heated discussion between the two about whether beauty is created by the artist or is the product of the senses, which if true means that it is the audience, not the artist, that decides if something is beautiful. The two “friends” engage in shouting matches that are rife with pompous remarks and which resemble no conversation I’ve ever heard. It’s as if we’re hearing the two smartest kids in class argue over something just so that they can show everyone how learned they are.

Second, there are two competing storylines going on simultaneously. First, we have a mysterious sickness that the Italian government may or may not be intentionally keeping tourists in the dark about. If this is indeed true, the government is also willing to allow their own citizens to be exposed to it for the sake of tourist revenue. Second, we get Aschenbach’s sudden attraction to a young boy named Tadzio (Bjorn Andrensen) who is vacationing with his family. In Tadzio, Aschenbach apparently sees the error in his theory on the origins of beauty, for Tadzio’s beauty has excited his senses immensely. Tadzio, with his long curly hair, clear white skin, and solid build, is the kind of person that Greek artists would have made sculptures of. However, he doesn’t have much of a personality. However, that doesn’t stop Aschenbach from staring at Tadzio from a far and eventually stalking him all over Italy. Is Aschenbach in love with Tadzio? I suppose that’s one interpretation, but I never thought so. Another possibility is that Tadzio awakens long-repressed feelings in Aschenbach, but again not much in the film corroborates this either. All we can say for sure is that Aschenbach is deeply affected by Tadzio. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess what’s going on inside Aschenbach.

There’s a touching scene in which we learn that Aschenbach’s daughter died, and we later see the toll this loss took on him professionally. After collapsing, a doctor advises him to take a vacation and get a lot of rest. He takes the first piece of advice, but rest apparently eludes him. I suppose that’s a natural consequence of worrying that there’s an epidemic all around you and being infatuated with someone at the same time. Unless of course the entire movie is a dream, a possibility that I cannot completely rule out, even though this is a Visconti film and not one of Fellini's.

There’s nothing wrong with a movie in which characters struggle with emotions that are just beneath the surface, and there is nothing wrong with a character never revealing his true feelings to the characters around him or to the audience directly, for that matter. However, most of the scenes involving Aschenbach and Tadzio go absolutely nowhere. Aschenbach watches and follows; Tadzio walks away or looks back at him. Their eyes lock briefly from time to time, yet they hardly say a word, and what little conversation they have – if you can even call it a conversation - reveals little, if anything at all. Perhaps as a result of the lack of conversation between principal characters, Visconti elects to use visual symbolism to convey meaning to the audience. However, just what he intended to convey by having Aschenbach don make-up that makes him resemble a mime, I’m not sure. Perhaps Aschenbach, like a mime, is imprisoned inside a metaphorical invisible box and cannot act on his feelings even if he wants to. If that’s true, it still doesn’t explain what exactly Aschenbach wants to do in the first place.

Death in Venice is beautiful to look at, and I have no doubt that people more familiar with Visconti’s work may find the film to be rather magnificent as well. I wonder if this reflects what they bring to the film personally and not what is actually in the film. I also wonder if some of their appreciation for the film is the result of them thinking that what they’re seeing simply must mean something important. This is Visconti, after all. In the end, I’m not sure what to think about Death in Venice. Perhaps the film provides further proof that even the great ones have an off day at some point. (on DVD)

2 and a half stars

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