Death in Venice is such a downer of a movie title. Judge Bill Treadway thinks the director should have gone with something more like Venice Swings, Baby!.
The celebrated story of a man obsessed with an ideal beauty.
After filming such challenging personal epics as Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, and The Damned, renowned Italian director Luchino Visconti decided to take on a major challenge: to film the unfilmable Thomas Mann novel Death in Venice. Warner Bros. agreed to help finance the project, especially after The Damned made money.
The final product was released in 1971 to mixed reviews and box office, despite winning a special prize at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Thirty-two years later, Warner Bros. has revisited the film for DVD.
Facts of the Case
Count Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde, The Damned, Darling) travels to Venice for a holiday. After settling in his hotel, the Lido, he notices Tadzio, a handsome Polish "boy" visiting Venice with his family. The very sight of the boy stirs strange feelings within Aschenbach, feelings he may not have had before.
Reading the above synopsis may lead you to believe that Death in Venice is a very vague film. It is vague only in terms of predictable plot, however. The greatness of Luchino Visconti's masterpiece lies in the characterizations rather than what happens. Visconti based his screenplay on the novel by Thomas Mann, which was quite different, more complicated and ambiguous about feelings and Aschenbach's actual intent toward Tadzio. Visconti made several changes for the adaptation, namely changing Aschenbach's occupation (writer in the novel, composer in the film) and isolating the homosexual attraction between Aschenbach and Tadzio. Some critics have complained about this, but I think they miss the point. This is Visconti's Death in Venice, his interpretation of a difficult, maddening novel that is open to dozens of different readings. I wouldn't have it any other way.
The trademark of a Visconti film is the beautiful photography, and Death in Venice is no exception, grandly filmed in Panavision and Technicolor in loving fashion. Visconti makes Venice a character in its own right. Many will complain about the slow pace of the film, but I think the pace is ideal; it allows us to take in the visual beauty as well as letting the emotional weight of Mann's story sink into our psyche.
The acting is flawless. The late Dirk Bogarde was renowned for an ambiguous quality in his performances: You never know quite what to expect whenever he appears, and that's as it should be. A good actor will never give the same performance twice. His Aschenbach displays great passion and feeling at all times in the film. In the hands of a lesser actor, the performance wouldn't have worked; the character would have been loaded with hammy gestures and gimmicks. Instead, Bogarde, like the pro he is, adds enough ambiguity and sincerity to make it work. Bjorn Andersen is also superb as Tadzio. Visconti could have gone only for looks in casting this character, but in Andersen Visconti has found someone who can hold his own on the screen with Bogarde. He doesn't speak much dialogue, but Visconti wisely realizes that a look can say more than any amount of words. And it would be criminal of me to not mention Silvana Margano in the small role of Tadzio's mother: She is effective in every scene she appears in.
For years, Death in Venice was available in horrific pan-and-scan VHS tapes that only butchered Visconti's hard work. A widescreen laserdisc was briefly available but was quickly pulled out of print. Other than the occasional airing on Turner Classic Movies (July 2000 was the last time I saw it), a widescreen version of the film has been hard to locate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Warner Bros. has rectified the problem with the first-ever DVD release of Death in Venice: This 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer replicates the original Panavision photography. Unfortunately, the image is far too grainy for my taste. I realize the photography is supposed to look soft. However, it shouldn't look this soft. Colors are very muted and bland, and contrast with blacks and grays is poor. I'm grateful to finally own this film in widescreen, but I wish Warner Bros. had taken greater care with the transfer.
Audio is a disappointing Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Visconti fills the soundtrack with magnificent Gustav Mahler compositions, and although the mono track sounds good, a stereo track would have been even more powerful and stunning.
The sole extras are the original theatrical trailer (in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen) and a vintage featurette, "Visconti's Venice." The featurette is interesting, but not as insightful as I would have liked.
Death in Venice is a masterpiece, among the very best of Visconti's work. A chance to own this film in anamorphic widescreen more than makes up for the shortcomings of the transfer—plus the $19.99 retail price is a bargain, especially when you consider that the inferior VHS copies often sell for $29.99.
This case is dismissed for now, although I sentence Warner Bros. to start taking greater care with their catalog items.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Visconti's Venice" Featurette
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