Death in Venice
directed by Luchino Visconte
at the Harvard Film Archive
The film version of Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice adds a powerful third dimension to the prose of the reknowned novella. The film is a hybrid of a silent film and an impressionist work of art. This combination lends itself well to a story whose main commentary is on the relationship among life, art and reality.
A man comes alone to Venice to siesta by the sea. As the film progresses, we learn through flashback sequences that he is also there to recuperate from several emotional traumas, including his sense of failure as an artist and the grief he experienced from his daughter's death. We observe the luxuries and pleasures of Venetian life through his eyes. The man is consumed by aesthetic pleasure for a young boy, Tadzio, whose youthful beauty is matched by the finery of his beautiful mother and siblings. The man's homosexual love is the beginning of his fated exploration into his identity as an artist. News of the coming of a plague, which threatens to blockade the city and trap the vacationers, foreshadows the tragedy of his obsession.
The film is very much like a painting; when the man is sitting in the drawing room at the beginning of his arrival, the camera follows his gaze around the room, much as our eyes would be led across a canvas of an impressionist work. The pastels of the women's clothing pass by in a whir as the camera focuses in upon the countenances of the people. The light is soft and the cinematography draws attention to the details of the men's starched white shirts and meticulously coiffed hair. Because the camera dwells upon the details of the guests and because the conversation is often sparse, the viewer is made to feel as if he were in a museum.
The camera is also used to create painted images in later scenes, which focus upon the man's absorption in Tadzio's beauty. When the little boy and his family are praying in church, the camera stops to frame his face by the candles and the alter. The result is that we don't feel that we are gazing at a photographic image, but at a painting. This in turn symbolically suggests that art and its effect upon the beholder creates its own kind of reality.
The film often moves slowly, as there are prolonged scenes of Tadzio rambling on the beach or the man's boat crossings. The immersion in nature and the prolonged shots of the characters' facial features can be overwhelming, although they do serve to show the nature of his disturbing obsession. The mood is created more through symbolism and the cinematographic artistry than through the dynamism or interpersonal contact among the characters, who maintain caricature-like personas.
"Death in Venice" raises interesting questions about the role of the artist and the nature of his art. The man converses with a friend who suggests that beauty is not something that the artist creates, but a reality that manifests itself in the relationship between the viewer and the work. The man counters that beauty and truth can only be experienced when one subsumes oneself completely in the sensations, which is ultimately what he does. His inquiry into the coming of the Asiatic fever is his last foray into reality, but it does not touch him enough to save himself. His death in Venice ultimately comes as he is trying to attain the mystically complete subordination of the self to the senses.
"Death in Venice" is an excellent opportunity to experience Thomas Mann's work, because the film converts the literary description of nature, people and their psychological states into vivid tableaus. The movie is, however, very slow-moving. The characters' contemplative natures make this a heavy film, which is only alleviated by the carefree play of the children. Their presence in the film counterbalances the complicated dilemmas so deeply embedded in the realm of adult abstraction.