In this adaptation of the Thomas Mann novel, avant-garde composer Gustave Aschenbach (loosely based on Gustav Mahler) travels to a Venetian seaside resort in search of repose after a period of artistic and personal stress. But he finds no peace there, for he soon develops a troubling attraction to an adolescent boy, Tadzio, on vacation with his family. The boy embodies an ideal of beauty that Aschenbach has long sought and he becomes infatuated. However, the onset of a deadly pestilence threatens them both physically and represents the corruption that compromises and threatens all ideals.

Beautiful Classic Sound Track from "Symphony No.5 in C sharp minor : IV Adagietto" by Zubin Mehta  


The first few minutes of Death in Venice, Luchino Visconti's heavily ornamented film adaptation of the Thomas Mann short story, are an almost perfect evocation of the scene Mann sets as the prelude to Gustav Aschenbach's marvelous doom.


On the soundtrack we hear what seem, at first, to be the echoes of one of Mahler's most lonely melodies—the adagietto of the Fifth Symphony, which is a kind of requiem for the living. A small, fat steamer moves across a windless  sea, trailing coal smoke that hangs in the air like a long, thin shred of dirty cotton. The time could be either dawn or dusk. The light is bluish pink and very dim, and there is no clearly defined horizon.

In a chair on the deck of the steamer, Gustav Aschenbach, fastidiously bundled up in an overcoat and a muffler, tries to read but he cannot concentrate. He puts the book aside, and there is even something fastidious in this gesture of impatience, which is neat and prim and controlled.

There are several such sequences in the film, when Visconti, the most operatic of film directors, and Mann, the least operatic of prose writers, more or less overlap. Not so surprisingly, they are the most consequential sequences of the film, and, comparatively speaking, anyway, the least consequential of the story.

What Visconti has done is to turn Death in Venice, which is about many things, including an artist's abject yet triumphant capitulation to his senses, into a scenically baroque tale of an inhibited immoralist, a fussy old man who develops a mad crush on a beautiful youth, and thus, unwisely, stays on too long in a city that is dying of a secret pestilence.

Death in Venice, which opened yesterday at the Little Carnegie Theater, is so full of high-class effects, and pretends to be of such serious purpose, that it must, I feel, convince skeptics that movies are a second-rate art. By failing to communicate the complexity and intelligence of the Mann work—and by failing with such seeming cinematic style, it says that this is all that movies can do. They can go no further, no deeper, than the specific images.

This, of course, is nonsense. Movies can go further and deeper, as Visconti himself has shown in things like The Damned and Rocco and His Brothers, movies that worked in spite of, rather than through, their flamboyant effects.

Everything that isn't of an especially first order of importance in Mann's Death in Venice is emphasized and enlarged in the film. It never finds a substructure, that is, equivalent to Aschenbach's interior monologues that give the story its meaning. Instead, there are some rather clumsy flashbacks which sound like afterthoughts, in which Aschenbach and a friend debate whether the creation of beauty is a spiritual act, or proceeds from an abandonment to the emotions.

The movie has not been written and directed as much as it has been decorated, by Visconti's assumption that Mann was writing about Gustav Mahler (the film's Aschenbach is a composer, rather than a writer), by the extensive use of Mahler's music on the soundtrack, by the magnificent care that has been taken to re-create the look of the 1911 period, in costumes, in the Venice locale, in the color, and even in the sounds.

It is also decorated by Bjorn Andresen, as the beautiful Polish boy with the face of a Botticelli angel who, according to Visconti's version, begins luring Aschenbach to his fate, with all of the innocence of a street hustler, from virtually their first encounter. But then the camera adores the boy quite as much as Aschenbach, which gives the movie a homosexual feeling that limits Mann's intent.

The movie is most spectacularly decorated by Dirk Bogarde's performance as the once-disciplined German artist. It is a performance full of right gestures—the precise walk, the sudden awarenesses of hidden intention that are marked by hopeless shrugs, the sly smiles, the hands to the face in embarrassment, and finally, the frail, dandified strut that marks Aschenbach's submission to his passion.

Curiously, even though the gestures are right, they seem calculated and rather empty, as if each had been carried one step too far. But Visconti overdoes everything in the film from the intimations of death, and the grotesque make-up Aschenbach sports toward the end of the film, to the great blobs of black hair dye that run down poor Aschenbach's face at the moment of death.

The movie becomes, eventually, an elegant bore, full of rather lovely things on the periphery—such as the sight of Silvana Mangano, as the cool Polish aristocrat, moving like a mother duck through the hotel dining room, followed by her stiff little daughters, forever mysterious. Death in Venice often looks right, but it's a vacant look. Instead of bringing the story to life, Visconti has, I'm afraid, embalmed it.


Produced and directed by Luchino Visconti; written (in Italian, with English subtitles) by Mr. Visconti and Nicola Badalucco, based on the novel by Thomas Mann; cinematographer, Pasquale De Santis; edited by Ruggero Mastroianni; music by Gustav Mahler, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Modest Mussorgsky; art designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti; released by Warner Brothers. Running time: 130 minutes.