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Plot Details: This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

Life is a bitch and then you die.

Death in Venice

Plot Overview

Prof. Gustav Von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogard) having suffered personal tragedy and profes­sional set­back “needs to get away from it all, a period of complete rest.” In 1911 children didn't always survive child­hood, his daughter didn't; and audiences didn't always appreciate a great opus, ditto. So he's booked a cruise to the popular Lido beach near Venice, to stay at the Grand Hotel des Bains where all his needs will be catered to. Unfortu­nately, a bureaucratic mixup upset his travel plans, the pestilence didn't respect inter­national borders, and they're in for a spell of bad weather (“The scirocco is oppressive.”) Never­the­less he's in elegant surroun­dings with a view of the beach from his room, giving him time to reflect on his past (“What kind of road have I chosen?”).

His favorite pastime being people-watching he soon finds himself fascinated by an Adonis, a thirteen-year-old Polish youth Tadzio (Björn Andrésen) on holiday with mother and siblings. His (reciprocated) eye contact with the lad is inter­spersed with flash­backs to existential discussions with fellow musician friend Alfred (Mark Burns) over art, whether it's spiritual or just a matter of the senses. I'm not sure what—if anything—they ever decided, but it sure produced a lot of good back­ground music.


There is one piece of physical art displayed and discussed, an over­sized hour­glass:

Gustav von Aschenbach:
I remember we had one of these in my father's house. The aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that … that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes it appears that the sand runs out only … only at the end … and until it does, it's not worth thinking about … till the last moment … when there's no more time left to think about it.

Their remembered discussions end on Alfred's note: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.” I'm thinking that hour­glass represents aging, is aging, because generally we don't think about it until it's too late to do any­thing. Take von Aschen­bach's journey to Lido as an artistic meta­phor. Rearranging the letters of Lido, I come up with "I old." “Death in Venice”—the title itself being a give­away—opens in medias res with Prof. von Aschen­bach on a steam­ship at sea, splayed out on a deck chair, his nose in a book, completely oblivious to his journey to old age ("I old.") After he disembarks, though, and is on the connecting boat, he tells his gondolier he doesn't want to go to Lido, at least not right away, he wants to stop off at Ancona and take motor­ized trans­port from there. Once we draw near to old age, we start thinking, not so fast. Maybe we can stop off and have, say, science ease us into it, … with some delay. The gondolier treats it as a joke assuring him he's a good rower. But on arrival the gondolier disappears being unlicensed and wanted by the polizia. At the end of our lives we start confronting old age. We are very able to get there on our own strength that being unreliable, when it fails we are there.

Tadzio is the epitome of youth. As if his obvious youthfulness were not enough, he manages to coat him­self with sand as he's romping with his friends, and his mother (Silvana Mangano) gets him toweled off. Plenty of sand in that hour­glass, which is why the professor's interest.

Constructing a sand castle with his friends, Tadzio picks up a weathered plank on the beach and uses it to bridge the moat (“Ça va comme ça?” ¶“Non.” ¶“Oui, comme ça.”) He shows us how to bridge the gap between generations just like that, by noticing each other.

Gustav's conclusion is, “You cannot reach the spirit with the senses. You cannot. It's only by complete domination of the senses that you can ever achieve wisdom, truth, and human dignity.” He seems to embody this note despite the ravages of old age, (Prov. 16:31) “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness.”

Production Values

“Death in Venice” (1971), originally titled “Morte a Venezia,” was directed by Luchino Visconti, a titled aristo­crat familiar with high society. Its screen­play was done also by Luchino Visconti along with Nicola Bada­lucco, based on Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death in Venice. It stars Dirk Bogarde, Romolo Valli, Mark Burns, and in a non-speaking role Björn Andrésen. It incor­porates excerpts from Gustav Mahler's third and fifth symphonies as if they were works in progress of the lead character—in the book he was a writer, but the switch works well for the movie. This is a gracious movie with beauty and grandeur in frame after frame: wonderful colors, art direction, and camera action thanks to cinema­tog­rapher Pasqualino De Santis. The costumes by Piero Tosi are reflective of a bygone era of sartorial finery. Its director used to direct opera, and it shows in an above average elegance. It's in English with some minor dubbing.

It's rated GP for general audiences. I believe the book version was seedier but I haven't read it. A watered down Nietzsche is reflected in the philosophical discussions. It's the acting—good acting at that—that holds the piece together, not the editing where the camera is allowed to just run. The audience needs to pay attention to scope out when we're in the present, the past, or some fantasy vision.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

I thought “Death in Venice” was extremely well made without relying on gimmicks. You just have to stay awake to see where the pieces fit together and not try to second guess where it's all going. An action movie this is not; it's a thing of beauty. The music fell well on my untrained ear, and my untrained eye picked up a smidgen more appreciation of beauty than I'm accus­tomed to. The characters were easy to keep track of, and they all stayed in type. It would make a good vacation movie if you're planning to hit the Continent.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: No action, no adventure. Suitability for Children: Suitable for children 13+ years or so. Special effects: No fault. Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day. Suspense: Predictable. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.