Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Visconti: Death in Venice and Senso

Senso (1954)

     Visconti's Senso opens in an opera house. Actually, it opens with a good two minutes of the opera production itself--Verdi's Il trovatore--which made me think I had been tricked into watching an opera production staged for the camera. I wouldn't have been that far off; all of the Visconti movies I've seen thus far have that same operatic scale, elegance, and sense of inevitable tragedy and loss. He treats his characters with varying degrees of compassion or disgust, but nothing can change the fact that they're a doomed bunch, grappling with forces--social change, history, time--that are out of their control.
      Here, fairly traditional romance and melodrama replaces the grand family drama of The Leopard (1963) as the conduit for Visconti's depiction of the changing world (the historical backdrop of the Italian Risorgimento remains the same). La Contessa Serpieri is a wealthy Venitian lady, married to both her husband and the cause of Italy's unification, and she betrays them both to find true love with Franz Mahler, a charming Prussian soldier. He goes on about how war forces men to become peons fighting for a cause they have no interest in, and is perfectly happy to give up glory, honor, and patriotism for her. Or not. Lest we give into idealism and start thinking that happiness can be found by escaping social constraints, the story turns sour, and the two lovers turn from heroes into degenerates.
       There's one scene in particular, where all the sentimental veneer is stripped away, that shocked me in it's cruelty. It appealed to the side of me that likes my movies dark. But then again, this is a story where a woman is punished for foolish desire (something that always leaves me uneasy), where connection is impossible between two people who are supposed to be fighting each other, and where patriotism and fidelity matter above all. I was impressed with the intelligence, visual acuity, and attention to detail on display in Senso, but the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that this just wasn't the right story to carry out Visconti's vision. Senso may be good, but the best thing about it is that it was practice for The Leopard.


Death in Venice (1971)      

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice novella, on the other hand, provides source material that fits the director like a glove. Not to say that Visconti is a pedophile who enjoys staring at 14 year old boys who are supposed to embody the very idea of beauty and perfection. But the director admitted that he tried to approach auditions for the role of the young Tadzio with the lustful gaze of aging protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach, and judging from the footage we have of him marveling over the cuteness of some shirtless Scandinavian fellows, he seems to have had an easy go at it.
      Now, now. Before I get too carried away with tasteless remarks about pederasty, I should say that there is a lot more here than mere perversion. Death in Venice is about beauty, loss, and powerlessness, and like many of Visconti's films, it takes place in a a world that's coming apart; a cholera epidemic has swept down upon Venice, although it seems to have enveloped the city in a mournful haze instead of filling it with an air of dread. But, most importantly, the story is about the creative process; von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), unable to find real beauty in his own art (he was a writer in the book and is a composer here), discovers it in something forbidden, in his love for the young boy (Bjorn Andreson). The movie shows the poor man as a rather sad and sometimes pitiful character, but it also treats him with with a sympathetic gaze. Von Aschenbach is a more than an old man that we have to shake out heads at and feel a little bit sorry for. As Mann said, "something comes out in illness that is more important and conductive to life and growth than any medical guaranteed health and sanity...in other words: certain conquests made by the soul and mind are impossible without disease, madness, crime of the spirit."  
Strangely enough, Death in Venice, which should be a more flawless and distinguished work than Senso, falters in its direction where Senso does not. The affection that Aschenbach has for Tadzio is shown through an endless series of zooms. We get a zoom in on the mustachioed and decrepit Aschenbach and then a zoom in on the rosy cheeked Tadzio and it gets to be a little silly after a while. The music is often mushy and sentimental, and the film can be formless and long-winded at times. But ultimately, it's the personal connection that Visconti brings that elevates the movie. Death in Venice nearly reaches the level of beauty and sadness that it aims for.



  1. Man I've never seen any Visconti films before. Although I did read Death in Venice for the first time a few weeks ago and immediately downloaded Visconti's adaptation. I've yet to watch it, but damn, I'd rank Thomas Mann's novella amongst my favorites, I loved it.

  2. Wow, that good? In that, case, I'm guessing the movie doesn't come close. I gave it a high rating, but it's still pretty flawed.

  3. Yeah it's wonderful. Check it out, it's only about 80 pages, you could breeze through it on a lazy sunday.

  4. Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” (1971) and How It Was Misperceived By The American Mass Cultural Worldview – (De-sublimated) “Sexcitement” vs. Overtones of Homoeroticism As A Part of Existential Sublime

    Creative Emotional Alchemy of A priori Re-incarnation

    When DV was released in US, American mass-cultural project of “liberating de-sublimation” in all areas of life was in a process of being deployed in full power. Visconti’s film narrates the story of last weeks of life of the person of rare sublimity of character and a great composer (Visconti sculpted his protagonist in view of Gustav Mahler) who became erotically obsessed with a young boy of classical beauty inspiring in him an unconscious mystical project of a priori reincarnation – the feeling that he will not lose the beauty of this world completely with his passing away (spiritual ties to the boy will somehow prevent it from happening). In mid-70s Visconti’s film fell victim to the climate antithetical to psychological sophistication as “educated snobbery” - it was understood as a sentimental story about an old and sick homosexual, Gustav Aschenbach coming out of the closet. Visconti addresses in advance the tendency of pop-mind not to differentiate between homoeroticism and homosexuality – he personifies this non-differentiation into two episodic characters: a personage on the ship arriving to Venice who insinuates that Gustav’s carries “ambiguous” sexual intentions and a clownish pantomime artist who “deconstructs” in his performance Gustav’s spiritual torments as sexual ones. Today, in forty years after the film was made, it becomes more obvious that DV is not gay-lib flick; the film is a cultural call for more complicated psychological life and more sublime and profound emotional ties between lovers, friends and human beings in general. DV is about a cognitive rapport between the emotional intelligence in two human beings, Gustav and Tadzio, both trying to understand the mystery of Gustav’s attraction to the boy. Homoeroticism (as different from homosexuality) is a spiritual parenthood or brotherhood and sisterhood helping people to accept death as a symbolic resurrection instead of being hooked on surplus-money and extra-power as a symbolic immortality. The film is a unique visual incarnation of serious music (here, Mahler’s). Cognitive mutuality between Gustav and Tadzio is depicted by Visconti as a triumph of human intelligence over human predicaments. Dirk Bogarde’s performance registering even the smallest movements in Gustav’s feelings with tactful articulateness and the grace is a unique example of the actor’s mastery of human psychology.