Death in Venice (1971) dir. Luchino Visconti
Luchino Visconti was an Italian communist who started his career as a pioneer of neorealism. La terra trema follows the story of a working class fishing village on the Sicilian coast. It is anti-fascist and anti-capitalist, with the impoverished villagers being thwarted at every attempt to maintain and increase their livelihood. It tends to stay on the spartan side of neorealism, and feels closer to the Soviet pseudo-documentary Zemlya than Rosselini’s Paisan or Roma, città aperta.
The, Visconti began to veer away from the strictures of neorealism, and began to make some of the most lavishly shot films I’ve ever seen. The Leopard, starring Burt Lancaster as 19th Century Sicilian royalty, is one of the best ways to show off a new Blu-ray player.
Visconti worked with cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis on Death in Venice. It picks up the gorgeous visual style of The Leopard – the saturated oranges and the quietly contrasting pale blues – but it neglects any attempt to create a compelling story.
Perhaps Visconti counted on viewers to be familiar with Thomas Mann’s 1912 novel, and fill in the subtext for him. The film looks very pretty, but feels very thin. An old man visits Venice, notices everyone is sick, and stalks a nice-looking boy.
Randomly dispersed flashbacks give us background, but leave us thinking “so what?” While the somewhat similarly themed (and also beautifully shot) A Single Man uses flashbacks to show us what our protagonist is feeling and thinking, Death in Venice‘s don’t have much emotional heft, and seem unrelated to the man we see now.
For example, we see our man after a failed concert decades ago. His wife is consoling him, and a friend berates him. Then, we return to the present, where he is watching someone play the piano and can’t find the boy. There’s a missing link here that Visconti refuses to paint in. It’s as if he’s counting on us to remember Mann’s novel, transpose Mann’s version of the character onto Visconti’s, and figure out what the man must be feeling from there. In short, doing the screenwriter’s work for him.
Death in Venice is #200 on the 2012 edition of the TSPDT 1,000 list I’m blogging through. I’ve now seen 424.