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DeathinVenice2Is there a film situation likelier to inspire outrage than a middle-aged man falling in love with a beautiful adolescent boy? The novella Death in Venice may have been written by Nobel Prize winning Thomas Mann, the film might have been made by well-known filmmaker Luchino Visconti and it may have been produced on a budget big enough to provide the cover that comes with cash, but that specious respectability entails its own controversies beyond homoeroticism. Indeed, some would argue the story should not even be discussed in such terms.

What effect, for example, results from changing the protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach from a writer to a composer? With that change, was it right to use (some would insist abuse) Mahler’s music as background? Does the exquisite physical environment enhance or overpower Mann’s interests? Or is the film too “faithful,” resulting in a gorgeous, but assumptive piece of overripe fruit? Such was the opinion of Visconti expert Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, for example. [1]

There is one point on which everyone agrees. The period recreation is stunning, the surfaces breathtakingly beautiful, the ambiance so densely detailed that it practically wraps around us. Whether one likes or dislikes the results, it is impossible to ignore the film’s overpoweringly sensuous evocation of the fin-de-siècle. When, for example, Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) enjoys some strawberries while watching the object of his fascination, Tadzio (Björn Andréssen) and life on the beach unfolds around them, the film practically comes to a stop to savor the moment.

Tadzio is the key that unlocks the pleasures to which Aschenbach is awakening, and which the viewer is invited to enjoy in an implicative ploy. You cannot reject Aschenbach’s infatuation with Tadzio while enjoying the seductive surfaces of the film because they both appeal to scopophilia. Nonetheless, while the homoerotic aspects of this awakening are undeniable, it is debatable whether sexual orientation as such is as important as Aschenbach’s acceptance of aspects of life and art he has denied. The gay aesthetic and Weltanschauung make the film appealing, but they are not what the film is about.

Ironically, with the decline of interest in artists like Mann or Visconti, the heavily weighted homoerotic and pedophile themes have probably contributed more to the film’s continued interest for viewers than its cultural pretensions. Which suggests yet another potential argument. In the politically charged world of current film criticism, is there any room for a film like Death in Venice, which might as well have a scarlet “E” for “elitist” emblazoned on every frame? Is it fit for anything other than corrosive deconstruction?

Put it this way: only potentially great work is rich and varied enough to continue to inspire controversy. And only work that excites argument after an initial flush of interest is worth discussing at all. Does Visconti’s Death in Venice corrupt Mann’s novel? The inability to resolve that question is part of the film’s fascination.

swoosh2[1] See Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, Luchino Visconti (Viking Press, New York, 1973) p. 194-206.