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The lack of ambiguity in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” is probably what most disappoints me. Although it is his right, I believe Visconti has somehow missed the greatness of Thomas Mann’s work by opting to forego the subtleties of the novel and instead give us a straightforward account of homosexual love. In the book, Count Aschenbach travels to Venice at a specific time in his life, propelled by a compulsion he cannot fully comprehend and met by odd presences who appear to be luring or mocking him in some way. He notices a handsome boy who is also staying there with his Polish family after settling into his opulent hotel on the Lido. It would be crass and oversimplified to characterize his feelings for this guy as merely a simple homosexual desire. The youngster is a representation of the ideal of flawless physical beauty separate from sexuality. It is ironic that this beauty affects a man who has insisted on living in the intellectual world throughout the novel. The boy’s innocence and naturalness serve as a criticism of the older man’s conceit and intellectual sterility.
By making Aschenbach a composer instead than a writer, Visconti discredits the difference between beauty and intelligence. He supposedly changed it because he thought Mann had “really” modelled Gustav Mahler on his character, but so what? In flashbacks, Aschenbach asserts that intelligence is the source of beauty, while a friend claims that beauty is a trait that inherently exists in beautiful things. A philosopher and academic could hold Aschenbach’s position, but (I would guess) not the author of the romantic Mahler symphonies that are continually playing in the background.
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Visconti also overlooks—or avoids—the nuanced way in which the two characters’ relationship develops throughout the book. In the Mann version, the man never truly knows what the boy thinks of him because they never communicate, and even if he occasionally shows him favor by a look or a grin, the boy will usually show favor to many other people as well because that is just how he is. The way Mann recounts the tale makes it absolutely conceivable that the youngster is completely unconscious of any homosexual connotations, and the man may in fact be in love with an ideal rather than a real person. Such a potential is not present in the overbearing Visconti retelling. The boy’s role in the movie is to posture self-consciously in front of the man, turn slowly, smile sweetly, and turn languorously away. He does this at least two dozen times. This is essentially the only physical trait the youngster has throughout the film, and Visconti uses his turns, looks, and smiles so heavily that the boy almost comes off as hustling.
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Visconti loses the conceptual underpinning of Thomas Mann’s work by deciding to keep his story on this scale, and no amount of clumsy flashbacks can make up for it. Aschenbach appears in conversations with coworkers, with his wife and child, and later at the funeral for the child. He also appears impotent at a bordello, and, repugnantly, Visconti even inserts a concert at which Aschenbach is jeered at before being consoled by his wife. Scenes when the genius is certain that (someday!) his genius would be recognized went away, in my opinion, with “The Eddy Duchin Story.”
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Therefore, Visconti fails to create meaningful characters and relationships. The movie’s failure is its downfall, yet the physical splendor of the production is astounding. A careful recreation of the Lido of sixty years ago has been made. The attire, the entertainment, and the table arrangements showcase Visconti’s obsession with precision. The pink-and-gray city rises from waters that are as smooth as glass, thus the water and the quality of the light themselves appear to suggest the presence of the plague-bearing sirocco breeze. The photography is almost the first I have seen that is entirely deserving of the splendor of Venice. Visconti’s mastery of visual style almost succeeds in generating the precise ideas and sentiments that Mann’s heavy-handed prose utterly misses. The wind delivers both plague and beauty, which is its job in the novel.