An avant-garde composer takes a break at a Venetian seaside resort, after suffering from stress. However, when he develops a disturbing attraction to an adolescent boy, and cholera threatens the resort, he finds no rest at all…
Trying to regain his failing health, Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) convalesces in cholera-ridden Venice – not the smartest of moves – where he falls for the cherubic charms of a young boy (Andresen).
Visconti takes certain liberties with Thomas Mann's novella, including changing the protagonist's profession to composer, largely to populate his soundtrack with the haunting symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Latent homosexuality is merely hinted at, and Aschenbach faces his own inner turmoil as if it were an intellectual challenge more than a moral dilemma – all part of the film's quirky charm.
As a piece of cinema, this tale of a moribund composer unexpectedly stirred by pure beauty is often ravishing. The attention to period detail, the glories of the setting and the pulchritude of the cast cannot be faulted. However, as an adaptation of Thomas Mann's novella, it's an undoubted disappointment. By concentrating on homosexual desire, director Luchino Visconti misses the intellectual subtext of Dirk Bogarde's disquiet on encountering 14 year-old Bjørn Andresen, thus making Aschenbach seem like a prissy stalker rather than a man who is suddenly forced to question the validity of his entire life.
The pace is glacial and the atmosphere oppressive, but Bogarde gives one of the most moving performances of his career. Somewhat controversial upon its initial release due to its paedophilic undertones, Death In Venice has aged remarkably well, in part because its beauty, tragedy and slow inevitability are so timeless.
Reviewed by Justin Bowyer