Death in Venice (1971)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Period Film, Psychological Drama, Gay & Lesbian Films  |   Run Time - 125 min.  |   Countries - France , Italy   |   MPAA Rating - PG
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Review by Wheeler Winston Dixon

Toward the middle of his life, after having worked in a series of thankless comedies for Rank, which nevertheless made him a household name in England, Dirk Bogarde struck out on his own to make a stunning series of films with American expatriate Joseph Losey, most especially The Servant (1963) and Accident (1967). While much of his earlier work had been inconsequential, these films established Bogarde at a stroke as one of England's most serious actors, and led him on a path of self-discovery that eventually wound its way to director Luchino Visconti's door. In Visconti's intensely operatic The Damned (La Caduta degli dei, 1969), Bogarde played the scion of a German munitions manufacturer in Nazi Germany to brutal effect; in 1971, he and Visconti collaborated on one of the director's most disturbing films, Death in Venice (Morte a Venezia). Loosely based on the novel by Thomas Mann, Death in Venice follows composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Bogarde) as he travels to Venice for a vacation, unaware that a mysterious plague is busily claiming the holiday makers one by one, as the management of the luxury hotel where von Aschenbach is staying stage a quiet cover-up, so that people simply "disappear" without explanation. In the midst of this unsettling situation, von Aschenbach develops an obsession with a young boy staying at the resort, Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen). Aging and well aware that the young man could have no possible interest in him other than to manipulate him for money, von Aschenbach nevertheless finds himself in the grip of a passion he cannot escape or explain, and even resorts to cosmetic measures to alter his aging countenance. But all is to no avail, and the film ends in one of the most nihilistic and hopeless final sequences in the history of cinema. Bogarde's performance is heroic and deeply sympathetic; Visconti's direction is methodical and coiled, gradually springing the trap in the film's final half-hour. A remarkable effort on all accounts, this is one of Visconti's finest films, and one of Bogarde's greatest accomplishments.