By Glauco Gotardi
If you take just a quick look at Death In Venice -- and for what matters here, we'll talk about the movie, not the book -- it is, we might think, just another love story. Then, if you dig little deeper -- i.e. actually watching the movie -- you can see that it is about that very specific platonic love that won't ever happen. But if you decide to go to the core of it, to watch it for a third or fourth time, maybe you'll get to the same conclusion as me.
(Just let me warn you not to expect some sort of epiphany here.)
Love is not what matters for Luchino Visconti.
We can see love -- some sort of it, in a classic and conventional way -- when Gustav von Aschenbach, the main character played by Dirk Bogarde -- spends some time with his wife and daughter, in a flashback scene. That might look like love. There's also some love on the way the Polish family relate -- especially when it comes to the way Visconti portrays the relationship between Tadzio and his mom. We'll take that as love too.
Death In Venice is a classic well-known book, created by one of the greatest writers of his time and, in part because of that, we assume -- at least nowadays -- that people had the story culturally forged into their minds. And we're talking about the 70s. The movie industry was huge then and, despite the fact that it's a movie by an Italian director based on a German writer, it was produced by Warner Bros.
With that in mind, it's reasonable to think that the audience knew, beforehand, what they were going to see during that two-hour piece of Cannes-winning cinema. And it was not love.
Then -- if not about love -- what is Death In Venice all about?
Aging, shame and decay
We are led to believe that Gustav von Aschenbach was a big artist and still is a reasonably well-known person, but is no longer performing at his best. During the movie, when the story comes and goes through different periods of his life, we start to understand what has actually happened to Gustav and why he seems to be so uncomfortable -- for the lack of a better word -- with his life. He's past his prime. And, to make sure we get that idea, the dialogues Gustav has with Alfred tells it in a very direct way:
"In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age."
The age is pretty obvious to us because we can see it acting on Gustav, on the scenes from the distant past with his wife, the recent past, when he has a breakdown during a concert, and the present. The decay, in a sense, gets more evident when the story shows us that it is not only an artistic decay. His decay is also shown to us as something moral.
Gustav's decay comes more evident when he fails to accept all the warnings to leave Lido and uses one small incident with his baggage as the perfect excuse to come back to the hotel and to Tadzio. We can see clearly that he leaves the hotel with an obvious, saddened face but comes back full of joy. If we say it looks like an addiction, we won't be too far from the truth: The kind of decay we see on Gustav, always looking for more, even when it becomes obvious that he is already sick, it's just like all the drug-addicted characters we've seen everywhere in the movies. He already knows -- he investigated it, he wanted to know -- that the whole city is sick. He is sick.
The only thing that's not bright clear to us is if he doesn't feel that sickness -- it would be something that only we know, that omniscient audience perspective that is very common -- or if he has decided to sublimate it. But, for Gustav, it doesn't really matter. The danger of staying is far less important than the visual pleasure and the platonic desire for Tadzio. And he will have to pay for it.
Beauty and art
Through the movie, the first part of it at least, ambiguity is a suggestion -- a strong one -- but nothing more than that. Gustav's life, his sexuality, his relationship with the pictures we'll later learn that are from his wife and daughter: Everything in his life is a little ambiguous. Then -- in what seems to be the director, again, trying to make sure we'll get it -- there is the discussion about ambiguity, during another dialogue between Gustav and Alfred.
Ambiguity then comes to the center of the stage; They also have a dialogue about art and beauty:
"Non Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses. Only to the senses."
And what could be more ambiguous than art, the great form of human expression that has no right or wrong, that can be perceived and judged by each one in its own way? Gustav feels that there is beauty in Tadzio; and, most of the time, it seems enough for him just to watch it from a distance. Just like art in an exhibition, that you won't ever touch. And we don't see it as something wrong, because there is real art in the way Tadzio is portrayed by Visconti.
Tadzio becomes this modern-day living sculpture, that is thrown at us as just that: Pure artistic beauty. It's obvious that Visconti wanted to create a piece of art. In the end, beauty and art will meet the decay, the aging and death: The last sequence puts it all together.
The beauty of a young boy, the art in the way he is framed by the director, Gustav's decay through sickness and the shame about his own age, shown to us when the work of the barbershop starts to melt.
"And now Sir is ready to fall in love as soon as he pleases."
Then, when the end comes with the non-redemptious death, with Tadzio walking by, not even noticing Gustav's last moments, we understand it. He felt in love, and he felt for it. One remarkably sad piece of art. But, as any piece of art, all of the above will probably change the next time I watch it.