Italian master Luchino Visconti’s elegiac 1971 film Death in Venice has been a source of disagreement among critics since its debut. The screen adapta­tion of a 1912 novella by German writer Thomas Mann is ravishing, with the gentle, sweeping camerawork exhibiting the director’s usual grace and the period details of fin-de-siècle Venice and its inhabitants beautifully realised.

But Death in Venice has been dismissed as superficial compared with such Visconti masterpieces as the neorealist La Terra Trema (1948) and the magisterial epicThe Leopard (1963), and it’s often criticised for taking the complex subtext of Mann’s novel and turning it into a doomy melodrama.

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Visconti wrote the script himself, with Niccola Badalucco. English actor and writer Dirk Bogarde (Doctor in the House, 1954) plays Gustav von Aschenbach, a once-successful German classical composer who fears that his muse has deserted him. The dishevelled Gustav travels to Venice to lose himself in his sorrow, but his spirits are rejuvenated by the sight of an adolescent Polish boy called Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), who is visiting Venice with his family. Gustav is entranced by the boy’s beauty and falls in love with him. They exchange glances, but Gustav knows the two can never meet. When an epidemic breaks out in the city, Gustav chooses to stay in Venice to be close to his new muse.

Mann’s von Aschenbach, a writer rather than a musician, is attracted to the boy as he feels he is the epitome of classical beauty, his desire eventually becoming sexual. But Visconti makes his protagonist’s obsession with the boy sexual from the start, in a way that seems predatory and repulsive.

The character of Gustav has been altered in other ways, too. The novella features a powerful man whose decline is a metaphor for the decay of the German nobility at the end of the 19th century, but Visconti uses the character to essay an account of personal despair and degradation.

Both the novel and film use Romantic composer Gustav Mahler as an inspiration for the main character. While Mann’s refer­ence is obscure, Visconti’s is more explicit, with parts of Mahler’s third and fifth symph­onies featured on the film’s sound­track, though the 19th-century composer’s music often upstages the less-than-heroic antics of the characters on screen. (Mahler, by the way, did not die in Venice; he died in the Austrian capital, Vienna.)

Bogarde had previously appeared in Visconti’s 1969 film The Damned, although much of his work was edited out of it. To make up for that, Visconti promised him
a better role, which came to fruition with Death in Venice. Bogarde called Visconti “the Emperor” and once said, “I wouldn’t have minded being a doorknob on any film that he ever did, the richness one took in was so enormous.”

Death in Venice will be screened tonight and on September 16 and 22 at The Grand Cinema, in West Kowloon, as part of the Cine Italiano! festival.