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Death in Venice

An autumnal film by a master director, Luchino Visconti's Death in Venice (1971) is the sort of experience that's best described as either meditative or ponderous, depending on one's inclination. Based on the Thomas Mann novella and set in the early twentieth century, the film follows composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) as he retreats to Venice for his health. He makes himself comfortable at a summer resort but can no longer find rest when he spots Tazio (Bjorn Andresen) — a young androgynous boy whom he develops a fancy for. Both attracted and repelled, the time Aschenbach spends watching Tazio causes him to reflect on his past as old arguments and tragedies flitter through his mind. Aschenbach comes to sees the boy as a cancer and decides to flee the resort until an accidental shipment of his luggage makes him reconsider his hasty retreat. But his decision to stay in Venice is for the worse — the area is about to be overrun by a plague-like spread of cholera. Aschenbach asks around, but finds it hard to get a straight answer from the townsfolk, since they don't want to scare off its thriving tourist community. As might be guessed from the title Death in Venice, the film heads towards the demise of its main character in a graceful, almost lilting manner that allows for an abundant use of Gustav Mahler, specifically his Third and Fifth Symphonies. Mahler so comes to dominate the soundtrack (he was considered the template for Mann's main character) that much of the film is dialogue-free — the camera gauzily follows whatever Aschenbach is looking at. Made in 1971 — five years before his passing and after nearly 30 years making movies — one senses that Visconti was wrestling with his age and looking at the nature of dying; it has the stillness and pacing of an "old man's film" (like later Kurosawa), and it feels slight in comparison to his Rocco and His Brothers or The Leopard. What may be most frustrating for some viewers is the film's gossamer narrative (Mann's novella can be read in about four hours), which puts the film in the mold of pictures by the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky, in that one's feelings about the movie are dependent on the viewer's ability to allow the story's rhythm to sink in. As a meditation on life and death by a master director, it's not as profound as one might hope, but it is engaging nonetheless. Warner's DVD presents Death in Venice in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) and DD 1.0 audio. The soundtrack is in English, but some of the supporting players speak in Italian, and while the important lines are looped, others are not. Curiously enough, many of these undubbed lines are translated in the optional English subtitles. Extras consist of a still gallery, the trailer, and the featurette "Visconti's Venice" (9 min.), which follows Visconti around on a day of the shoot. Snap-case.

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