Gustav walks the cloistered streets of Venice amid a Cholera epidemic; like any great Artist, he searches for Beauty’s sublime Form in a world cursed with mortality while Death stalks its prey. Director Luchino Visconti focuses our attention on Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous composer who exiles himself to the past, to the anachronistic city of Venice whose very foundation, like his, sinks deeper and deeper into dark troubled waters.
We are allowed only brief insight into Gustav’s past through flashback and mise-en-scene: a wife, the death of his child, a young lover, and a career her seems to have purposely castigated. Visconti uses Mahler’s music as the protagonist’s creation and it works to profound effect: the score is like a funeral shroud, the raging and fear against the dying of the light, and this creates a smothering tension that infuses the narrative with an contagious friction between our brief desire to live and the cold infinite void. It is Beauty with a capital B that Gustav searches for: not carnal lust to quench his dying body, a momentary fleshly delight, it is inspiration to breathe, to accept his own demise and possibly compose one last great symphony.
Visconti’s film is Beauty itself, each shot perfectly framed and each languid camera movement resplendently capturing Gustav’s perceptions. He becomes enamored with a young man, who represents his own salvation, both professionally and spiritually, an objet d’art that stirs the senses: in a world that smells of shit, where children needlessly die, there still exists a sublime grace. But he feels the tomb immure his heart, slowly stealing his breath, and in an unsettling scene a barber dyes his hair and paints his face white, applies rouge to his lips: makeup for a walking corpse. Finally, as Gustav gazes upon Tadzio, he dies as we all must…. alone.
Final Grade: (A)