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Popular Representations, Venice

Death in Venice (1971)

Death in Venice

‘The celebrated story of a man obsessed by ideal beauty’

The Bafta award winning film produced by Luchino Vicotti in 1971, reproduced by the Warner Bros in 1999, based originally on the novel ‘Death in Venice’.

The main character Gusto, who appears dark and mysterious, in character, is a composer on a much needed relaxing escape from his emotional scars, and hoping to be artistically inspired in the beautiful city of Venice .

On arrival in Venice Gusto is approached by an odd character, an elderly man dressed smartly with a made up face, appearing to recognise and taunt Gusto and is clearly unwelcome in his presence. As the time goes on Gusto appears more agitated and unsettled in his unfamiliar and unique surroundings.

The opening scenes depict Gusto isolated in the water in a venezian boat, he appears restless and uneasy as if uncomfortable with the surroundings. After being hassled by the locals, he is welcomed into an Italian Hotel where he spends much time, relaxing and smoking cigarettes.

Death in Venice provides a representation of a British man who is placed within a new setting’s in which is alien to him, therefore placing him in the ‘liminal stage’ of Victor Turners concept. Initially Venice is depicted as a very relaxing city, with various arts forms and classical performances on show, the people depicted in the bar scene are mainly English, dressed in elaborate garments.

The city is later depicted as being very mysterious alike Gusto, and is additionally very much a popular holiday spot, although the Italian culture is not lost in the cycle of consumerism. The representation is underlined by the sinister tone of the production, the lack of human communication giving the impression that Gusto is very much alone with his thoughts.

The plot deepens when Gusto sees a beautiful fourteen-year-old Polish boy named Tadzio, who is visiting his family and it is this character that captures Gusto, as the picture of ‘ideal beauty’ an image of perfection, natural and real. The connection that Gusto feels seems to almost take over his time in Venice as well as his mind space, he spends days contemplating the notion of perfection, and beauty. Tadzio provides just the inspiration you would expect a composer to need, yet Gusto becomes obsessed with this ideal analysing his every moment prolonging his stay further to continue to study more about Tadzio. Whilst this strong connection develops between Gusto and his idea of ‘beauty’ it is quite unclear whether the attraction is sexual or inspirational, or simply a connection to the memory of Gustos family at home in England, the lack of speech on Gusto’s part and the intensity of the composition which accompanies the production leaves that question open.

A key stage in the film is the scene in which Gusto decides to stay in Venice, the different in his characters compared to upon arriving initially gives the clear impression that he has feel in love with Venice. The first place Gustos goes is to the beach where he can see his ideal beauty and this scene carried with it much connotative value. Gustos seems to have completely lost sight of all his original intentions to become inspired and continue to work, it is almost as of Venice has caught him and he cannot disassociate himself with the beauty that he has found there, not only the beauty within Tadzio but the beauty of the scenery the lifestyle.

Gusto visits a brothel in which he sleeps with a prostitute who is an artist herself playing piano on his arrival, which links to Tadzio’s ability to play again questioning his attraction.

The smell and disinfecting of Venice situations develops throughout the narrative causing Gusto much concern. Gustos attention is taken away from Tadzio briefly while he tries to find the real reason for Venice’s clean down and as everybody appears to be keeping it quite as to not deter the tourists he asks the receptionist at the hotel he is staying. The reception explains that Venice could be at risk in contracting a disease which has swept various other places, but the risk is low and that it is simply a precautionary measure. Although as we know the disease did get to Venice due to the canals and its vulnerability (see Encounters: Death in Venice for historical background).

So here,we have various portrayals of different factors of the stereotypical imagery we attach to Venice – The City of Love, the place in which there is much artist value and composition deeply sewn into the historical gem that is Venice. The relationship between Gusto and Tadzio complex as it has been, portrays these stereotypical views that we tend to attach to the city, the idea of falling in love with an ideal beauty, the mysterious nature of the relationship gives the impression that Venice has something to hide, something sinister something inescapable, its fate perhaps. Additionally to this common view of the city there is a more in depth connotative reading to be considered, the individuals that are represented in this production that do not fit in with the bourgeoisie. The band that are attempting to entertaining the hotel visitors are sent away and clearly are not welcome or appreciated by some of the guests, there attire is more elaborate and unique, not smart or classical, they do not appear very much talented and are therefore kicked out. The band in the film to me present the people of lower social class, they do not conform to the tastes of the higher classes English guests and are therefore unwelcome.

This though provoking production has given me a good clear and in depth representation of Venice, in 5 days we will be departing to Venice and I will definitely be taking some of the connotative values expressed in this production to the real setting, to highlight how true a representation that this 4 time over Bafta award winning production has displayed.



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