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Death in Venice

Besides Mozart and Shostakovich, we will celebrate another centenary this year on November 2, the birthday of Italian film director Luchino Visconti. His movie adaptation of Der Tod in Venedig by Thomas Mann, Morte a Venezia (1971), was shown this weekend in two free screenings at the National Gallery of Art, to close the museum's tribute to the Italian director. On Saturday, the large auditorium in the East Building filled up remarkably fast for a holiday weekend, a sign of the widespread admiration for Visconti's masterpiece.

Bjørn Andresen (Tadzio) and Dirk Bogarde (von Aschenbach), Death in Venice, directed by Luchino ViscontiIt is a little odd that a film about ephebophilia is regarded so highly. Thomas Mann based his 1912 novella on his own experience in Venice. The book's protagonist, a brilliant but morally ambiguous author, becomes so obsessed with a Polish boy in a sailor suit whom he sees on the Lido that he remains in Venice and dies in a cholera epidemic. Visconti, himself a bisexual, made a documentary about his long search to find a young actor (Bjørn Andresen) to play the boy, Tadzio, called Alla ricerca di Tadzio. Having heard about the death of Gustav Mahler while he was in Venice, Thomas Mann based some of von Aschenbach's physical characteristics on his memory of the premiere of Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand, and the haggard face of the aging composer. In his film, Visconti does away with much of Mann's character development, almost all of the opening third of the novella, set in Munich, transforming the character into someone much closer to Mahler.

The movie is one of the best adaptations of an interior novel ever made, mostly a series of perfectly composed shots little troubled by dialogue. Venice has never looked so good, and at the same time so dangerous to your health. There is a troubling undercurrent of class conflict that runs through the film, with grotesque characters of the Venetian underclass contrasted by their physical ugliness with the beautiful people of the luxury hotel on the Lido. The musical accompaniment, sonic beauty behind the depravity of the story, is drawn from Mahler's third and fifth symphonies. The central passage of music is the Adagietto of the fifth symphony, which I saw in a manuscript version in a recent exhibit at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, along with the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (adapted in the Adagietto), from the Rückert-Lieder.

The sentiment expressed in that song, a self-isolation from the world that is like death, plays right into this fictional episode appended to Mahler's life by Visconti. It is disturbing that von Aschenbach breaks out of self-isolation by his infatuation with a teenage boy, but the protagonist is much more pathetic than menacing. The movie unfolds not through actions but through a series of glances and looks from actors in closeup. Visconti chose Bjørn Andresen for his androgynous qualities, and although he is beautiful to look at, his range of expression is, perhaps intentionally, almost nil. Bogarde is much more fascinating to watch, in terms of how his character's feelings are gradually unmasked. In his final hours, von Aschenbach gives into his yearning for youth only symbolically, submitting to the restorative ministrations of a barber who dyes his hair, colors his lips and eyebrows, and makes up his face. In one of the most disturbing passages in Mann's novella, it is precisely the mixture of youth with impending death that seals von Aschenbach's obsession with Tadzio:

He had noted, further, that Tadzio's teeth were imperfect, rather jagged and bluish, without a healthy glaze, and of that peculiar brittle transparency which the teeth of chlorotic people often show. "He is delicate, he is sickly," Aschenbach thought. "He will most likely not live to grow old." He did not try to account for the pleasure the idea gave him.
As von Aschenbach falls dead in a chair on the beach, Tadzio waves in the distance, unattainable.

At the E Street Cinema, one new film opens this week, Turk Pipkin's Nobelity (September 8). The director traveled to countries around the world, asking Nobel laureates about the problems that threaten the future of the earth. Two gay-themed movies continue this week, after opening on September 1, Manuel Gómez Pereira's Queens and the gay teen movie spoof, Another Gay Movie by Todd Stephens.

At the National Gallery of Art, a new series dedicated to Benoît Jacquot and the Literary Screen opens on Saturday (September 9, 3 pm). The director's 1999 adaptation of Marivaux's La fausse suivante (The false servant, 1999) is paired with the television play about creating the role of Elvire in Molière's Don Juan, called Elvire Jouvet 40 (1986).

The tribute to David Lynch at the AFI Silver Theater closes this week with screenings of Mulholland Drive (closes on September 7). Looking forward to William Friedkin's foray into opera, directing the first production of the fall season at Washington National Opera (a double-bill of Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi), AFI Silver Theater will host Friedkin for a special screening of his excellent thriller The French Connection (1971) next Sunday (September 10, 3 pm). Finally, opening on September 8, there is a special one-week engagement of Bernardo Bertolucci's Il conformista (The conformist), a major achievement in the history of cinema.

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