Decadence, Detail, and Lavish Beauty: the Films of Luchino Visconti

Introduction of the IU Cinema President’s Choice Series,
and Visconti’s Death in Venice
IU Cinema
IU Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
April 14, 2014

Introduction And Acknowledgements

Thank you, Jon.

Let me begin by once again commending Jon and the staff of the Indiana University Cinema for the Cinema’s tremendous success. The Cinema celebrated its third anniversary in January. In these first three years of operation the Cinema has screened more than 600 individual film titles and has welcomed more than 60 guest filmmakers. This week, of course, the Cinema will host an artist who is widely regarded as the greatest living actress, and one of the greatest actresses of all time, Meryl Streep—and I will have the privilege of presenting her with an honorary doctorate from Indiana University.

The Cinema is now widely acknowledged to be one of the finest university cinemas in the nation. Jon has brought enormous creativity to his role as director, and he and the Cinema staff have already built a solid reputation for the IU Cinema as the home of some of the most innovative programming in the country.

I am very pleased to be here tonight to say a few words about the films I selected as part of this semester’s President’s Choice series “Decadence, Detail, and Lavish Beauty: Films of Luchino Visconti” and, particularly, the final film in the series—Death in Venice—one of my all time favorites.

Luchino Visconti

Visconti’s films are considered to be among the most stylistically and intellectually influential films of the Italian post-war cinema.

Visconti was born into a prominent noble family in Milan and had a highly privileged upbringing. A number of his films offer stern portraits of aristocratic society. Visconti’s homosexuality, of which he made no secret, was also an important aspect of his cinematic vision.

As a young man, he moved to Paris, where he became friends with Coco Chanel, who introduced him to one of the greatest directors of all time, Jean Renoir. Visconti began his film career by working as an assistant director on two of Renoir’s films.

During World War II, Visconti, who had joined the Italian Communist Party, allowed his palazzo to be used as a secret headquarters for the Communist Resistance. He was briefly imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1944.

Visconti would, of course, go on to become one of the fathers of Italian neorealism, the movement that grew out of the political turmoil and the desperate economic conditions in Italy at the end of World War II. The movement was characterized by stories set among the poor and the working class, small production budgets, often using non-professional actors, and with films shot on location out of necessity as the Cinecittà film studios had suffered major damage during the war.

Visconti was also a celebrated theatre and opera director, and one can see a theatrical influence in his films. As film theorists David Bordwell (who delivered the Provost Professors’ Distinguished Masters Lecture here at IU just a few years ago) and his wife and collaborator, Kristin Thompson, wrote, “(Vicsonti’s) films flaunted sumptuous costumes and settings, florid acting, and overpowering music.”1

The President’s Choice Series

In January, to begin this series, the Cinema screened Visconti’s 1957 film, Le notti bianche, which takes its title and plot from Dostoyevsky’s short story, White Nights. Nine of Visconti’s 14 feature films were based on literary works, which he would interpret and adapt with varying degrees of freedom.

Also in January, Visconti’s 1960 film, Rocco and his Brothers, was screened. A number of critics have described the film as a modern-day Greek tragedy, especially in its depiction of the relationship between the saint-like Rocco and his brutal brother Simone, who has a promising career as a boxer, but whose life spirals out of control.

In February, Visconti’s 1963 film, The Leopard, a film now widely considered to be one of the masterworks of the 1960s, was screened. Martin Scorsese listed it as one of his twelve favorite films.2 It is another of my all-time favorites. The film featured an international cast, including Burt Lancaster, who remained a lifelong friend of Visconti’s. Visconti received the Palme d'Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival for the film.

And two weeks ago, Visconti’s 1965 film, Sandra, was screened. Starring Claudia Cardinale, who also appeared in Rocco and his Brothers and The Leopard, Sandra is a retelling of the story of Electra, from Greek mythology, and is a continuation of the theme of despair for a crumbling upper class that Visconti had explored in The Leopard.

Death in Venice

The film you are about to see tonight, Death in Venice, is based on Thomas Mann’s novella of the same name. It has been called “one of the most individualistic and perhaps the most intriguing of film adaptations.”3 

It is the second of Visconti’s so-called German Trilogy, the first being The Damned, which we were not able to get, and the third being Ludwig, about King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Visconti made the main character, Gustav von Aschenbach, a composer in the film, rather than a writer, as he is in the novella, because Visconti believed that Mann had based the character on Gustav Mahler. And you will hear Mahler’s music featured in the film, especially, in my view, one of the most unforgettable moments in all cinema—the opening scene of the steamer carrying von Aschenbach entering the Venetian lagoon to the strains of the beautiful Adagietto 4th movement of Mahler’s magnificent 5th symphony.

In his memoir, actor Dirk Bogarde, who stars in the film as von Aschenbach, wrote that, after the completed film was screened for Warner Brothers (the film’s worldwide theatrical distributors), the company’s executives feared that the film would be banned in the U.S. because of its subject matter, and they wanted to kill the film. They changed their minds after a gala London premiere was arranged for the film by Viscount John Julius Norwich as part of a charity event to raise funds to save Venice from sinking, an event which Queen Elizabeth had agreed to attend. Visconti is reported to have called the executives in Los Angeles and said: “if you say it is ‘off,’ that you will not show it, then you will tell the Queen of England. Not I.”4

In what was an unfavorable review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that “the physical beauty of the film itself is overwhelming. The world of the Lido of sixty years ago,” Ebert wrote in 1971, “has been re-created in painstaking detail. The fashions, the entertainments, the table settings reveal Visconti's compulsion for accuracy. The photography,” Ebert continued, “is almost the first I have seen that is fully worthy of the beauty of Venice…”5

In his book, The Great Romantic Films, film historian Lawrence Quirk argued that both Mann and Visconti intended for the character Tadzio to be a symbol of beauty in the realm of Michelangelo’s David or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He wrote: "Some shots of Björn Andrésen, the Tadzio of the film, could be extracted from the frame and hung on the walls of the Louvre or the Vatican in Rome."6 The film so impressed the judges at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival that, although it did not receive the Palme d'Or, for which it was a strong contender, the judges created a special award—the 25th Birthday Award—for the film. I will conclude with what are purported to have been Visconti’s last words, which were, simply: “enough now.”7

Thank you and enjoy the film.

Source Notes

  1. Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction, (McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009), Bordwell lectured on "How Motion Pictures Became the Movies" at IU on April 13, 2010.
  2. “The Greatest Films Poll: Martin Scorsese,” Sight & Sound, bfi.org.uk, 2012, Accessed April 10, 2014, URL: http://explore.bfi.org.uk/sightandsoundpolls/2012/voter/1058
  3. Constantine Santas, Responding to Film: A Text Guide for Students of Cinema Art, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), 156.
  4. Dirk Bogarde, An Orderly Man, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012)
  5. Roger Ebert, “Death in Venice,” January 1, 1971, Web. Retrieved April 9, 2014, URL: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/death-in-venice-1971
  6. Lawrence J. Quirk, The Great Romantic Films, (Citadel, 1974)
  7. Stephen J. Spignesi, The Italian 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Cultural, Scientific, and Political Figures, Past and Present, (Citadel Press, 2003), 325.