Death in Venice: Visconti’s Handsome, Controversial Film, Starring Dirk Bogarde and Silvana Mangano

Italian director Luchino Visconti is one of few directors to establish an international reputation with such masterpieces as Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, The Damned and Death in Venice.

He was born as Count Don Luchino Visconti di Modrone, November 2, 1906. A descendant of Milan’s highest ranking nobility and one of the leading aristocratic families in Italy, Visconti did military service, and spent much of his youth cultivating his tastes for music, art, and horses.

Visconti’s first association with the performing arts was as a set designer for a 1928 play. He was 30 when he began his career as a working artist, joining the famous French filmmaker Jean Renoir in Paris as a costume designer and assistant director, contributing to such films as “A Day in the Country” and “The Lower Depths.”

Away from the restrictive atmosphere of Fascist Italy, Visconti came under the influence of communist ideology, to which he remained committed in the ensuing years, in sharp contrast to his early aristocratic upbringing and then private lifestyle.

In the late 1930s, Visconti came briefly to the U.S., but, like other foreign directors, he felt uncomfortable in Hollywood and returned to Italy quite disappointed.

After working as an assistant on Verdi’s opera “La Tosca,” Visconti set out to make his first film. He wanted to adapt to the screen a work by Giovanni Verga, a Sicilian novelist idolized by the Italian leftist underground for his naturalistic style, known as “Verismo.”

Visconti’s project met with strong resistance from Fascist censors, he changed his mind, and, to allay their suspicions, submitted a script adapted from the hard boiled writer James Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The resultant film, “Ossessione” (1942) was ostensibly a drama about the destructive powers of sexual passion and betrayal, but its realistic depiction of the proletariat life under fascism enraged the authorities, which mutilated the film. “Ossessione” heralded the Italian neorealist movement in its naturalistic setting and earthy texture, three years before Rossellini made his neorealist masterpiece, “Roma, Open City.”

For many years, Western critics couldn’t see “Ossessione” and thus considered “Roma, Open City,” as the first major work of the worldwide influential Italian movement neorealistic cinema. Textbooks had to be changed in the wake of discovering “Ossessione.”

Visconti’s second feature, “La Terra Trema” (“The Earth Trembles,” 1948), a sprawling drama of the Italian South, Visconti moved away from pure realism toward the elaborate decorative style that was to characterize his later films. “La Terra Trema” is a masterful work combining such documentary elements as local dialect in the soundtrack and a nonprofessional cast, combined with elaborately structured compositions and movements and stunning lighting effects.

The transition from neo-realism to a nearly operatic grand cinema style was even more evident in Visconti’s “Senso,” a striking color production of flamboyant proportions and an acknowledged classic pf postwar Italian cinema.

Visconti’s international reputation was established early in his career and remained undiminished, despite occasional misfires. Though in the 1960s and 1970s, his films became increasingly infrequent, each picture was an “event,” eagerly awaited by his international admirers.

All along, Visconti also gained much prestige as an innovative theater and opera director, and was credited with the development of Maria Callas into an operatic superstar.

A recurrent theme in Visconti’s films is the moral disintegration of a family, ranging from the tragic transplantation of southern proletariat to Milan in “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960) to the decadence of the wealthy Krupp family in “The Damned” (1969), which boasted an international cast, headed by Brit Dirk Bogarde, Swede Ingrid Tulin, and German Helmut Berger.

In 1963, “The Leopard,” considered to be Visconti’s most accomplished film, which stars American Burt Lancaster and Italisn Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

“The Leopard” was butchered by American distributors when it first played stateside, but in 1983, the picture was restored and re-released theatrically to unanimous critical acclaim. (See my reviews of the film and the special DVD edition)

Visconit’s “Sandra” (aka as “Vaghe Stelle dell’Orsa”) won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival in 1965.

In 1971, Visconti’s personal interpretation (some say distortion) of Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” lost the top prize at the Cannes Festival to Joseph Losey’s “The Go-Between,” but Visconti was compensated with a Special 25the Anniversary Award for his cumulative work.

Oscar Nomination

“Death in Venice,” which divided critics, was loved by many viewers for Dirk Bogarde’s performance as the elderly and dying German composer, and for its lavish production values, especially cinematography and costume design, which garnered an Oscar nod for Piero Tosi; the winner, however, was another period film, “Nicholas and Alexandra.”

Visconti died in 1976, at age 70, after making what became his swan song, “The Innocent.”

Visconti’s Status

Along with Fellini and Antonioni, Visconti was the third contemporary Italian director whose work received wide American and international recognition in the 1960s.

Visconti’s style and sensibility have stirred controversy among among American critics. With all due respect, I disagree with the late Pauline Kael, who once wrote: “Visconti’s pictures have often had an undercurrent of silliness, though solemn pacing kept audience respectful,” and with David Thomson’s more recent assessment that “on the international art-house circuit, Visconti’s flamboyant treatment of a few prestigious ventures passed for respectability, but he doesn’t begin to rate at the highest level; his work is trivial ornate and unconvinced.”

Other critics vilified Visconti for his calculated melodramatic tendencies and high-minded literary projects, but still acknowledged the highly entertaining values of his work. Indeed, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around “The Damned” and Death in Venice,” Visconti was a staple on campuses, exciting students to see and talk about his movies.

As with Antonioni, and later Pasolini and Bertolucci, there’s an unresolved tension in Visconti’s best work between his social Marxist perspective and the commitment to sheer cinematic aesthetics and the beauty of the image as a legit value in its own right, further complicated by his growing awareness of his homosexuality and its impact on his films.

Filmography: 17 features

1942: Obsession (Ossessione, also co-sc)

1943: Giorni Di Gloria

1948: The Earth Trembles (La Terra Trema, also co-sc)

1951: Appunti su un Fatto di Cronoca (docu short); Bellissima; “Siamo Donne (“We the Women,” the Anna Magnani episode),

1953: In the U.S. “We the Women” was added to another film, Questa e la Vita (Of Life and Love)

1954: Senso /The Wanton Contessa

1957: Le Notti Bianche (White Nights)

1960: Rocco e I suoi Fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers)

1962: Boccachio 70 (“The Job Episode”)

1963: Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)

1965: Vaghe Stelle dell’sOrsa (Sandra)

1967: Le Streghe (The Witches, “The Witch Burned” episode)
Lo Straniero (The Stranger)

1969: La Caduta Degli Dei (The Damned)
1971: Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice)

1972: Ludwig II

1975: Gruppo di Famiglia in uno Inferno (Conversation Piece)

1976: L’Innocente (The Innocent, aka The Intruder)