Luchino Visconti, Death In Venice (1971)

Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice is an adaptation of Thomas Mann’s novel; it follows Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), a composer who, due to ill health, comes to Venice. The film explores the encounter of true beauty amidst the decay – Venice is struck down by a plague toward the end of the film. The music present throughout the film are Gustav Mahler’s the Third and the Fifth symphonies and the main character is himself a composer, while in the novel he is a writer. This change made by Visconti is important since it highlights the musical nature of the protagonist and connects him to the romantic music we hear throghout the film; it amplifies the intensity of Gustav’s feelings, but also provides a setting which facilitates the contemplation of beauty. Gustav is infatuated with the beauty of a stunningly beautiful youth, a teenage boy.

The Nietzschean concepts of Apollonian and Dyonisian are particularly relevant to the film; the protagonist, as his friend makes a remark in the flashbacks we see in the film, sets high moral standards of perfection and restraint upon himself (the Apollonian element) and suppresses the irrational and passionate Dyonisian element. During the flashbacks, we witness the conversations of philosophical nature regarding the role of the artist and whether the artist creates from the spirit or, as his friend suggests, through the senses. “Evil is a necessity”, says his friend while despising Aschenbach’s self control and the lack of passion for things, his sterile self-composure. The artist “feeds” himself upon the decay and sickness, his friend emphasizes, and good health is a dry thing, as well as the neglect of the passionate, sensual encounter with the world. “Genius is a divine gift. A sinful morbid flash fire of natural gifts”.

 

When Aschenbach comes to Venice, he encounters a grotesque figure wearing make-up and later in the film he himself tries to look youthful and gets a similar make-up resembling a death mask. Upon arriving to Venice, a corrupt gondolier takes him in the direction he doesn’t want to go; this points to the fact that Aschenbach’s encounter with Tadzio is not an act of his will, as he sees him he is momentarily infatuated and cannot escape the admiration of beauty he sees. The film conveys the appearance of beauty amongst decay, beauty degenerating into the grotesque and implicitly the degeneration of art, being either a pure form for the contemplation of beauty and the aesthetical or a sensual manifestation. In other words, degeneration and decay and the possibility of encountering beauty in its purity is the main theme of the film.

Aschenbach says that at his father’s house he had an hourglass and that “the aperture through which the sand runs is so tiny that… that first it seems as if the level in the upper glass never changes. To our eyes, it appears that the sand runs out only… only at the end.” The antinomies between youth and old age, sickness and health are deeply present throughout the film as well as  the perception of timelessness during the contemplation and admiration of beauty. Aschenbach’s  friend says to him that he has never possessed chastity since purity is a privilege of youth: “In all the world, there is no impurity so impure as old age.”

 

Vigorous line:

“You must never smile like that. You must never smile like that at anyone. I love you.”

Gustav von Aschenbach

 

In Plato’s dialogue thematically dedicated to eros and love, Phaedrus, Socrates says that although madness can be illness, it can bring us blessings. The form of “divine madness” Plato writes about is love that comes from Aphrodite and Eros. We can see that Gustav, after seeing Tadzio on the beach, starts composing, while we can assume that, due to his illness, he was not artistically productive before that. For Plato, the madness of love arises from seeing beauty and being reminded of true universal beauty. Gustav is vilely distressed when he does not see Tadzio and joyous when he does, he is completely obsessed with the boy; not until the last part of the movie does he engage in any contact with him. Tadzio is for Gustav, and for Visconti as a creator of art, an artistic form itself, like an ancient statue that majestically shines in the sun.

Whether Gustav’s affection for Tadzio is sensual is debatable, but the impression the film leaves is that Tadzio is a manifestation of Gustav’s obsession with beauty and perfection and that that relationship is erotic in the Platonic sense of the term. If we borrow Plato’s vocabulary, Gustav is “reminded” of the universal beauty which Tadzio represents in the material form. When he touches his hair and his hand shakes, it can be compared to the child’s desire to touch statues at a museum, but knowing that it is forbidden.

 

For Gustav this is forbidden, not only because of the social conventions, but because by experiencing beauty through the senses the Platonic element of observing the earthly reflections of the idea of beauty is compromised. Tadzio’s smiling to him compromises the aesthetic experience as well, since it brings an element of the emotional and sensual.   In this moment, Gustav’s degeneration commences regarding to experiencing Tadzio as a reflection of Divine Beauty. Gustav’s friend says: “No, Gustav, no. Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the senses.”

This is particularly the view Gustav is opposed to and he cannot accept since he sees art and beauty as coming from the spirit. In an ending scene, when Gustav is dying on the beach and observing Tadzio as he is illuminated by the Sun in the sea, blood is trickling down his forehead, the artist dies while observing pure beauty. Symbolically it may mean that when the artist is confronted with the purest form of beauty, he starts dying, since everything he may observe later would be degenerate in comparison with the Beauty he experienced.

Hrvoje Galić

Michelangelo Antonioni, L’eclisse (1962)

It is somewhat ironic that we are commemorating a total solar eclipse which occurred in the United States a week ago, with a film that can be easily interpreted through Marxist lenses. Although, since the Cold War is over, one can afford such leeway. Speaking of the Cold War, L’eclisse was filmed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and is heavily influenced by that very experience the world had gone through. Trees in the film remind of the shape of a nuclear blast, which is very likely rooted in our collective unconscious, if we follow Jungian psychoanalysis.

The film follows Vittoria (Monica Vitti – one of the most talented Italian actresses of that era), self-confident but fragile young woman who engages in romantic escapades or long-time relationships while seeming to be reluctant to allow herself to be seriously emotionally involved. She longs for security; as we can see at the beginning of the film when she lies in a fetal position, but she also longs for freedom and is repelled by what she perceives as impediments that men bring to her life.

The first man that we can see she encounters is her adolescent amour, the man who wants to marry her, but she escapes from such a possibility and encounters a young man of materialistic nature. He sees the world through the lenses of a man who mostly deals with numbers, money to be more exact. At one moment in the film, he says that he had dinner with “seven or eight billion liras”. When he meets Vittoria, all he talks of are his cars and the money he earned. The angles from which the scenes of Vittoria and her companions are filmed imply emotional distance (we can often see their backs).

What’s even more symptomatic are the scenes of the behaviour of businessmen at the stock exchange; Antonioni dedicates a fair amount of screen time to such scenes to highlight its barbaric and crude nature. At one  moment of silence is had for a “fallen comrade”; the angle from which the scene is shot makes it similar to a religious experience at a chapel. Both romances fail, the second mostly because the tender and poetic side of Vittoria simply cannot digest Piero’s crude materialism.

Stock Exchange

 

The two themes with which Antonioni deals predominantly in this film are the alienation of modern man and the  banality of romantic love. The first theme is explored in his early neorealist films (most notably Il grido), but is elaborated upon fully in the trilogy L’Eclisse is the part of. The scenes which deal with a woman who was born in Africa symbolize the need of modern man to escape alienation through immersion into the life of “primitive” people and intimate encounter with nature. Antonioni points out that this is impossible. The Westerner sees the Africans through the lenses of modernization theories which value other cultures according to their level of industrial, economical (etc.) development.

The banality of romantic love in the bourgeoise society has an important aspect that needs to be considered. Love is no longer destructive in the manner Homer depicts it (Troy is sacked because of eros), or as later poets and authors do. The main danger, as Antonioni sees it, is that romantic love becomes a trifle, a commodity which takes boredom away.

The beautiful final shots in the film show desolate town landscapes with worried and devastated people (the nuclear threat); the shots of water represent life which is slowly fading away into the nothingness of Boudelairean spleen permeating the industrial landscapes resembling those in Antonioni’s Red Desert.

 

Vigourous line:

 “There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man – it’s all the same.”

Vittoria

African Weaving

This line can be interpreted from several different angles. It presents Vittoria in a vulnerable moment of passive nihilism, but also the desire to transcend that feeling. It is important to note the symbolism of tropes she chose to say. A needle and a thread are intimately connected to the art of weaving. It is a delicate skill, but also the one which connects threads into something new, which can be beautiful and awe inspiring.

In Plato’s Statesman weaving is compared to the statestman’s role. He needs to weave divergent and analogue threads into a polity. A “book” can imply numerous things like exploring the uncharted seas, but also late-night boredom and fatigue. Associating all these tropes with the romantic relationship is intellectualy stimulating and interesting. It can inspire countless interpretations, the one that highlights the emotional state of the main character, but also her subconscious desires and imagination.

Hrvoje Galić