Based on Thomas Mann’s novella, Death in Venice could have been no easy task to translate to the screen. But Visconti and Dirk Bogarde clearly have a rapport and Bogarde gives a subtle and moving performance which fits beautifully into the atmospheric realism of [pre-World War I] Venice.
Bogarde plays a German composer and conductor (made up to look very like Gustav Mahler, whose music is used for the score) who visits Venice on vacation when on the verge of a mental and physical collapse. He is concerned with the violent accusations of his friend (Mark Burns) that he has dodged the issue of emotion until he is now no longer capable of feeling it.
He is fastidious and will not react to the uncouth behavior of the people he meets until, at his hotel, he sees a young boy with his family. The lad looks to Bogarde to be the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He never seeks to contact the lad but follows him and watches him with a hunger which, thanks to Bogarde’s performance, is clearly more intellectual and emotional than homosexual.
The story has its troubles. It attempts to show how innocence can cause problems of corruption and yet there is a pervading air over the film that is far from innocent.
Bogarde is both pathetic and compelling. Bjorn Andresen undoubtedly is a remarkably attractively-featured lad and gives a memorable performance. Silvana Mangano plays his mother with a haughty charm.
1971: Nomination: Best Costume Design