“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” should be the name of this film. It is not exactly Hell, but it is so needlessly slow that it is the tone poem, the moody etude of motion pictures. There were actually times when I groaned aloud with impatience for something to happen.
Stripped to its essentials, without all the wordless walking about and the wordless contemplation, it is the story of one man’s trip to Venice. He is ill, so why not go to a warm dry place, why a descent into dampness? He stays at a thriving hotel on a beach, dotted with little tent-cabanas and chairs for the guests. Flashbacks identify him as a composer of some note, at least in Germany. He is Gustave Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde), happily married to Frau Aschenbach (Marisa Berenson), and the father of a lovely little girl, looking to be eight-to-ten years old. He loves her very much and seems to be especially proud of her thick golden curls. She dies abruptly, and his inspiration is gone. His new music is greeted with catcalls and foot-stomping, and his friend/manager reams him with a vitriolic diatribe. Now here he is in Venice, and we are not told anything more about the marriage or the wife. She never even gets a first name.
He encounters (but never really meets) a Polish family at the hotel: Mother (Silvana Mangano), Governess (Nora Ricci), son Tadzio (pronounced Tod-zoo, and played by Bjorn Andresen), and three younger daughters. Tadzio has a thick mop of yellow curls, and the resemblance to Gustave’s dead daughter really sends him off the rails. He can’t take his eyes off the boy, and eventually the boy becomes aware of this and returns small, shy smiles, perhaps as a relief from the slightly taller boy who has attached himself to Tadzio and constantly has an arm around him, once even kissing him on the cheek.
In the meantime, on his wanderings around the non-touristy parts of the city Gustave has seen workmen splashing greasy, evil-smelling liquid around the streets. He asks several hotel employees about this, but is always given “Don’t be silly” answers about summertime and the sirocco winds. When he needs more marks changed into lira, he goes to the Exchange and while there asks one of the men what is going on. The man takes him to a sitting area and quietly tells him to leave Venice that day – that Asian cholera has spread to Venice across the seas. Gustave goes back to the hotel, accosts the Polish Mother, and tells her she must get her daughters and Tadzio out of the city quickly. She takes him for a fool and does not leave, so neither does he.
Later, after the hotel is virtually deserted, we see a grey dawn over empty chairs and tent-cabanas. Gustave, the mother, and Tadzio and his friend are there. The friend is still stuck to Tadzio, who finally rejects him with a push. Then one of these four dies, and the film is over.
The only thing I actually liked was a scene where a troupe of minstrels arrives during dinner. They are allowed to wander about the tables playing, while one of them sings. The best number is the Laughing Song. The lyrics are “Wha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha” followed by “Wha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”. Plus the singer is acting charming, but only has 4 teeth in his head. And the “Wha-s” are delivered right into people’s faces, with Tafzio’s mother waving him away before he gets close to the table, while Gustave welcomes him, laughs with him, even tips him generously. And thus is cholera spread.
This may be the talented and lauded Luchino Visconti making an English-laguage picture, but that doesn’t mean it is worth your time. It certainly wasn’t worth mine.