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An aging author on vacation becomes obsessed with a young aristocrat.
In 1911, famed German composer Gustav von Aschenbach leaves Munich for a vacation in Venice, where he hopes to restore his physical and mental health. During the boat ride, Aschenbach is annoyed by an elderly man, wearing makeup and cavorting drunkenly, who spouts nonsensical compliments. Aschenbach then takes a gondola from the steamship landing to the Lido, where he is to stay at the prestigious Hôtel des Bains, but during the trip, the gondolier irritates the composer with his surliness. Finally arriving at the hotel, Aschenbach examines the luxurious surroundings and settles into his room, which overlooks the beach and its many cabanas. As he wearily positions some photographs, he remembers his recent collapse, after which his doctor prescribed a complete rest. Aschenbach also recalls a conversation he had with Alfried, his devoted yet combative pupil, in which he mused about the nature of time and how one cannot see time running out until the very end. That evening, the composer joins the other guests in the lobby before dinner and observes the sparkling tableaux of refinement, wealth and various nationalities. Aschenbach spots a family of three young girls with a governess and their brother, a blonde teenager possessing such stunning and classical beauty that Aschenbach cannot help but stare at him as dinner is announced and the other guests leave. The family remains behind, however, while the children's regal mother arrives and they greet her. Ascertaining from their conversation that the family is Polish, Aschenbach is charmed by the children's good manners and the elegance of both mother and son. Upon being seated in the dining room, Aschenbach moves the centerpiece to have an unobstructed view of the beautiful boy. While eating, the composer remembers a conversation with Alfried in which they heatedly debated the relationships between beauty, reality, art and spirituality. Aschenbach, an austere man who believes that only by maintaining domination over the senses can one achieve wisdom, dignity and truth, rejected Alfried's opinion that the creation of beauty and purity is a spiritual, spontaneous act. They also argued about evil, which Alfried says is "the food of genius," while Aschenbach vigorously asserted that the true artist must be an exemplary, unambiguous model of moral balance and strength. In the morning, Aschenbach asks the manager how long the sirocco, a hot, oppressive wind, will last, as it is aggravating his poor health. Annoyed by the manager's evasiveness, Aschenbach goes to breakfast, where he again sees the beautiful youth with his family. Aschenbach then walks to the beach, where he watches the boy play with his friends and learns that his name is Tadzio. Enchanted by Tadzio's grace and exuberance, Aschenbach eschews his work to relax, enjoying the sunshine and some strawberries. That evening, however, discomforted by Tadzio's nearness in the elevator, Aschenbach becomes distraught and is unable to concentrate. Fearing an emotional entanglement, he remembers another argument with Alfried during which the younger man accused him of being afraid of direct, honest contact with others because his rigid moral standards dictate that his behavior be as perfect as his music. Using his health as an excuse, Aschenbach prepares to leave the next day, but after dawdling to catch one last glimpse of Tadzio, he learns at the train station that his trunk has been sent to the wrong town. Petulantly, Aschenbach demands its immediate return, and upon being told that it will take three days, insists that he will not leave Venice without it. Making his way back to the hotel, Aschenbach is suddenly happy and carefree, relieved that the decision to stay was made for him. Returning to the beach, he revels in watching Tadzio romp with his friends, one of whom, Jaschu, is particularly attached to him. Content, Aschenbach remembers a long ago, beautiful day in the countryside that he enjoyed with his wife and their young daughter. In the present, Aschenbach is so inspired by Tadzio that he begins composing. Another day, as he goes to the beach, Aschenbach walks behind Tadzio and considers catching up to talk to him, but is overcome by the effort and grabs onto a pole for support while the boy wanders off. Later, Tadzio is alone in the lobby and playing the piano when Aschenbach enters. Trembling with emotion, Aschenbach asks the manager about newspaper stories that there is sickness in Venice, but the manager assures him that all is well. Aschenbach persists, asking about the notices posted by the health department, and the manager states that it is merely a precaution taken because of the heat and the sirocco. As Tadzio continues to play, Aschenbach remembers a visit he made years earlier to a brothel, where a prostitute named Esmerelda was playing the same tune when he entered her room. Embarrassed at having given in to his base desires, Aschenbach wept with shame after their assignation. Later that evening, Tadzio smiles sweetly and openly at Aschenbach as the composer passes the promenading family, and the older man is overwhelmed by emotion. Murmuring to himself that the boy should never smile such a smile at anyone, Aschenbach finally breaks down and whispers aloud, "I love you." Unable to deny his feelings for the boy, Aschenbach begins to follow the family everywhere, even on Sunday when they attend church. Walking behind them and hiding to avoid observation, even though Tadzio is usually aware of his presence, Aschenbach trails his beloved throughout Venice. One day, he notices a foul-smelling liquid being smeared on streets and buildings, but no one will answer his questions about what it is. One evening, as the hotel guests sit on the veranda, Tadzio lingers near Aschenbach while a troupe of garish local musicians performs. When Aschenbach asks the leader why Venice is being disinfected, the man dissembles about "the usual precautions." Still suspicious, the next day Aschenbach goes to a British travel agency. There, the manager tells him that Asiatic cholera has reached Venice and that despite the government's struggles to contain and cover it up, the death toll is mounting and every hospital bed is filled. As the manager warns him to flee Venice immediately, Aschenbach fantasizes about informing the mother that she needs to leave also, then caressing Tadzio's head in farewell. At the hotel, however, Aschenbach is torn between his desires to warn the family or to keep the news secret so that Tadzio will stay. Calling himself a rogue, he remembers his wife's grief at the death of their daughter. Soon after, Aschenbach visits a barber and despairs over his gray hair. The barber, while reprimanding him for neglecting his appearance, promises to restore his youth. By applying hair dye and covering the composer's face with a liberal amount of foundation, rouge and lipstick, the barber transforms the formerly staid man into a dandy. Believing himself dashing, the satisfied Aschenbach searches for Tadzio. He finds the siblings, led by their governess, as they wander around the now ruined streets of Venice, empty of tourists and covered with mounds of burning rubbish. Lost and frightened, the family searches for a route to the hotel, although Tadzio ensures that Aschenbach can maintain sight of him. Aschenbach cannot keep up, however, and collapses, sweating and gasping. Crying over his wretchedness, he remembers his last concert, at which the audience loudly rejected his compositions. Near fainting, Aschenbach was led away by his wife, while Alfried castigated him for achieving a perfection and severity of form that was devoid of all emotion. That night, as he tosses in his bed at the hotel, Aschenbach remembers Alfried's bitter declaration that the composer is old. In the morning, Aschenbach sees a pile of luggage in the lobby and learns from the manager that it belongs to the Polish family, who will be departing after lunch. Heartbroken, the composer staggers to the nearly deserted beach, where Tadzio is wrestling with Jaschu, who is upset that his friend is leaving. When the larger Jaschu shoves Tadzio's face in the mud, Aschenbach struggles to get up from his chair to help the boy but cannot. As his tears mingle with the dye running from his hair, Aschenbach watches forlornly while Tadzio regains his feet and wanders alone into the water. Finally succumbing to the cholera, Aschenbach grows delirious and imagines that the perfect boy is pointing off into the distance, at the sun and water. Smiling slightly, Aschenbach stretches out a hand to his beloved, then collapses and dies alone.
Cast & Crew
|MPAA Ratings:||GP||Premiere Info:||World premiere in London: 1 Mar 1971; Rome opening: 4 Mar 1971; New York opening: 17 Jun 1971; Los Angeles opening: 30 Jun 1971|
|Release Date:||1971||Production Date:||
|Color/B&W:||Color (Technicolor)||Distributions Co:||Warner Bros., Inc.|
|Sound:||Mono||Production Co:||Alfa Cinematografica, S.R.L., P.E.C.F. Films, Warner Bros., Inc.|
|Duration(mins):||130||Country:||France, Italy, and United States|
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