I’ve been burned-out on movies lately. Ever-increasing over-the-top effects, campy or predictable dialogue, and lack of depth leave me in a funk. Sometimes, the visual busyness is over-stimulating and my brain just shuts off. I think, what was that? Why did I spend two hours of my life being only mildly entertained?

I didn’t even realize this was happening to me, and then I watched Call Me By Your Name.

This is pure film. There is nothing to distract from the nakedness of it. It’s set in the 80s, but it could’ve been made in any era. It’s a timeless story that doesn’t need any embellishments. The screenplay (Oscar-winning), the directing by Luca Guadagnino, and the ballsy, nuanced acting (especially by Timothée Chalamat) is magic.

Watching it is a balm to the modern-day chaotic brain. It cleared my intellectual palate and left me thirsting for more of this kind of rare experience, and so I’ve been searching for Italian cinema that I‘ve missed, old and new.

I chose to watch Death in Venice first (Luchino Visconti), because it dealt with homosexuality (as does Call Me By Your Name and my current work-in-progress). It’s based after the famous novella by Thomas Mann, which I have not yet read. Keep in mind, this is an overview of the movie alone, not in comparison with the book.

(Contains spoilers)

Do you know what lies on the bottom of the mainstream? Mediocrity.

Death in Venice is about an aging composer named Gustav von Aschenbach who is facing a creative block and becomes ill. He goes to Venice to relax and recuperate. At his hotel, he sees a young Polish boy who captivates him. He becomes obsessed with the boy’s angelic beauty.

The boy, Tadzio, is aware he is being watched and appears to enjoy the attention. This encourages Gustav, and he shadows the boy everywhere – from the beach, to the dining area, to his family outings in the streets of the historic city.

Symbolism is woven into every frame. The city of Venice is old and outdated, like Gustav. The economy only hangs by its ailing tourism industry. Gustav discovers the city is also harboring a cholera epidemic, which mirrors the sickness lurking in his own body.

The scenes are interspersed with flashbacks of life with his deceased family and conversations with his friends. He debates with his colleague, Alfred, on the genesis of beauty and art, and there are many good quotables in these snippets.

Evil is a necessity. It is the food of genius.

At first impression, one might think it’s a homosexual love story, but I think Gustav’s passion is more for all the attributes he’s lost rather than a purely sexual attraction. We humans are often romantically drawn to individuals who have the qualities we lack. Tadzio is a symbol of health, purity, and burgeoning vitality. We watch Gustav struggle to keep up with the boy and his activities. If only he could be young again! We hope his new muse will revive him, but Gustav only deteriorates.

At one point in the film, Gustav goes to the barber who offers to dye his hair and make up his face so he would look young and “be ready to fall in love.” The makeup is garish and makes him look paler as he pursues Tadzio, adding to the mix of sympathy and aversion we feel toward his vain pursuit.

The boy’s nanny is beginning to notice Gustav’s stalking and tries to maintain distance, making it more difficult for him to keep up. We witness the old and diseased desperately chasing youth and beauty. Anyone past a certain age will experience this longing for what once was and the hopelessness of getting it back. The entire movie is painful to watch, especially the end.

Gustav orders the cabana boy set up his chair so he can watch Tadzio frolic at the beach. Gustav is ill and sweating profusely, but he is determined to absorb as much of the boy’s presence as he can.

Tadzio gets into a tumble in the sand with his friend. This larger boy gets the better of him, and Tadzio walks away, indignant. He strides into the sea and cools off. Once again, we get the impression that he knows he is being observed and welcomes it.

As Gustav watches from the beach, Tadzio points to the setting sun, the light glimmering on the waves as it drowns into the sea. In the same moment, Gustav is succumbing to the grip of death. He convulses, and his sweat makes the hair dye run. The trick that disguised his age – his weakness – drips down his face like dark blood. It’s pathetic and beautiful.

We can deny it, we can fight it, we can try to cover it up, but age and death are coming. No matter how hard we claw after beauty and youth, it will inevitably be ripped away from us. Death in Venice portrays this cruelty exquisitely.

  • Did you see Call Me By Your Name?
  • Did you see Death In Venice?
  • What about the books? (I’m reading them both right now)

Please leave your comments below.


I’ll be reviewing more Italian film in the coming months.
Be sure to leave me your suggestions!




Read more of my film reviews here.