Luchino Visconti sort of had it all, huh? A chameleon by trade, he spent a few decades hop-scotching from proto-Nouvelle Vague Italian Neo-Realism (Rocco and his Brothers) to ghostly melodramas (Senso) to gravid poetic epics with long takes like nitroglycerin by way of molasses (The Leopard) to out and out scorching the Earth with Molotov cocktails of Grand Guignol (The Damned). But his final masterwork was not a picture of succulent opera or intentional, declamatory fire or ice. It was simply a story of an elderly man, played by Dirk Bogard with melancholy sangfroid and still emptiness battling with impenetrable longing in his eyes, and the boy he comes to love while on vacation in Venice. It is an almost wordless work that consists almost exclusively of that man walking around and that boy walking around, and the two sometimes crossing paths with nary a word spoken between them. It is not necessarily Visconti’s best film, but it is his most misread, and possibly for the same reason, his most human.
It is easy to interpret the elderly man’s longing eyes as cries of lust, and they are, but likely not for the boy as a human. Visconti’s framing suggests what Thomas Mann suggested via wordsmithing in his book, upon which the movie is based: that the boy as an idea is the man’s object of affection. When the boy is glimpsed by the frame, he is almost always a figment of society, a solitary space amidst a bustling collage of human passion, communal effervescence, and public concern. Visconti almost categorically reserves the boy to his public identity, envisioning him in a diorama of playful friends and watchful parents. Even when he seems the focus of the shot, Visconti subverts and suggests the boy’s interactions and social spaces; frequently we witness him with his friends, with the camera resigning the boy to a space in the crowd, a figure reserved to boyish movement and fluidity and never to the stagnating silence of the self.
Even in obvious exceptions, Visconti rescinds an offer of focus to the boy. When the young male seems to dance around the man in play, the man only looks in the boy’s direction after the boy skips out of the frame, such that we only see him looking on at the public in the distance. In another frame, the boy passes by the man and wanders forward into the far-away sea just barely recognizable in the frame, but the man doesn’t look until a cut to the same sea with the boy either invisible amidst its mass or simply having already gone home; the frame is melancholy, but is it because the boy is gone, or because there are no humans visible at all? Many of the points where the man stares on at the boy tease the lives of the boy’s family members, of the child in relation to how he lives his life surrounded by those he calls on for support. When the boy is alone, as when he plays the piano in a parlor crowded with inorganic ornaments but no people, the man engages in a conversation with a hotel worker, the two men bickering and being sliced apart visually by the plants in the foreground of the room and another plant jutting vertically up between the two, separating them even in the same frame. The boy by his lonesome is an object that brings the man loneliness, it seems.
The plants are a tease of life, fake natural spaces surrounded by the crippling, gargantuan artifice of the aristocratic hotel, false reminders of the man’s bid for life. He himself is a victim of individualizing frames which either box him off alone and away from the other characters, or depict him in crowded frames bustling with life that nonetheless reserve him as his own stagnant, vacant space. The boy is framed with other characters; the man is framed around other characters, sometimes, but never truly with them. They look away and fail to acknowledge his presence. In one scene, the camera witnesses the man ready to shake another man’s hand, cutting before they actually touch, and then it only, pointedly, cuts back when the other man is walking around from our protagonist. He never knows the pleasure of human company.
Whenever the man is afforded the gift of interaction, it is always weighing and stiffly formal and businesslike and never once lively – the only vocal interaction that breathes any life into the character at all is with his musician acquaintance (who, also pointedly, looks like an adult version of the boy) who only argues with him. It is some life though, not a romantic compassion but a vicious interpersonal skewering that reminds the man of human life and passion. It is no accident that this acquaintance bears the life-giving blond locks of the boy.
A death in the air turns Venice severe, malarial, and jaundiced; the man is looking for rest near his old age, but he only seems to find death. The boy is a beacon of life, less noticeable as an individual human than an icon of life and community. He is always trapped in the distance, his face never visible when the man’s face is, not only because they can’t really look at each other, but because the man doesn’t really know the boy, doesn’t really know life. It is an image of youth and health and communal life that transfixes him, and not necessarily this boy in particular.
Visconti doesn’t hint too much beyond that; flashbacks imply the family the man loved and lost, a family that the boy likely reminds him off, which of course shifts the relationship from one of romance and infatuation to one of tenderness and loss, with the boy as a child to the man more than a love interest. Or, when the camera explicitly visually connects the boy to the man’s ex-wife by intercutting the two characters playing piano, the boy becomes his ex-wife. Different figures, then, the boy represents, but all of them reminders of the man’s past liveliness. Venice is gripped by a pestilence, as the man says, and he is committed to saving the boy and his entire family from that pestilence, that creeping death, not necessarily because he loves the boy as a human, but because he needs to save the corporeal form of what he admires most: family, youth, passion, and life itself.
The idea that Visconti’s film is but a homosexual tale is a remarkably poorly envisioned claim, a fundamental misreading of the visual lexicon of cinema down to the core. If Mann, in his book, wielded the pen, so too does Visconti wield the camera with punishing, tragic grace, gliding over the lost spaces of Venice and expressing the distance between the man and his desires. Just when he is about to touch the boy, surrounded by his family, the camera cuts to the man alone again, denied his simple desires. It isn’t even exclusively a thesis conveyed through framing; the simple beauty of the elderly man receiving a facial touch-up to breathe life into his pallid face and ailing bones is an open-faced metaphor for the man’s craving, insatiable need for youth. And, tragically, it reveals his inability to achieve his goals; his modification is but an external, facile one, rendering his face as a harsh collage of embattled make-up that envisions him more as a fabricated, ghostly white clown than a human being. He has only been granted the idea of life, but like the plants whose existence is threatened by the fact that they reside not in nature but in the artifice of the hotel, he only attains the appearance and the masquerade of life.