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Image Entertainment presents
Death in Venice (1981)

"There is indeed in every artist's nature a wanton and treacherous proneness to side with beauty."
- Gustav von Aschenbach (Robert Gard)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: October 22, 2002

Stars: Robert Gard, John Shirley-Quirk, James Bowman
Other Stars: The English Chamber Orchestra, Steuart Bedford, conductor
Director: Tony Palmer

Manufacturer: Ritek Digital Video
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (brief violence and gore)
Run Time: 02h:11m:18s
Release Date: October 01, 2002
UPC: 014381927924
Genre: opera

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

The 1912 novella Death in Venice marked the beginning of Thomas Mann's obsession with decadence, which would express itself in many works over the next several decades. In 1973, the novella was turned into an opera by Benjamin Britten, and was to be his last important work before his 1976 death. Surely the aged composer felt a kinship of sorts with the aged writer who succumbs to desire and fascination with beauty in the novella.

Writer Gustav von Aschenbach (Robert Gard) feels a disturbing unrest in his soul, until he is met by the figure of a traveller (John Shirley-Quirk) who inspires him to return to Venice. Once there, Aschenbach becomes fascinated by a teenage boy, Tadzio, and obsesses over him. The thought of the youth compels him to remain in Venice beyond the time of his vacation, even through a cholera epidemic that sweeps the city.

While much of Mann's decadence remains intact here, it is also given a state of purity, if not nobility, in Aschenbach's idealization of the youth. The homoerotic element is really only given free rein in a brief episode of Greco-Roman wrestling between Tadzio and some other youths.

The opera is essentially a monologue, punctuated by conversations with a variety of characters at and around the hotel, also all played by Shirley-Quirk. Intriguingly, Tadzio himself never has a voice; he remains at all times an object of idealization, an unattainable god surrounded by crude, fleshy mankind. The director emphasizes this inaccessibility by having Aschenbach and Tadzio seldom share the screen, and in the brief occasions that they do, there are are always others intervening and absorbing Tadzio's attention. However, a constant use of overlapping dissolves maintains a close connection between the pair that plainly underscores Aschenbach's obsession.

Death in Venice is wisely presented not as a staged version, but as a film. Thus much of Aschenbach's lengthy monologue is treated as voiceover, with parts given special emphasis by having Gard sing onscreen. This is quite an effective device, permitting the director to give plenty of beautiful shots of the city of Venice and preventing a stagebound feeling, lending the piece a great deal more impact. Much of Mann's heavy symbolism is retained here, such as the lengthy association of gondolas with death (especially in classical music), as well as sun imagery in connection with Tadzio and allusions to the Greek gods. The camera is often given to arresting movements, such as lengthy tracking shots following the hotel manager as he walks backwards up a massive staircase in front of Aschenbach. The hotel manager is of course Shirley-Quirk again, emphasizing the sameness—in Aschenbach's mind—of all those who are not Tadzio.

Gard does a fine job as Aschenbach, and Shirley-Quirk is adaptable to quite a few different roles while still recognizably the same man. The casting of the silent Tadzio is interesting; while the boy (uncredited) is a handsome youth, he often has a completely vacuous expression, reducing Aschenbach's admiration to pure physicality.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame transfer generally looks acceptable at best. Shadow detail is quite lacking; blacks are solid and undifferentiated blocks here. Color tends to be quite muted much of the time. The picture contains heavy, heavy grain that is a compressionist's nightmare. Although a dual layer presentation was used, that's still not enough to give the transfer sufficient detail to handle all this grain. The result is that sky and sand often have an alive, dancing and shimmering appearance that is highly distracting. There are occasional moments of serious frame damage, as well as some minor speckling.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Both a DD 5.1 and a Dolby Surround track are provided. The 5.1 track has a broad soundstage and good directionality, with the voices in the front speakers and the orchestra coming from all. On occasion, the orchestra in the surrounds has a slightly distorted sound, but on the whole the music has excellent depth, richness and fullness. The 2.0 track has the sound much more center-oriented and less pronounced directionality, but otherwise sounds quite comparable to the 5.1 audio. Both contain some minor, unobtrusive hiss that needs to be listened for to be noticed.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 31 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 31 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:01m:54s

Extras Review: Thankfully, subtitles are provided because the lyrics are not always discernable. However, those subs are the only extra to be found here.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Britten's final opera gets a suitable representation in this filmed version. Heavy grain is somewhat annoying, but the sound is quite good. Nary an extra to be seen, though.


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