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John Ruskin opened The Stones of Venice (1851-53), his three-volume treatise on the history of art and architecture in the floating city, on a note of mystification. Recalling a trip he had made in 1849, Ruskin described feeling befuddled by the amalgamation of architectural influences that could exist within a single Venetian edifice. For instance, St. Mark’s basilica, which appears structurally “harmonious” from the outside, epitomises the changes of Venetian architecture over nine centuries. According to Ruskin, while the lower storeys are of the 11th and 12th centuries, the upper arches bear Renaissance influences, all of which stand alongside plastered restorations done around 1844-45. The book then goes on as a kind of architectural autopsy, as Ruskin turns the city over stone by stone, meticulously tracing the roots of the Venetian image.

This tension between the outside and inside, and the strange realisation of disharmony that arises out of faux familiarity, constitutes Venice’s cinematic image as the city of death and mystery. Few locations have inspired such timeless portraits of misfortune and tragedy. Alongside the magnificent white church of Santa Maria della Salute or the glittering lagoons, death too becomes the locus of spectacle in Venice-set classics. Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) – both adapted from literary works – are steeped in foreboding and haunted by loss. In the former, based on a Daphne du Maurier story, Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland arrive in Venice as parents in mourning for their young daughter. After encountering a pair of elderly sisters, one of whom claims to be psychic, the couple experience unnerving premonitions that lend a disquieting aura to the city. It is key that Sutherland’s character is in charge of restoring a church the real-life location of which is San Nicolò dei Mendicoli, one of the oldest in the city. Here, Venice is not picture-postcard perfect, but a crumbling ruin.

Death in Venice (1971)

Death in Venice – adapted from Thomas Mann’s novella – also finds the mythical city in a state of decay, spiritually and materially. The composer Gustav von Aschenbach, played by Dirk Bogarde, travels to the city in hope of rest and relaxation; what he faces instead is a deadly plague. Afflicted by a creative block, Aschenbach wanders through a Venice reeking of death, his footsteps disturbingly guided by his obsession with a beautiful teenage boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen). That conflict between the external and the internal is on full display in the film’s ending. Already dying, von Aschenbach is a pitiful heap of a man as he sinks in a deckchair, his black hair-dye bleeding on to his pale, sickly visage. Tadzio, the heavenly embodiment of the city’s beauty, is a mere mirage. All that is left is the undignifying stain of old age and perverse desires.

It is worth noting that in both of these films the characters are outsiders who descend on Venice in search of emotional gratification. Considering that, over the years, the city has been sinking at a faster rate due to its overwhelming number of visitors, the adverse mishaps suffered by these characters feel like a subversive reckoning, a shattering of the famed Venetian glass. While the male gaze has been rigorously theorised in cinema, much is left unsaid about the tourist gaze, a concept propounded by scholar John Urry in his writing on the intersection between urbanism and tourism. According to Urry, there exists a totalisation effect in the way tourists observe the landscape, where different places are turned into objects for consumption. In other words, it has an objectifying effect similar to that of the male gaze in filmic representations of women. As ethnography and films about travel have been so central to cinema since its early days, to apply the notion of the tourist gaze to moving images seems apt.

Summertime (1955)

It’s notable that films set in Venice rail against touristic perceptions of the city in a way that, say, movie set in Paris rarely accentuate. Two films released around the same time, Dino Risi’s Venice, the Moon and You (1958) and David Lean’s Summertime (1955), make explicit the identity of Venice as the city of tourists. As a middle-aged spinster from Ohio, Katharine Hepburn embodies the quintessential image of the American visitor, a camera perpetually dangling around her neck; in one memorable scene, she is so consumed with taking photos that the poor woman falls into the canal! The commodification of Venetian history is also squarely on display. After buying an expensive red Murano goblet from an antiques dealer, she is dismayed to learn that her fellow travellers have purchased exact replicas of the treasured object for a far lower price. This cavalier reproduction of Venetian heritage brings to mind Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981) and its critique of capitalist manufacture, which insidiously rids objects of their original meanings – only this time, Venice has replaced Disneyland as the merchant of mass-produced artefacts.

The concept of touristic consumption is reiterated in Venice, the Moon and You, which stars Italian icon Alberto Sordi as a gondolier constantly torn between passing flings with attractive American visitors. Seemingly a light-hearted battle of the sexes, a short sequence where gondoliers are passed from one female tourist to another at a party subtly hints at the sex tourism that such locations can promise. Brimming with both visual pleasure and subversion, Venice is a cinematic destination that dares to seduce, repulse and strike fear all at once, a tantalising image attested to by other lesser-seen treasures like Losey’s Eva (1962), Risi’s The Forbidden Room (1977) and Kanak Mishra’s Naina (1973) – this last a Bollywood reimagination of du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938).

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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