You don’t watch this film for the story, you watch it to lose yourself in the sad beauty of decaying Venice, a metaphor for European grandeur just before World War I. There’s the haute bourgeoisie, elegantly dressed men and women from all over Europe, vacationing with their families by the sea. They don’t seem to do much, other than sit and stare at one another in the hotel dining room or on the beach, making the occasional foray into the city to take in the sights. They seem like ghosts, moving through the scenes at a stately pace, leaving a vague impression of well-bred pleasure.
Into this tableau of hushed opulence arrives a German composer, Gustav von Aschenbach. He seems to be suffering from a case of nerves—a common fin-de-siècle affliction, particularly among artistic sorts—and is inclined to make a fuss about everything. But then he glimpses the beautiful adolescent son of an aristocratic Polish woman and everything changes. Obsessed, he follows the boy and convinces himself that his love is requited. Soon he is trying to reclaim his youth, a pathetic effort. Then he dies of cholera.
As I said, don’t worry about the plot. Visconti’s take on the Thomas Mann novella is a feast for the eyes, and the Mahler soundtrack enhances the lugubrious effect. When Venice has sunk into the Adriatic, we’ll still have this film to remember it by.