Transcendence in Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice”

When Luchino Visconti’s “Death in Venice” about an aging artist lingering in a hotel in Venice finally reveals itself, it is absolutely breathtaking. I found myself mesmerised at how a film can express so much by saying so little. It possesses an honest and truthful understanding of beauty, art, and how they relate to our senses, or something beyond that. Visconti’s meditation on love, art, and death is both operatic and melancholic.

“Death in Venice” is a film about humanity’s slow transcendence into nothingness and everything. It exists in the space between life and death, between youth and old age, between ignorance and wisdom. It is only when we’re fully aware of time slipping away, that we start savouring and longing for it to stay still. I think as we grow older, and start becoming aware of our slow bodily decay, we start to appreciate the beauty of life around us, in all of its shapes and forms.

Visconti’s dreamlike film reflects everything I just discussed using nothing but the ambiguity of music set against poetic photography. The sight of Tadzio walking by the beach with sun-rays reflected on the sea surface is one of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. I have a feeling that my appreciation for “Death in Venice” will only grow as it becomes more and more relatable as time goes by. Like fine wine, this film only gets better with age.

The Coziness of “The Tree of Wooden Clogs”

If I were to ever list the most well photographed films ever made, “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” would probably be right up there. The photographic images in this film are on par with the greatest paintings ever made. The cozy lighting and earthy texture within each perfectly composed shot is so vivid, rich and layered, you could almost smell the scent of soil after it rains, feel the warmth of the burning wood in the fireplace, and taste the soup being served on screen.

This is the type of atmospheric imagery that makes people pause in awe; almost every single frame in this film belongs in a museum. “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is one of the greatest displays of visuals I’ve ever seen. But make no mistake, there’s real substance and heart beneath all this beauty.

Ermanno Olmi wrote directed and shot a work of profound humanity. The film is a product of the Italian Neorealism movement and it’s as authentic as any period piece you can think of. The attention to detail when it comes to costume design, props and set pieces is baffling. The entire cast were residents of a rundown farmhouse, so not a single professional actor was used during filming. And the director insisted they speak in the Bergamasque dialect of their ancestors. When asked about strictly using non-professionals, Olmi replied: “In a film about peasants, I choose the actors from the peasant world. I don’t use a fig to make a pear.”

Film Analysis: Martin Scorsese’s Portrayal of New York

Director Martin Scorsese arrives at The Royal Premiere of his film Hugo at the Odeon Leicester Square cinema in London

There is no such thing as seeing New York through Martin Scorsese’s eyes, for Scorsese merely projects the light detected by the warped eyes of his lonely protagonists. His signature light-reflected visual approach used to showcase New York City is evident in most of his films, but varies in significance and meaning from one picture to the next. The camera functions as image converters sending the protagonists’ distorted signaled perspectives through virtual and real screen space into neural pathways connected to our brains. The viewer has no choice, we are forced to breathe the air, gaze through the pupils, experience and feel the city environment by slipping into the shoes of twisted protagonists – the shoe laces tightly tied by none other than a master of his craft, Scorsese.

This smooth and seductive approach is evident in Scorsese’s most prominent New York based works from the gritty realism in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, the exaggerated portrayal of the city in New York, New York and Gangs of New York to the hallucinatory bizarre perception of the city in After Hours, and Bringing Out the Dead.  Even though most of Scorsese’s films are set in New York, each picture is unique in that each time we look at the city through a different window with a vivid subject standing in front of the window providing us with eye lining shots as guidance. In other words, we see the New York they see and we see them seeing it.

Taxi Driver is perhaps Scorsese’s most compelling piece of cinema exemplifying the concept of seeing-seeing. Both the audience and Travis Bickle can’t help but feel repelled by the filthy habitants lurking at every dark corner and alley in the streets of New York.

“All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn; I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

This repulsive piece of voice-over narration is accompanied by windshield shots of the sampled population mentioned. We see close-ups of Bickle’s sharp eyes maintaining focus on the pedestrians while the yellow tomb glides through the murky clouds of steam, hissing from beneath sewers. Scorsese was lucky to film during a heat wave and in the midst of a garbage strike for the captured footage simply added desired substance to his underground vision of a nightmarish New York.


Scorsese uses slow motion to capture the effect of the city on our leading man. Travis Bickle’s hostile stares and slow motion sequences of the observed subjects show Bickle’s gradual descent into madness. In a menacing neon landscape, a lonely misfit witnesses the decay of an urban city. On the contrary with his preceding project Mean Streets, Scorsese used similar methods to expose viewers to a very different vision of the city. The New York City in Mean Streets is alive and vibrant with scenes full of energy and electricity. While once again the audience is more or less exposed to the crime world of New York City, we are seeing things from a different perspective and angle. Charlie is a calm small time street gangster surrounded by hyperactive people in an out-of-control world. Mean Streets opens a window to the indoor activities of gangsters. Scorsese uses pool halls, restaurants, bars, and clubs as the backdrop and as with most of his films, the external environment has an internal effect on our protagonist. In a memorable signature slow motion sequence, we see Charlie’s eyes fixed on the sight of Johnny Boy entering the bar with two girls under his arms. Johnny Boy laughs and casually greets others while Charlie simply watches him. In another scene, Scorsese puts us in the shoes of his drunken protagonist; the camera is fixed on Charlie in a dizzying fast-motion sequence that starts with drinks and ends with a black out. While watching Mean Streets, the viewer becomes part of a New York gang, we engage in bar fights, quarrels and discussions.  Surprisingly,Mean Streets was mostly shot in Los Angeles, but since the film focuses on the selective exposure of a small time gangster in Little Italy, it relies mostly on indoor locations. It’s impossible to suspect otherwise. That’s how well Scorsese knows his city, he has the ability to convert another city into his own and convince us that it’s legit.

The other time Scorsese built New York from scratch was decades later with Gangs of New York,where he reconstructed a 19th century New York on the lot of Cinecitta studios in Rome.  We see two New York cities, the old through the eyes of Bill the Butcher and the new emerging city through Amsterdam Vallon. A common trait between Bill the Butcher and Martin Scorsese is the nostalgic affection towards an old New York slowly fading into oblivion. The director once famously said, “If I continue to make films about New York, they will probably be set in the past. The “new” New York I don’t know much about. It’s not that I’m against contemporary film. I’m open to it in general, but I find the new colours of the city, the new Times Square, kind of shocking. I guess I’m stuck in a time warp.”

The coming of age tale explored in Who’s That Knocking at my Door? is in many ways his only semi-autobiographical film for like the characters in his first feature film; Scorsese grew up in Little Italy. At the age of twenty-two the legendary director graduated with a major in Film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. New York is in his blood, which is why the city has been so often associated with his name.

Film Analysis: Michael Mann’s Portrayal of Los Angeles

Director and executive producer Mann arrives at Hollywood premiere of HBO series "Luck" in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is an overpopulated city, yet it is depicted as a silent milieu of isolation. Mann provides us with a canvas of the great city, only one we’ve never laid eyes on before. A car driving through an empty highway, flickering city lights of a silent night, an empty apartment reflecting an endless ocean, airport runway lights fading to complete darkness; it’s all there to inject the viewer with a mood much similar to what the characters feel throughout this tragic journey.

Visually, Heat is treated like a film noir and so we wind up with a neo-noir. The conventions and elements of that genre are crystal clear from the hard-boiled detective to the urban setting, the interplay of lights and shadows in the final scene to the neon lights of the dark corners of an urban city. However, there’s certain uniqueness to the mood and feel of the film due to the icy-blue palette apparent in the atmospheric tone. Michael Mann used many paintings as inspirations to the look of the film, most notably with the shot of Neil facing the ocean in the background with a gun on a table in the foreground which is strikingly identical to Alex Colville’s 1967 painting Pacific.

“I love Los Angeles.Eighty per cent of it is unexplored. People who make films don’t go out into the city. They think they do but they don’t.You just drive down the right streets and you’ll see images of alienation. But they are beautiful images of alienation. They become paradoxical but they present themselves to you.” – Michael Mann


While Heat is Mann’s quintessential Los Angeles film, Collateral is his exploration of the city’s darker side. In many ways both films serve as extensions to the feel and atmosphere of an everyday city like Los Angeles. Like the former, the two main characters in Collateral are loners desperately trying to find their place in a city that has turned its back on its people. Mann uses similar wide night-shots of the flickering lights of an endless cityscape. Cars isolated from the rest of the world flow through the freeways in silence. One of the cars driving through Los Angeles at night time is a taxi containing the protagonist cab driver and antagonist hitman. Mann shot all of the exterior scenes using digital video because he believes DV reacts much better to low-light shots than film stock. The result is a look so unique and unfamiliar, there’s a sense of being there on location.

The mirroring parallels with Heat are both textual and visual. Textual in the sense that Vincent (Tom Cruise) acts like the efficient Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) and when they talk about their history, it becomes clear that both share the same childhood. McCauley ends with “I got a brother somewhere.” Now in terms of visuals, they both journey through the streets of Los Angeles dedicated to what they do best. They also share the same cinematic fate at the end for they meet their demise at transportation stations, one at LAX and the other in a subway train. 


That is not to say Mann had nothing new to express about Los Angeles. Through his alternative vision we see the real politics and sociological aspects of L.A. on screen. Instead of showcasing the hot summer beaches, we drive by the consistent black neighbourhoods, Korean nightclubs, and Latino shops of the city. Watching Heat or Collateral is as close as one could get to actually being there, because the viewer experiences the sad beauty of the city through Mann’s signature stylistic approach. The nature of both films is different, but the feel and look of the city matchesbecause Los Angeles has the same isolating effect onboth set of characters. One thing is for sure, film fans from all over the world will make a tourist spot out of the ‘Fever’ Jazz Club featured in Collateral as they did with the ‘Kate Mantilini’ restaurant from the famous dinner confrontation in Heat.

The Great Film Art of Massimo Carnevale