Venice is notoriously difficult to film in.
Because the city’s maze of narrow streets – which Venetians called calli – is only accessible by foot, moving equipment around, across canals, up and down bridges, becomes a logistical challenge. The city gets unbearably hot and muggy in Summer, and quite cold and foggy in Winter. Tourists overcrowd every spot, any time of the day, any time of the year. And then, of course, there’s acqua alta, the exceptional tide peaks that periodically flood the city. Yet, Venice is probably one of the best cinematographic cities: any view of its palazzi and churches, reflecting on the water of the lagoon, can be easily turned into a suggestive backdrop. The fact that the city boasts the world’s oldest film festival might also help its appeal to cinephiles.
If it’s true, as Arthur Symons wrote, that “a realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him”, the floating city is quintessentially a city to find love… and lovers.
In this sense, David Lean’s Summertime (1955) is almost the archetype of the holiday romance movie. The film follows the emotional struggles of Jane (Katharine Hepburn), a lonely middle-aged American woman on holiday in Venice. During the trip she meets and falls for Renato (Rossano Brazzi), a handsome antique dealer who is, incidentally, already married.
Besides Hepburn’s brilliant interpretation and the enjoyment of listening to her saying “Va bene” and “Grazie tanto”, David Lean gives a stunning rendition of the city, although slightly romanticised. It’s Venice in Technicolor, where there’s a flower pot at every balcony, and the water of the lagoon looks like the Maldives’.
Shooting in the city wasn’t easy: the director had to face fears from the locals that the filming would disrupt tourism, with the possibility that the gondoliers might go out on strike. A generous donation from the production company to the fund for restoring the city’s monuments settled any issue. Paradoxically, the number of tourists almost doubled after the movie was released.
Forty years later, Woody Allen went back to the theme of Venice and love, in Everyone Says I Love You (1996). In the musical, a neurotic writer – played by Allen himself – conquers Julia Roberts at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, clumsily faking interest in the history of XVI century Venetian painting, talking about the rapidity of Tintoretto’s “brush work” and the “chiaroscuro outburst of colours”.
Love, deceit and Venice are also the prominent motifs of the third act of Les contes d’Hoffmann, the opéra fantastique by Jacques Offenbach inspired by the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. Splendidly transposed on film by Michael Powell in 1951, its dreamy set designs and camp costumes transfigure the city into a pure theatrical fantasy.
Years later, Federico Fellini would recreate a similar atmosphere for his Casanova, famously shooting it in its entirety at Rome’s Cinecittà studios. Fellini’s Casanova (1976), which won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, opens with a carnival scene amongst the most visionary by the Italian director.
From a romantic gondola ride to an adrenaline chase by boat it’s a short step.
The Italian Job (2003) and two 007 movies, Moonraker (1979) and Casino Royale (2006), feature heart-pounding scenes in the canals’ waters. Tom Cruise has been recently spotted jumping between boats in what appeared to be a rehearsal scene for the new Mission Impossible movie; Harrison Ford also had his share of adventure in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), when the archaeologist finds a hint to his quest for the Holy Grail beneath the Church of San Barnaba, transformed for the occasion into a library.
Venice gets a dramatically different portrayal in Don’t Look Now (1973) directed by Nicolas Roeg. The psychological thriller, which has been steadily grown in reputation to acquire cult status, follows a married couple temporarily relocating to the city following the recent accidental death of their daughter. The city here appears in a very different key: wintery, deserted, unnerving, and gloomy. Roeg’s direction turns “La Serenissima” into a menacing place where water is constantly associated with death, and a mysterious serial killer is on the run. “It’s like a city in aspic, left over from a dinner party, and all the guests are dead and gone” describes one of the characters.
Mortality is also the leading theme of Luchino Visconti’s classic Death in Venice (1971).
The Italian director returns to the city of canals after Senso (1954) – yet again a story of troubled love that, surprisingly enough, doesn’t end well – setting his cinematographic adaptation of Thomas Mann’s titular novella at the Grand Hotel des Bains on the Lido island. Composer Gustav von Aschenbach arrives at the hotel, seeking rest in the hope of recovering from health issues and artistic impasse, becoming obsessed with another guest, the stunning adolescent Tadzio.
Visconti’s Venice is pretty faithful to Mann’s: oppressed by the Summer heat and by the invisible threat of a dark contagion – a metaphor for the degradation that uncontrolled passion causes if not subjugated by intellect, but also a symbol of decay of an entire world, perfectly embodied by Tadzio’s aristocratic mother played by Silvana Mangano: incredibly elegant, totally aloof, and wrapped-up in kilometres of tulle.
Whether it’s for a sensitive love story, a thrilling action movie, or a powerful meditation over art, Venice works at its best as a catalyst for heightening emotions; on the big screen, as well as in real life.