Looking Now: Venice and the “Don’t Look Now” Church

May 31, 2011 — There's been only one single moment in my life where I was able turn to somebody and 100% accurately say, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” It was the morning we left Florence for Venice.

You already know about this city, but let’s recap. Venice is an archipelago of more than 100 islands off the east coast of northern Italy. These islands are outlined by canals and connected, where they can be, by foot bridges and, where they can’t, by boats. Basically, it looks like a flooded city. The city’s motto is “Si suppone di guardare in questo modo.” Roughly translated, that’s “It’s supposed to look this way.”

The place began humbly, as refugees from attacks by Attila the Hun settled on a couple of unimportant islands in the Venetian Lagoon. Eventually, they created one of the most architecturally astounding cities in the world, both engineering- and beauty-wise by anchoring massive buildings into the mud of the lagoon. Then they moved on to their next challenge and dominated commerce with their large fleet of short-range ships and expert navigational knowledge necessitated by being a city gridded in waterways. Then they decided to become one of the most important centers of art and culture in the Western world.

Then came that part of the movie where everything fell to pieces for the city as the world grew and changed.

And then they became Disneyland.

At least, that’s what it felt like as we worked our way through the long lines of traffic to get to the garages where you leave your car like surrendering liquids at an airport. From that point everybody’s on foot, when they're not on a boat. Instead of mouse-ear hats, almost every shop carries ornate masks famous from their use during the annual Carnival of Venice.

But don’t mistake me. Venice is awe-inspiring. Even with the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, the rows upon rows of souvenir shops, the cliché feelings you get gawking at and being gawked at in gondolas, you can still see the elegance and uniqueness of the city without having to squint. It’s un-hideable. I mean, we were only there for half a day, so I’m like that blind man describing an entire elephant by feeling its trunk, but I think the city could be a thousand times more cheesy, and you could still sense the underlying grandeur. That’s impressive.

After all, even without the labyrinthine alleyways and arched foot bridges and water taxis that make the Venice experience so unique, it’s still home to a wide range of world-class sites, from the architectural wonders that line the Piazza San Marco to the extravagant mansions along the Grand Canal.

But there’s a corollary in all that. Despite the crowds, there are wonders to see, but despite the wonders to see, there are crowds. And the only way to get out of them? Go find something out of the way that few people would waste time on during a more than likely once-in-a-life Venice experience.

How about a filming location from a 40-year-old horror movie?

All that information in the first few paragraphs of this article I looked up about five minutes ago. The only research I did in preparation for visiting Venice was to re-watch Don’t Look Now, the 1973 horror film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie and directed by Nicolas Roeg, who also directed The Witches and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

In the movie, which is based on short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Sutherland and Christie play a husband and wife who have lost their daughter in a drowning accident somewhere in England and take up residence in Venice while Sutherland’s character oversees the restoration of an old church there. Meanwhile, a serial killer is running around the canals, a short red-coated apparition reminiscent of their daughter keeps appearing briefly around alleyway twists and across canals, and a psychic blind woman keeps getting all otherworldy on them.

Despite having a title like a made-for-Disney-Channel movie, the film is an absolute creepshow, and it has less to do with serial killers and dead children, and more to do with Venice itself.

The movie was filmed on location during the winter, so Don’t Look Now offers us a Venice that is empty, cold, and lifeless. The individual alleyways that give the city some of its charm seem more like mausoleum avenues, the holy work of restoring a church more like a punishment of the damned, and the dank-looking canal water seems far more terrifying than the serial killer victims it hides.

The movie was filmed all over the city, but the central location was the church where Sutherland’s character punched his time clock. The film makers used the Church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, a beautiful but rarely-in-the-tourist-brochures church that dates back to the 12th century, although the water it’s built on had been the site of a church long before.

It’s located at 1907 Campo San Nicolò Camoutside, definitely outside of Venice’s tourist sphere in the southwest corner of the city. It’s only about 1.5 miles from the Piazza San Marco, although, since it’s Venice, the route consists of like 1,000 turns. Of course, we walked a litter farther than a mile and a half because we got lost. Again, since it’s Venice.

Above the entrance to the church is the statue nook where Sutherland’s character almost falls (his second almost-fall at the church in the movie). Despite the fact that it seemed out-of-itinerary range, a paper sign on the door prohibited photos inside, which tells me there are a lot of Don't Look Now fans.

Inside, the church is extremely ornate with lots of statuary and ceiling frescoes, especially in comparison to its unassuming exterior. Of course, it looked nothing like it did in the movie, when it was mostly just scaffolding and ladders and drop cloths.

After seeing the Don’t Look Now church, we made our way back to the parking garage by a different route than the one that got us there. On the way, we saw a second Venice, far removed from the tourist attraction we had so far experienced, a Venice where the locals live. There were children in school playgrounds and laundry hanging from window clotheslines. Had we stayed the night in the city, I have the feeling we’d have experienced a third Venice, a Venice closer to the dreadful one featured in Don’t Look Now.

I wonder what the market demand is for child-sized red raincoats there.