It’s hard for me to say exactly why I’m focusing on Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni for my first article on Directors. He isn’t one of my all time favorites, although he has produced many films that I do indeed like, some very much, and at times I find him too oblique for his own good; but, there’s always something there. There’s something that grabs me in some way in every one of his films. There’s a spark, an idea, a gesture or camera movement/placement, in each and every one of his films there’s something there that strikes me. Even at his most patience testing and frustrating – there’s something there.
His skewering of the bourgeois culture is something that grates on many a person’s nerves while watching his films. Perhaps in his heyday, it was a much more radical and controversial thing to do, to play these beautiful and successful, to whatever degree you many interpret success, people as essentially hollow and lonely, but to many it can seem more like rich people moaning and being depressed for no reason. It’s a complaint leveled at much of his work. As well as the decidedly restrained approach to emotion that many find offputting. Finding his films cold and lifeless is a common complaint.
Is it his presentation of isolated characters who are both longing to be with others as well as separate themselves from the world they find themselves a part of that appeals to me. As someone who spends most of my free time alone, I can relate to some of those feelings. In his best work (at least in my opinion of it), Antonioni is able to make me recall my more rebellious period. My angrier period – the period of my life where I was very restless and unable to connect with those around me – something which I struggle with even to this day. The ability to connect with others – or is it the longing to connect with others that makes Antonioni such an interesting filmmaker?
I often find myself thinking about his films long after they finish. The characters in films like La Notte and The Passenger have stuck with me for years at this point since I first saw them. Though I am certainly not one who can claim to have had any understanding of the complexities examined and explored in his films, I find more within almost every one of his films with every watch I give them. The way he set up his characters in relation to the spaces around them is something I find incredibly inspiring. The way he uses landscape to say just as much about a character as a line (or many lines) of dialogue would. It’s unquestionable that the man had an eye and was able to craft some of the most iconic images in all of cinema – as well as some of the finest romances in my opinion as well.
Gente del Po (1947)
This documentary short is where I shall begin in my journey through Antonioni’s filmography. Focusing on the Po River in Italy and the people whose livelihood is dependent on it, what we have here are the roots of Antonioni’s style. Both in subject matter and presentation, this short just screams neo-realism. Seeing how much he would later reject that kind of style, it’s interesting to see this kind of “on-the-streets” kind of approach here. With that being said, even here, so early in his career, it’s clear that Antonioni had an eye for framing and movement. The compositions within these 11 minutes are just stellar to say the least. While the voice-over can come across as little dry, it’s really the images that hold all the power here. [A-}
This second short takes a similar approach in terms of subject matter, focusing on janitors who clean the streets of Rome. What I found interesting here was how Antonioni injected what appeared like tragi-comedy into this doc. There’s a shot of a girl throwing what appears to be a wad of paper onto the street from her apartment and into a puddle on the road. When the wad crashes into the water, the streetsweeper who was walking away turns around to see the wad in the puddle. It’s an interesting choice to take, whether or not it was meant to be funny or tragic – I don’t know. But it is a side of the director that really isn’t showcased in any of his features to be honest. It’s also an incredibly honest portrayal of these janitors, as they simply do their job. At times it can be hard to distinguish a sweeper from a bum. There is no attempt at trying to make them come off as sympathetic or like, “isn’t this job hard,” – despite the shit people throw at them, sometimes literally, they’re simply doing their job. [A]
L’amorosa Menzogna (1949)
This short doc talks about the making of the Italian photo comic magazine Fumetti. It feels arguably lighter in terms of subject material than the other two docs I mentioned above and doesn’t feature the experimentation as the ones I’ll mention below. While some of the shots and angles are interesting, this one didn’t really engage me – though that might be more due to the subject material than anything else. The most interesting thing about this one for me was how Antonioni included some weird minor moments into this doc. Shots of people talking in the street, a little girl dancing with a crowd around her watching, a group of women rushing down a flight of stairs. Those shots were more interesting than anything involving the comic in my opinion. [D+]
Sette Canne, Un Vestito (1949)
The fourth of his documentary shorts, this time focusing on the production of synthetic fabric (rayon) in the small town of Torviscosa. Despite all the shots of farmland and crops, not to mention workers working, this short felt the most industrial in terms of it’s presentation. Yes, there’s plenty of machines shown within this short that are used to make the fabric, but it’s the general approach feels much more like those instructional films that filmmakers often do early on in their careers than the more realist style that Antonioni had demonstrated in his previous shorts. He often contrasts shots of workers doing their various jobs with machines running. I don’t have any real problems with it other than it lacks the sort of touch that these other early shorts contained. [C]
The final short I’ll be covering from Antonioni is his discussing of Italian superstition. In what is probably his strangest piece up to this point, the film opens with what appears to be various women casting spells of some kind – throwing in different ingredients into a pot and such. It’s a very odd (in my opinion) way of using superstition. I guess in my mind, when I think of the word it has more to do with legends being discussed, but here it has more to do with a kind of tradition that an older generation tries to maintain a sense of goodness or luck. Using talismans and rituals in order to protect anther from whatever evils the world might throw at them. It’s something that can come across almost silly, but then you see some of these rituals that these people perform and it can actually be a bit surprising. I’m not a particularly superstitious person but seeing how other, especially older people in a country I am not native to, interact with it. [B-]
Story of a Love Affair (1950)
Having started his career during the booming of the Italian Neorealism period, it should only make sense that his debut feature would retain some of those qualities. But as a whole, Antonioni’s first feature takes a more melodramatic approach towards storytelling – working in some more naturalistic styles and ideas into a genre film. Though to call this either a noir or a neo-realist film would be incorrect, although Antonioni exhibits elements of both within his first film, the first third of the film sees a detective tracing Paola Molon Fontana’s (Lucia Bosé) past for her husband, the film then shifts focus to her and her reacquainted lover Guido (Massimo Girotti), with the detective only reemerging from time to time. The use of realism in this film is also quite unlike what many of Antonioni’s peers were doing with it. It acts as sort of a background texture here.
It has to be said that what makes the most impression on me upon re-watching this film is not the plot or acting (both of which are far more melodramatic than films Antonioni would later develop), but his camera work and his use of shadows. Both are natural traits carried over from his neo-realism/documentary based background while the latter coming from the noir genre he was playing with here, but are key elements that he would push further later in his career. The way he uses long takes of characters moving across entire rooms is fascinating, particularly in one sequence where Paola Molon is speaking to Guido on the phone and then must change into her evening gown because her husband is home is entrancing (and not simply because she’s a beautiful woman). [B-]
The Lady Without Camelias (1953)
Antonioni, like his peers, decided to make a picture that skewered the profession he was working in for his second picture. In terms of tone, The Lady Without Camelias bears the closest resemblance to Luchino Visconti’s own satire, 1951’s Bellissima. Though it has to be said, Antonioni’s film features a much more sympathetic leading performance by Lucia Bosé as actress Clara Manni, which is ultimately what keeps the film moving. Chronicling the rise and fall of this actress, from her beginnings as a shop clerk to a full-fledged movie star. Like the audiences in the film, it is Clara who is most enchanting in this otherwise rather dry film.
It’s interesting to see the subtle shifts away from the type of realism that Antonioni displayed in his feature debut, as more elaborate architecture and bleaker looking landscapes begin to find their way into his style. The more authentic locations and simplistic interiors of his debut are beginning to develop into more complicated pieces. Clara, as a character begins to demonstrate some of the traits that characters in later Antonioni films would come to embody. The discontent her character later expresses remains solely her own. Though because of her slightly more subtle performance, everyone else comes across as overblown – much more melodramatic. It’s rather unfortunate that the rest of the film doesn’t demonstrate the same kind of growth as the architecture or Bosé’s performance. I do have to admit that I found it interesting how Antonioni didn’t appear to make any of the men in the film come off as the stereotypical “evil” character(s). For as melodramatic as their performances could sometimes be, I found it difficult to tell whether they were genuinely concerned for Clara or if they simply wanted to use her. [C]
I Vinti (1953)
Standing out among Antonioni’s filmography is this anthology piece which features three separate stories (in three different countries) all involving young people who commit murders. The story in France involves some rather careless high school kids who kill one of their friends for his money. The second story in Italy has a young man in University trying to smuggle cigarettes. The final story takes place in London involves a poet who finds the body of a woman and who tries to sell his story of discovering her. Opening up with news footage of riots – this film feels like the first where the director is reaching for something more substantial to comment on. He paints all of the young people as arrogant, shallow, pretentious, greedy, or some variation of those – though it’s fascinating how he juxtaposes these sides of their personalities with cowardice, as these characters are just as willing to run from their own responsibilities or sell each other out to avoid getting into trouble.
The performances here are all fairly naturalistic for the most part. The occasional actor might overdo it a bit, but on the whole, the performances are pretty unaffected. Antonioni’s eye for architecture is also coming through even clearer here. In the Italian segment especially, he places characters within open rooms and spaces, putting them in opposition with their own freedom. The leads want to escape but are trapped by their own emotions – but honestly, it can be found in all three stories here. I find it just a bit unfortunate that the London based tale is weaker than the other two, or at least I find it to be weaker. It’s a piece that kind of wallows around it’s main character too much for my liking, seeing as he isn’t the most interesting of characters, you could hardly blame me for my interest beginning to wane whenever he was on screen. [B-]
“Tentato Suicidio” from L’amore in Città (1953)
A short that was among five others in this anthology film, Antonioni’s managed to stick out even among other shorts by the likes of Dino Risi and Federico Fellini. The anthology as a whole was, from what I’ve read, meant to capture the lives of “real” people. A real neo-realism kind of film. So Antonioni, the rebel genius that he was, decided to create a film based on the artifice by using non-professional actors to play inside four stories that actually were real, and probing during interview segments on the reality he was presenting. Why did the four women he presented try to kill themselves? What lead them to this conclusion? It’s a kind of staged reality that recalls the kind of docudrama illusion he was playing with earlier in his career. [B]
Le Amiche (1955)
For me, this is the pinnacle of Antonioni’s early work – the last of his films which were driven with long pieces of dialogue. I should clarify that when I say pinnacle, what I mean is that it probably the height of Antonioni’s powers when doing this kind of a story. This is probably his most heavy film in that respect, with lengthy conversations occurring between various characters. It retains much of the more melodramatic qualities that made up Antonioni’s films up to this point as well. The main focus here is on a young woman, Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) who becomes integrated into a group of women and their friends after finding one of them, Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) unconscious after attempting suicide. All of the women are incredibly self-involved and, at times, annoying – but that’s kind of the point. How vacuous all of these characters are and how Clelia finds herself being absorbed into their circle.
One of the most interesting things I found here was the time split between more interior spaces and wider landscapes. The former is something that can clearly be seen in much of the director’s early work – and even into his more classic films, but the latter is something that clearly develops more and more as he moved forward. Landscapes eventually becoming their own characters within his films. Here, it’s apparent that Antonioni knows how to use his locations, but it’s still how the characters interact with each other that drives the story forward, instead of how they interact within their spaces. With that being said, personally speaking, there’s only so much of people talking about each other and gossiping about each other before I just get bored. While I did find myself more engaged with this on my second viewing, it still doesn’t manage to keep me fully interested for it’s entire duration. [C+]
Il Grido (1957)
This is the beginning of the Antonioni who would soon revolutionize cinema. Although he hasn’t completely come into his own in crafting that unique Antonioni-style here, the ideas, compositions, and characters are all, more or less, in here. It’s a transitional picture in that respect; bridging the gap between his early pictures (that relied more on dialogue and character interactions) and his later, arguably more influential work (which took a greater interest in character interactions with landscapes and the things that are not said to one another or the hidden meanings of what’s said). The focus here being on a man named Aldo (Steve Cochran), who goes on a journey with his young daughter after his lover of seven years, Irma (Alida Valli), rejects his proposal for marriage after her husband dies. The two of them then travel around as Aldo proceeds to try and develop a meaningful relationship with a series of women he meets along the way.
The film is fascinating on several levels but perhaps the one that appeals the most to me is the way that Aldo is constantly shooting himself in the foot with the various women he encounters. It isn’t as though the women he meets don’t want to be with him as much as an overriding sense of longing and sense of displacement distances him from those he wants to connect with. His thirst for love is one that cannot be quenched by simply loving him in return. The fact that this is one of the few films where Antonioni focuses on a man, as well as being his only picture to focus on individuals within the lower classes of society. In that respect it’s his closest feature to neo-realism, but as I said, it’s leading man’s troubles are not coming from society as much as from himself. Antonioni constantly places Aldo in scenes allowing for other characters or the landscape to dominate him. As sympathetic a character as he is, he is also someone whose suffering is internal – thus making him a somewhat frustrating character as well . [B+]
Here’s where it happened. The point at which the career of Antonioni broke through and he became more than just another Italian director. The point at which many people probably lost patience with his work (whether one could call them his “audience” before or not). The story is that while out on a boating trip, a young woman, Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing. As a search for her commences, her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) become attracted to each other.
Antonioni returns to focus on wealthier people, in his words, “I prefer to set my heroes in a rich environment because then their feelings are not (as in the poorer classes) determined by material and practical contingencies.” It’s something that, as I stated up at the beginning, is something that many people are/can be put off by. The “oh, rich people suffering” bent doesn’t resonate with them because they think, “what have they got to suffer about?” The classic existential crisis is one that often doesn’t make for great crossover material. It’s still too unexciting, in a word, for most mainstream cinema goers. And whatever mainstream cinema goers Antonioni’s films happened to be appealing to up to this point clearly were left scratching their head (like the audience at Cannes this premiered to) – and honestly, I’m not above that myself. Having seen this twice before sitting down to re-watch it again for this review, I was a little scared and a little anxious. Both previous times I had watched this film I found it incredibly dull and tedious after the first hour (so basically after Anna initially goes missing).
I’m sure it’ll be no surprise that I actually really enjoyed the entire film this time around (so I’ve finally come around). It might be from having seen more of Antonioni’s work but I found the eventual romance aspect of the film much more entrancing this time around. His use of architecture being much more fascinating to me, the way he shot Italy makes it feel so vacant. Even when we see the streets literally overflowing with people, there’s an emptiness there. The island is empty. The cities are empty. Yet for how alienated our main characters are from the world around them, the film is not without life. Love is not absent, even when the main characters are so alienated from the world around them. It’s the desire to love, to feel connected to someone and to genuinely feel in general that drives these characters and makes them so watchable.
This also being the first time Antonioni would work with Vitti, a collaboration that would prove to be incredibly fruitful – lasting for five films. (The two would also become lovers during this period of collaboration as well). Perhaps it’s my own perception of it, but Vitti, as an actress, was pretty much perfectly cast in the work of Antonioni. Seeing her in films by other directors, from Losey to Buñuel to Jancsó to Scola – she never felt as comfortable as she did in the films of Antonioni, at least in my opinion. As for the director, here his slow pacing and exacting camera work reach the point where zenith (incidentally, they would remain there for almost two decades). His shot compositions are breathtaking, Bergman himself has referred to Antonioni as more of a photographer than a filmmaker, but it’s what’s within each image that gets me. [A-]
La Notte (1961)
In much the same way architecture help to define the lead characters in L’avventura, La Notte brings even more insight into our leading characters through the design of the world around them. The main crux of the film being the struggling marriage between Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). The film takes place over a day and night in the life of this couple – starting with them visiting a sick friend and ending with the two of them at a party. For as minimal a plot as there was in L’avventura, this movie seems to abandon all together. The film is episodic at best and meandering at worst – with characters seeming to just wander about through various landscapes and rooms. This film also drains whatever passion might have encompassed the characters in previous Antonioni films has also been drained – with lust only occasionally rearing it’s head. The characters here feel so empty (and not in the vapid way), like they are fully aware of their own futility and how passionless their lives have become. Even when these people smile it feels hollow.
In some ways, the Giovanni character is somewhat stereotypical. He’s a writer who believes his work isn’t as meaningful as it once was. Yet there’s an underlying restlessness to him, his inability to feel comfortable in almost any place we see him. In his apartment he’s anxious, at a party he’s uninvolved, with his wife he’s distant. He’s someone who we as an audience constantly feel at an arms-length from. But it’s not as though Lidia is any more relatable. She too seems to view things from a distance, so to speak, like there’s a sheet of glass separating her from the world (hopefully that makes sense). The two having thoughts of having an affair later on sounds like the type of stuff that would escalate the movie out of it’s existentialist stupor, alas Antonioni is too smart and uninterested in melodrama to let the film’s delicate balance fall into that kind of overblown sense of pomposity. He keeps everything dialed down. Big moments here don’t feel like emotional explosions as much as the smoldering of embers.
Monica Vitti’s supporting role as Valentina Gherardini, the daughter of a billionaire who is holding a party in honor of Giovanni’s latest novel, cannot be understated though. Her character appears in the second half of the film, as a seductress of sorts but one who never actively goes after Giovanni. As much as he pursues her, it’s lust more than love. The same can be said for Lidia giving into playboy Tommaso Garani (Bernhard Wicki) who has been pursuing her. Vitti’s character is essentially a trigger, but saying that feels so reductive to what she does with the role. Her performance is perhaps the warmest thing to this film. Where our main couple are full of discontent and can come off a little cold, she comes across as someone who isn’t willing to simply dive head first into passion/lust.
But to return to Antonioni once again as a director and stylist. His exploration here through the use of empty buildings and spaces in the first half of the film is interesting because he then puts our main couple into a house full of people in the second half – during the night of the title. It’s a deceptively simple maneuver, and it’s one that didn’t really strike me until I was re-watching again for this post. In addition to his striking use of placement and movement in the second half of the film (the way the characters move throughout the house is just awe inspiring in my opinion) he also manages to draw out some of the best work from our central couple as well as from Vitti. [A+]
The final part in Antonioni’s Isolation Trilogy and the one that first struck a chord with me was this one. Perhaps because this one flirts with the genre of romance a bit more than the previous two, it may have come across as more immediate to me. That’s just me speculating though – what I know for a fact though is that this is one of the hottest pairings I’ve ever seen. Starring Monica Vitti as Vittoria, a young woman who leaves her longtime lover early on in the movie and then meets a young stockbroker named Piero (Alain Delon) who she begins seeing. Where his previous feature had used the dissolution of a marriage as it’s main thrust of the story, this one uses new love – yet the themes of dissatisfaction with material wealth, alienation from the world around you, and general ennui.
What’s fascinating to me is how Antonioni had Delon play his character. In La Notte we had Marcello Mastroianni’s character who shared a similar affinity to material things – the physical things. Delon’s Piero shares that same fascination with that kind of world, but his performance is far less muted. His performance is energized, intense, and quite confident – which puts it in opposition to how we (critics, film analysts, film buffs, etc.) tend to think about performances within the world of an Antonioni film. When placed inside his world (with other stockbrokers, as we first see him) he stands out mainly because of a conniving quality to him, in addition to the fact that we as an audience know who Delon is, but he has that kind of sneaky quality to him that draws the eye. It’s once again reflected in the landscape we have in the film – which is, for the most part, all modern and industrial. The world our characters live in is bustling and busy, full of car jams, people yelling, and construction. Yet it is how Piero interacts with Vittoria that makes this interesting. She appears most free when the two of them leave the noise of the city and take a walk into the surrounding nature or are alone in an apartment together. Things there are quiet. Antonioni makes the sound of silence, the sound of the wind blowing through the trees, the sound of a random man riding his bike appear all the more heightened in contrast to these earlier scenes which come across much more chaotic. Up to this point it also features the most haunting use of architecture in an Antonioni film as well. As Scorsese mentions here, in the closing montage of the film, life does not simply go on, but time goes on – the solitude of no one.
Another little thing I thought was kind of worth mentioning was how Antonioni called back to a subject that he covered earlier on in his career in this film – the subject of superstition. Though it is only touched upon briefly, I thought it added a nice touch to the film. Vittoria’s mother is seen spending quite a bit of time at the stock exchange in this film, attempting to make it big, but she’s also a superstitious lady. She carries salt with her to the exchange, she worries that her daughter’s presence will mean that they won’t win big – it’s a slight touch that I found quite inspiring (both on a character level as well as a metatextual one). And then one could think about the transition between Vittoria and her mother, the older generation simply being more superstitious about things, while Vittoria herself would rather remain uncertain. It isn’t as simple as the mother being more open to the randomness of the world around her, as much as that randomness of life appears to have weathered down Vittoria herself. Life itself has lost purpose for her, and later on for Delon as well. What the randomness of their lives has brought about for them causes them to grow distant, weary of passion and the opportunity to encounter chance and possibility. [A+]
Red Desert (1964)
While the Alienation Trilogy exposed Antonioni to a whole new world of cinema goers (it’d be fair to say those previous three films were his breakthrough into the realms of “auteurist” world cinema), his move into color with this film is where his talents as a stylist and artist really came to the forefront. For the first time working in color, his compositions are stunning to say the least while also being muted and strangely psychedelic. The shots that open up the film are incredibly trippy (an indulgence one could say he would experiment with a few years later) and feel like an introduction to a fever dream more than a movie. But they are meant to put us in the headspace of Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a bored and mentally unstable wife and mother who begins having an affair with a friend of her husband (Corrado, played by Richard Harris).
You’ll hear/read it from everyone who talks about this movie – the use of smoke/steam/mist in it looks incredible. The entire film looks incredible – but that element in particular stands out. I give a lot of credit to both Antonioni (who famously painted the grass in one scene because real grass didn’t look like what he wanted) and DP Carlo Di Palma, who in addition to making the film look stunning, also make the film feel incredibly dense as well. Watching the film feels like I’m trapped in some sort of a fog, almost like a dream (so credit to Eraldo Da Roma for his editing as well). The use of highly industrial architecture paired with a stark and barren natural world only serves to enhance the feeling of isolation. The way all the factories and mechanical structures stretch into the grey skies just feels so haunting – it honestly brings me to a feeling of hopelessness, as drastic a reaction as that might sound. Add into the equation all the droning, industrial sound effects used throughout the film (most notably the horn of an oil tanker) – and one is really put into the state of mind of those who feel lost in a godforsaken world.
Giuliana is in such a state that her perception of reality begins to fracture. But this isn’t done in the same way his peer Fellini would play with in his 1965 film Juliet of the Spirits. Antonioni doesn’t play with fantasies and experiment with surrealism as much as he plays with time and perception of it here. Reality isn’t this tangible thing that fluctuates through our lead’s mind in various visions. In Red Desert, the crack from reality isn’t as playful or exciting as that, instead, Antonioni shows us the slow disintegration of Giuliana’s mind through her conversations with Corrado and her son. Both films are experimental, but in very different ways and while Fellini’s is much more playful, I find Antonioni’s much more satisfying. There is no easy way out in here. There is no comfort in knowing Giuliana will get better. There is only the painful knowledge of knowing there is nothing she (or you) can do to escape this bleak existence. [A-]
“The Screen Test” from I Tre Volti (1965)
In what appeared to be a vehicle for Iranian actress Soraya (in one of four films she appeared in), this anthology film featured three segments, the first of which was directed by Antonioni. It’s kind of an oddity in his filmography because it doesn’t really feel in tune with the other sort of material he was producing at the time. The story deals with a journalist who finds out that the Shah of Iran, Soraya, is trying to become an actress and his attempts at trying to get an interview with her. As I said, it’s kind of lightweight stuff and though it feels as though Antonioni is trying to inject some semblance of tension or atmosphere, for the most part it simply comes off as a bland character study. There’s some really interesting shots used throughout the short but I found the actual story quite uninteresting to be honest. There are also a few surrealist set-pieces that kind of baffled me (one involving the journalist running through a small maze in order to reach a phone to call Soraya). Compared to other pieces the director was putting out during this period, this feels like more of a one-off kind of experiment (in using the English language, in brighter usage of color, and in more abstract staging). It’s not essential, but worthy of a watch if you’re a fan of the director. [C+]
Antonioni’s first film made entirely in the English language and he couldn’t have nailed it better. Focusing on Thomas (David Hemmings) fashion photographer who goes through something of an existential crisis when he accidentally photographs what may be a murder. It’s an utterly brilliant mood piece that shows the director pushing the psychedelic elements that he experimented in his last feature and short even more to the forefront. It’s one of the truest evocations of the 60s that I can imagine seeing (imagine because I was not yet born in the 60s – for those who know me). The design and soundtrack are obvious in that regard, but it’s the mood and editing that I’m referring to here. Like Red Desert, this film feels like it’s shrouded in a thick cloud (of pot smoke here) which gives the entire thing a sort of ambling quality. The editing on the other hand is all sorts of crazy, at times jumping from one angle to the next, creating a something of a delirious effect (at least for me).
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call our lead character a huge asshat of a protagonist. He’s rude, selfish, narcissistic, and more than a little bit of a bit of a sexist as well – so why do we as an audience follow this man? He’s a man so bored by the world around him it takes the suspicion of murder to awaken him from his stupor. He’s so disinterested in more or less everything that his own life is something of a fantasy (at one point he refers to his “wife” as someone who’s easy to live with and is only with her because they have some kids together – only to contradict both of those statements moments later). He’s only after serving his own interests – but he’s also just as sick of the world around him as we are of him. If the world he lives in is vacuous and shallow and materialistic couldn’t we all see ourselves getting bored as well? Or is it because we recognize that there’s something of Thomas inside of ourselves? It can’t simply be that because Antonioni puts this as our character that we have the curiosity to follow him (people have walked out of movies for less). Just watching him stalk after women is like watching a cat circle it’s prey – something I’ll admit can come off a little disturbing. Truthfully I cannot answer why “we” follow Thomas – the reason I follow Thomas is for the reason I mentioned above, that I recognize something of Thomas in myself. I’d like to think I’m not as big a douchebag as he is, but he discontent with the world around him and his obsessiveness/paranoia are qualities I can definitely see in myself.
It’s at this point where I find myself thinking about the structure of the film. At just under two hours, it was definitely a risk to have the mystery element of this film (or the plot) introduced over half-way into the film. And even when Thomas begins to look deeper into the murder he may have captured, the actual investigation is minimal at best. I’ve read a couple of reviews claiming that this film takes the structure of a mystery film but as almost any person who knows about Antonioni will tell you, the plot and characters were probably the least interesting thing to him, especially at this point in his career. Antonioni places Thomas at a concert (where The Yardbirds are playing interestingly enough) which leads to the most absurd scene in the entire film in my opinion. He’s placed in a room full of people and is at once overwhelmed and yet isolated. Then there’s the story from onset where Peter Bowles (who plays Thomas’ manager Ron) was getting ready to film his big scene in the film, the one where he gets to do a big speech and deliver what the message of the film – only to have Antonioni tell him that he’s cutting out that speech. I think this speaks to how he thinks about films, as when he was confronted by Bowles about his speech being cut out he responded (and I’m paraphrasing here), “…if we leave the speech in, people will know what this movie is about, if I cut it, people will talk about what it is about.” [A]
Zabriskie Point (1970)
After winning lots of international awards and acclaim with his last film, Antonioni came to America in order to write and film what would become one of his most divisive films. Collaborating with four other people in order to write the script (including Sam Shepard, Franco Rossetti, Tonino Guerra, and Clare Peploe) based off a newstory involving a young man who was shot when he happened to be returning a plane he stole. When people speak about Antonioni’s films being plotless, meandering, and with bland/uninteresting characters this is the picture which makes it the hardest to argue against that point. In Zabriskie Point, Antonioni’s interest in psychedelic music, experimental editing, and lost characters comes to a head with the main characters of this film kind of being lost within it. The film itself is full of so many threads, it takes almost a third of the film’s running time to simply bring one of main characters to the forefront of the film (there are many scenes early on without him, making it kind of confusing as to who the focus of the film is on) and even then neither of our main characters are appear all that interesting.
The main “plot” of the film involves Mark (Mark Frechette) maybe killing a policeman during a riot, stealing a plane and flying it out into the desert, and then meeting up with Daria (Daria Halprin). All of these events seemingly just happen, there really isn’t any “real” reason why any of these events should connect to each other. Mark is involved in a riot, ok understandable seeing how he’s a counterculture revolutionary. He runs away after maybe killing a police officer, ok, Antonioni is using the suspicion of murder to intrigue us as he did in Blow-Up. Mark steals a plane by simply walking onto a landing site, getting in an open plane, and then one of the workers just lets him fly away with it – I’m not so sure that could happen EVER. Then he meets up with Daria, a young worker driving out to meet her boss in Phoenix, and they get involved in weird stuff. The story (I won’t say plot anymore because there isn’t a single thing driving this film forward) here is probably the most ambling Antonioni had come up with to this point. Our two main characters finally end up meeting about half-way through the film and even then, neither of them really do much of anything together. They both sort of wander around the desert, get involved with what may or may not be an orgy, and break into someone’s house – and that may sound a lot more exciting than it really is to be honest.
The most exciting aspects of this movie for me is probably the same things most people find interesting here – the soundtrack and the editing and the cinematography. The score featured original music by Pink Floyd and featured songs by Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, among others – that’s a great soundtrack. Then there’s the cinematography by Alfio Contini and editing by Franco Arcalli who I credit with making this film watchable at all. It looks amazing – it is an Antonioni movie but even by his standards, the desert scenes look fantastic. The editing on the other hand is probably the most trippy in one of his movies. As I mentioned above, it takes a while just for the film to focus on our main character(s) and then once they meet up, the movie begins to move into more dream-esque territory, if that makes sense. Everything else is kind of mediocre though. The acting, while not as bad as some people have made it out to be, still isn’t great. Antonioni reveals himself to be no Bresson in terms of getting amazing performance from non-actors. Both Mark and Daria as actors are pretty wooden and their non-characters wandering around the desert getting high doesn’t really make for the most engaging of films – at least on a dramatic level.
On an idea level, the whole counterculture thing is interesting for sure. But these hippies (and let’s not beat around the bush here, that’s what our two main characters are) who just wander around, not really doing much of anything of consequence appear to only give a physical body to Antonioni’s interest in the youth of America (in the 60s). They’re stand-ins, only meant to give a body and voice to the director’s idea of an aimless America. The final sequence involving an exploding house is one of the strangest moments in an Antonioni film for me. Seemingly out of step with the rest of his stylistic ticks, he replays the explosion from different angles over and over again. The claim that America will destroy itself may have seemed radical back when the film was made, but today it seems all the more like a reality. I’ve read several interpretations of the film, some claiming it’s a subversive masterpiece while others claiming it to simply be a piece of pretentious piece of shit-art. [C+]
Chung Kuo – Cina (1972)
Cushioned snuggly within his English trilogy of films, this documentary from Antonioni remains a curiosity within his filmography even today. Having been invited to The Republic of China by Mao in order to make a documentary about the country – it’s interesting to watch this with the knowledge that it was eventually so hated that Antonioni was accused of being anti-Chinese and a counterrevolutionary. From what I understand about the making of this documentary, Antonioni was under pretty heavy surveillance while filming it. He and his crew were saddled with guards for the entire filming, making sure they didn’t go to any place they weren’t supposed to go. His camera takes in the daily lives of the people around him – people walking the streets, kids going to school, a woman giving birth, workers in a factory – in an open and simple way.
Divided into three sections, the first capturing Beijing, the second the countryside, and the third in Shanghai. The images captured in the first are pretty expected, I guess (I mean, there isn’t a whole lot here that I imagine would shock and/or horrify someone unfamiliar with the country), it’s mainly through the voiceover that Antonioni apparently tries to convey the underlying horror of what he’s witnessed in his trip to China. The mention of dead bodies that are hidden while showing the Great Wall or showing small figurines of barbarians killing villagers in what I assume was a museum are about as horrifying a glimpse as we get in the first section. The second section focusing on the countryside is slightly more worrisome, if only because it’s what I imagine the Chinese government took offense to after seeing it. The way the people work in the fields and live in abject poverty in some instances is distressing to a certain degree (lessened only by the fact that we now know of the horrible conditions these people work in so it doesn’t feel so shocking). The third part concludes things in an odd way (and perhaps a disturbing way) in that while it starts off showing off the streets of Shanghai it leads into a circus(?) act with various stunts and tricks being performed. I found it that to be quite disturbing personally – concluding things in such a “positive” way, or theatrical and fun way only highlights the distress of the lower class shown earlier on.
While this is a handsome documentary and it has it’s occasional moments of insight, it is ultimately a rather bland film to watch. Knowing the situation that Antonioni and his crew found themselves in while documenting the country, it isn’t surprising that this isn’t hard hitting in that regard. It feels a bit sterilized. Some of the best moments come when he’s capturing random people on the street looking at him, staring directly into the camera. It’s in those moments that you really get the impression of looking into another culture, and they’re looking at you as the aliens (to be blunt about it). [B-]
The Passenger (1975)
This was my very first Antonioni film. Jack Nicholson stars as David Locke, a journalist who’s working on a documentary in Chad, who assumes the identity of a dead business man he happened to share a hotel room with. It’s a film that deals with identity and loss of identity more directly and, in my opinion, better than any other film in the director’s filmography. It’s a super simple plot but it’s executed in such a fascinating way that it becomes all engrossing and I can’t take my eyes off the screen, even as the film becomes more and more absurd (turning in some ways closer to an espionage thriller/mystery than one might think at first). In some ways I almost feel like this is his most accessible film as well. It has an identifiable and likable lead, the plot sounds good and intriguing, and you have exotic locations. It was my first, and seen at the right time could really help to expose people to more experimental and thought-provoking kinds of cinema (maybe).
Nicholson is completely amazing here. Playing a man who’s so bored with his life that he decides to steal another man’s identity and in the process begins to become this other man. It’s the type of performance that he rarely gave, and kind of stopped doing after this movie. It’s extremely subtle and low-key, which is not the type of performance that gets one noticed in Hollywood. Like most films from Antonioni, his performance doesn’t rely on dialogue as much as his movement and his posture. I recall hearing that when they were filming this movie, Antonioni said to Nicholson that he wasn’t even anywhere near the top of the list in terms of things he was concerned about while making the movie. I find that to be a fascinating insight into where the director’s mind was at at this point in his career – but Nicholson, like the pro that he was, nailed it with apparent ease.
Antonioni’s direction here is, in my opinion, the most precise of his English language trilogy of films. The more psychedelic and experimental kind of editing and shot composition has settled down here – it’s slower in both editing, pacing, and camera movement. That’s not to say the director has lost his interest in creating trippy sequences (like the one where Locke is listening to a tape recorded conversation with the man whose identity he’s thinking of stealing only for the camera to pan over and show the two of them actually having the conversation). It’s closer to what has come to be known as “slow cinema” here than in any of his other films and the sluggish nature of movie only adds to how entranced I find myself while I watch it. Yet, unlike most films that are in that “category” of cinema, this film doesn’t contain a whole lot of down time. Things are constantly happening.
His focus on architecture feels it’s most realized since Red Desert as well. Early scenes in the desert are beautiful (as one should expect) but once Locke moves into the city is where things really get interesting. His want and desire to loose his old self among the bustling crowds and cars is obvious, but it’s the way he settles down is what strikes me the most. Early on the in the picture, he seems incredibly stressed and, to simplify it, unhappy – it’s only when he assumes a new identity and meets up with a younger woman (played by Maria Schneider) and begins traveling with her that he appears to calm down and/or feel any sense of contentment. The movie then moves from the city into more rural locations (at times almost seeming a bit touristy). It’s at this point that Locke begins to settle into a mood resembling the way he behaved earlier on in the movie. He begins to feel a sense of unease, angst of some sort. And as the movie moves towards it’s final moments, Locke begins to settle down again – reaching some apparent kind of peace. [A+]
The Mystery of Oberwald (1981)
Here’s where the tide began to shift. After nearly two decades of incredible, or at least boundary pushingly experimental, work, Antonioni was bound to make a false step and it began with this film. Taking the opportunity to film on video tape in order to experiment with color manipulation, this made-for-television movie winds up trading emotional resonance for experimentation. The fact that the screenplay was L’Aigle à deux têtes, a play and film by Jean Cocteau doesn’t help things. As a chamber drama, it doesn’t allow Antonioni to use natural landscapes and the architecture around him to help tell his story. Instead we get rather cheap looking sets which do him no favors.
This was also the final film in which Antonioni collaborated with Monica Vitti – and unfortunately this doesn’t contain her finest work either. It feels much too stagy, the dialogue and performance just don’t come across the same way as their earlier collaborations. It feels much too stilted to me, contained – which may have more to do with the cheap looking design. Vitti’s character, La Regina, is a queen whose castle is broken into by an assassin, Sebastian (Franco Branciaroli), who looks like her dead husband. The two then decide to play a game where if he can’t kill her, she’ll kill him. Now, knowing Cocteau’s own work (though I have not seen his adaptation of this) – it’s a good premise, but Antonioni seems disengaged with the premise and appears more interested in experimenting with the video format and color than anything else.
With that being said, I don’t want this to be me completely taking down this movie (because there’s more than enough of that should you happen to look this up). Antonioni’s interest in color adjusting does provide some interesting moments in here. Though the atmosphere here isn’t anywhere as potent as the work he was putting out right before this film, his use of color adjusting helps to establish a tone that is slightly surreal in tone. Especially in the second half of the film where he uses more natural landscapes and tends to shift the colors, it begins feeling more like a dream than any of his other films have. I wish there were other things that I found as great as that but unfortunately I didn’t – although I certainly didn’t hate this as much as many people seem to. [C]
Identification of a Woman (1982)
Returning to a cinematic way of shooting, it’s unfortunate that the failure of this feature caused a break in Antonioni’s career that would last over a decade. Focusing on film director Niccolò (Tomas Milian) who goes from relationship to relationship in search of a woman to star in his next movie. The film itself has Niccolò bouncing between two women, the sexually ravenous sociallite Mavi (Daniela Silverio) and the much more emotional actress Ida (Christine Boisson). It’d be fair to say that Niccolò is in the tradition of characters from Antonioni films who have trouble connecting to others and is also trying to find his place in the world.
It has to be said that this is Antonioni’s most explicit film up to this point in his career. There are numerous sex scenes throughout with at least one of the women leads achieving some sort of orgasmic pleasure from Niccolò. There are even conversations with women that discuss their sexuality in some way (a scene at a pool has one young woman telling Niccolò how her favorite form of sex is masturbation). Compared with his previous work, the sex scenes feel particularly raw, not as carefully constructed so to say. As John Powers says in his essay about the film for the Criterion release of it, ” I’ve heard complaints that Antonioni fell into Dirty Old Man–ism in Mavi’s sex scenes with Niccolò—by his standards, they’re startlingly raw—but they’re designed not as turn-ons but as revelations of character.” They bring a kind of intensity to the characters in the scenes in a film which deliberately tries to obfuscate at least Niccolò’s desires and Mavi’s intentions. That isn’t to say that the man has lost his eye for fantastically staged scenes that look incredible though. Even though this is probably my least favorite looking film from Antonioni (the entire thing suffers from 80s syndrome – in both look and in it’s soundtrack), it still has some amazing scenes that are still leagues better than what many directors do today.
This is also a film that retains the more interior formality of The Mystery of Oberwald, for better or worse. For a majority of the film, the characters are confined in room and corridors, with scenes on streets and roads feeling just as confined – at times feeling very stagy. It’s really claustrophobic in my opinion. There’s a scene near the end of the film where two characters are on a boat on the ocean and the film finally feels like things are released from this constant tension – but even that is just a short relieve as those characters return to a more closed off environment. I found it almost odd how Antonioni’s focus on architecture gave way to a more interior based piece like this film. Where previously he used landscapes the buildings to help give us an insight into a character’s state of being, here the entire thing feels so closed off and inaccessible. Given that he said he was focusing more on character than aesthetics and look for this film, perhaps that was a given, but to me it feels rather slight due to that. [B-]
Beyond The Clouds (1995)
Having suffered a stroke in 1985 which partially paralyzed him and left him mostly unable to speak, Antonioni found himself unable to make another film – mostly due of production guarantees not wanting to put up the insurance for him. So Antonioni reached out to German director Wim Wenders to ask if he would come on board to act as his AD and to finish the film should any unfortunate incident occur during the filming. The script for the film was based off of four short stories Antonioni had written in his novel That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. Connecting these stories are short segments filmed by Wenders with John Malkovich. In some ways one could see it as the logical next step from Identification of a Woman in terms of style and story.
The central theme of these short pieces is love – something the director has tackled before but never in such a direct way. Each of the four stories involves people being unable to connect with each other whether physically or emotionally. It’s all territory we know and it’s a shame that the director who pretty much set the standard for this kind of unrelatable romance back in the 60s has crafted something so trite and, worst of all dull. For as pretentious as some have claimed Antonioni to be, there’s something to be said that he knew how to craft a film where characters were engaging enough to keep people interested in at least knowing where things would wind up at the end of a given film (to whatever extent you believe this to be true). I’m someone who doesn’t mind lack of dialogue in movies (hell, a lot of the scripts I write don’t feature a lot of dialogue) but this was an instance where when there was dialogue being said, it came off as sounding quite contrived and pretentious, and when there wasn’t anything being said, it was just boring – or as boring as watching naked women not having sex/dancing in a room/etc. can be. It just lacks the weight and intellectual insight (among other things) that I get out of Antonioni’s other work. It just comes across so empty to me.
It’s also a shame that he wastes probably his most illustrious cast to date here. Boasting the likes of Malkovich, Sophie Marceau, Inés Sastre, Irène Jacob, Jean Reno, Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Peter Weller, among others, the cast are given very little to do. They wander around from place to place/room to room depending on their given segment, but their characters all feel so empty what they’re doing and saying comes of little consequence. While the people and landscapes/room are pretty they don’t come across as resonant as previous films have. The only two who bring anything to their roles are Moreau and Mastroianni – and their scene together is so brief anyway it’s disappointing (I would have rather watched more of those two talking instead of most of the main stories here). Having said all that, Antonioni is a man who, regardless of age and physical condition, knew how to frame shots. The various long takes used to track a given character(s) are just as great to watch as always. Though when that’s the best thing to be said about the entire film, I guess that’s not much consolation. [C-]
Michelangelo Eye-to-Eye (2004)
In this penultimate short from Antonioni, we have perhaps one of his most honest and personal pieces. In these fifteen minutes we have Antonioni walking into the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and coming face-to-face (so to speak) with the statues there. The inanimate statues remain frozen in time yet Antonioni reflects quietly in opposition to them. He searches for the statue of Moses. At this stage in his life, the director is much frailer than he used to be. The shots of his hand moving, caressing a statue and the shots of his face, contemplative and moved at the same time. The majority of this is silent, with only the occasional sound of footsteps or room noise until the last few minutes when we have the sound of a choir vocalizing as Antonioni leaves. While I can’t say this was the finest piece he ever did in his career, I will say that I was still moved by it. [B]
“The Dangerous Thread of Things” from Eros (2004)
I find it a bit of a shame that the final short from Antonioni was received so badly. Most reviews for this anthology film usually wind up saying that Antonioni just embarrasses himself here or how it’s the weakest of the three shorts. While this certainly isn’t anywhere near the best thing Antonioni did, the worst part about it isn’t even the film itself, but more how I feel sad that this is the film that ends his run. On my first watch through, I really wasn’t feeling this at all – but rewatching it for this did make me aware of some aspects of it that do impress. To get the main flaw out of the way – the nudity here is completely out of place and doesn’t serve the story at all. But aside from that and some shaky camera work at times (which was really surprising considering who the director is) this was pretty ok. The long tracking shots I found really engaging and I thought that the sexuality of the characters fit right in with some of these later films from Antonioni. I understand the claim that people have made about it coming pretty close to softcore porn, but there are these little punctuated moments that make it feel realer and more authentic than that – at least to me anyway. [C-]