Humans are intruders in the film world of Michelangelo Antonioni: they destroy the harmony of nature and society. Only when they act in solidarity with their fellow man do they have a chance to become part of something meaningful.
GENTE DEL PO (1943-47), shot not far from where Visconti was filming Ossessione, this is a short documentary, but in spite of its neo-realistic moorings, it is at the same time a personal statement: an effort to comprehend the world via the moving image. Not the other way round. Antonioni’s realism does not attempt to show anything natural, humane, dramatic, and particularly not anything like an idea, a thesis. Just memory forms the model for his art. Memory as images like photos, paintings, writing – they form the basis of his later work – an adventure, where the audience peels off the many layers, like off an onion: a painting, more than once painted over.
On the face of it Antonioni’s debut feature, Chronaca Du Un Amore (1950) is a film noir, like Visconti’s first opus Ossessione. The dominant feelings that would run through all his films are already in place – emotional neglect, alienation, existential angst and loneliness. Set in the director’s birthplace of Ferrara the drama follows ex-lovers Paola and Guido and their desire to do away with Paola’s rich husband Enrico Fontana. This is no crime of passion, because Paola and Guido are unable to make it as a couple – but what they can do is profit from Fontana’s death. Life in the city is a reflection of the conspirators state of mind. Their neuroses is felt in the chaotic streets and the frenetic buzz of the cafes. The surreal urban jungle is a one of the main themes of Antonioni’s opus. And he observes his main protagonists when they area lone and in the dramatic scenes, creating an elliptical structure with these two dynamics points: action and echo. As Wenders said: “The strength of American Cinema is a forward focus, European cinema paints ellipses”.
I VINTI (1952) is set in three different countries (Italy, France and the UK), exploring the lives of three young criminals who steal not out of material necessity, but just for fun. But their crimes are and the involvement of the Police is just a backdrop to Antonioni’s main focus: his protagonists’ daily lives. As the crimes recede more and more into the background, the investigations peter out – shades of L’ Avventura and Blow Up.
In LE AMICHE (1955) Antonioni finds the structure for his features, seemingly overpopulated with couples and friends – who are all busy, but play a secondary role to their environment, in this case Turin. Clelia has come to open a designer shop and soon meets up with four other young women, all much wealthier than she is. Their changing couplings with men end tragically. Set between Clelia’s arrival in Turin and her leaving for Rome, LE AMICHE is a kaleidoscope of human frailty, in which the audience is waiting for something to happen, some sort of boy meets girl story, but when something really happens, it takes second place to the main thrust of the narrative and we become as disorientated as the characters themselves. Antonioni does not tell a story with a beginning and an end, he informs us, that the world can exist without stories. Because there is so much more to see in the city of Turin, as there will be in Rome: Clelia is only the messenger, sent out by Antonioni to be a traveller, not a story teller. She is his archetypal heroine.
Aldo, the central protagonist in IL GRIDO (1956/7) is the most untypical of all Antonioni heroes: he has been expelled from paradise, after his wife has left him. Refusing to really let himself go he sticks to his environment, travelling with his daughter in the Po Valley. Leaving his home town and looking back over a life dominated by the factory chimney, it is his past history which has forced him to leave. He becomes more and more marginalised: an outsider. And even when living near the river in a derelict hut, he becomes a victim of the environment – the same landscape, seasons and time he spent there. El Grido ends tragically, because Aldo (unlike most other Antonioni heroes) insists on keeping to his past: he does not want to cross the bridges which are metaphorically there to be crossed. And Aldo’s titular outcry becomes a good-bye, even though he is back home. Il Grido is also Antonioni’s return to neo-realism, another contradiction, because he was never really part of it.
L’AVVENTURA (1960) has four main protagonists, three of are human, but are dwarfed by the third – Liscia Bianca, a rocky island in the Mediterranean See. A group of wealthy Italians visit the island but when they want to lead they discover that one of their Anna is missing. Her boyfriend Sandro starts to look around , but soon becomes more interested in Claudia, Anna’s best friend. When they all leave, without having found Anna, Claudia and Sandro are ready to start a new life together. Antonioni is often compared with Brecht. In common with the German playwright, the characters he refuses to dramatise the narrative. Brecht’s actors do not identify with their roles and the audience is not drawn into the play, but left outside to observe. The same goes for Antonioni. Antonioni’s skill is that he first introduces time scale and environment, before developing the narrative, via the actions and words of the protagonists. The island’s waves provide the feature’s ambient score. The fragility of the emotions comes out in the way the protagonists talk – but mostly they are at cross-purposes. The overall impression is not that of a modern film with sound, but of a very sad silent movie. At Cannes in 1960, the feature was mercilessly jeered at the premiere, but won the Grand Prix nevertheless – a rare case of the jury being ahead of the public.
In LA NOTTE (1960) allows us to share a day in the company of the writer Giovanni and his wife Lydia. When their friend dies in a hospital, they realise that their own love for each other has also been dead for quite a while. Antonioni uses his characters like figures on a chess board. They are real, but at the same time cyphers. He does not tell their story, but follows their movements from one place to an another. There is no interconnection between them and their environment. They have lost all feeling for themselves, others and the outside world. Their world is cold and threatening. Antonioni offers no irony or pity. He is the surgeon at the operating table, and his view is that of the camera: mostly skewed over-head shots. It is impossible to love La Notte. Whilst Antonioni was the first director of the modern era, he is also its most vicious critic.
When L’ECLISSE (1962) starts in the morning, it feels somehow like a continuation of La Notte. Before Vittoria (Vitti) ends her relationship with Francisco, she arranges a new Stilleben behind an empty picture frame. Next stop is Piero (Delon), a stockbroker. Vittoria is like Wenders’ Alice in the City: a child in a world of grown-ups, repelled by their emotional coldness. Piero, very much a child of this world, is all glib superficiality, his friend’s remark “long live the façade” sums it all up. The lengthy panorama shots show very little empathy with the eternal city, the more silent ones seem to convey a ghost town populated by worker ants, dwarfed by huge buildings. The music only sets in after the half way point of the film. The couple’s last rendezvous is symbolic for everything Antonioni ever wanted to show us: none of the two shows up, we watch the space where they were supposed to meet for several minutes. L’Eclisse will lead without much transition to Deserto Rosso, where Monica Vitti is Guiliana, wandering the streets, getting lost in a fog on a very unlovable planet.
DESERTO ROSSO (1963/4)
Guiliana: “I dreamt, I was laying in my bed, and the bed was moving. And when I looked, I saw that I was sinking in quicksand”. Guiliana’s world is threatening, everything is out of scale, the buildings in a nearby industrial estate are unbelievably tall. The machines in the factories, the steel island in the sea, and the silhouettes of the people around her are all closing in. We travel with her from this industrial quarter of Ravenna to Ferrara. She is never still, and by the end she is in front of a factory gate. In Deserto Rosso objects become blurred, they seem to be alive, making their way independently. The camera never leaves Guiliana during her nightmare, and we experience the world through Guiliana’s eyes: “It is, as if I had tears in my eyes”.
In her son’s bedroom she sees his toy robot, the eyes alight. She switches it off – but this is the only action she is allowed to master successfully. There is always fog between her and everybody else, even her lover Corrado is “on the other side”. Roland Barthes called Antonioni “the artist of the body, the opposite of others, who are the priests of art”. For once, Antonioni is at one with the body of his protagonist: Guiliana’s body is not like the many others, she will never get lost.
BLOW UP (1966)
A film to be seen only see once – and never again, in case you suffer the same fate as Thomas’ photos: Blow Up. Antonioni to Moravia: “All my films before this are works of intuition, this one is a work of the head.” Everything is calculated, the incidents are planned, the story is driven by an elaborate design. The drama, which is anything but, is a drama, perfectly executed. Herbie Hancock, the Yardbirds, the beat clubs, the marihuana parties, Big Ben and the sports car with radiophone, the Arabs and the nuns, the beatniks on the streets: everything is like swinging London in the Sixties: a head idea. Blow Up is Antonioni’s most successful feature at the box office – but not one of his best.
ZABRISKIE POINT (1969/70)
Given Cart Blanche by MGM, Antonioni produced a feature in praise of American Cinema. Zabriskie Point sees the birth of American Cinema from Death Valley. Antonioni has to repeat this dream for himself. But he had to invent his own Mount Rushmore, his Monument Valley, to make a film about the country in his own image. A car and a plane meet in the desert. The woman driver and the pilot recognise each other immediately. The copulation scene in the sand is a metaphor for the simultaneousness of the act, when longing and fulfilment, greed and satisfaction are superimposed. Then the unbelievable total destruction: the end of civilisation; Antonioni synchronises both events, a miracle of topography and choreography. This is Antonioni’s dream: the birth of a poem.
The TV feature MISTERO Di OBERWLAD (1979) and IDENTIFICAZIONE DI UNA DONNA (1982) added nothing to Antonioni’s masterful oeuvre. After a massive stroke in 1985, left him without speech and partly paralysed there was BEYOND THE CLOUDS (1995), a collaboration with Wim Wenders, and Antonioni’s segment of EROS (2004). AS
ANTONIONI RETRO: THE ABSENCE OF LOVE | BFI JANUARY 2019