When examining the history of cinema and its road to where it is now, it can sometimes be illuminated by focusing on the huge role that Italy has played in it. Since the astonishingly filmed epic, Cabiria by Giovanni Pastrone from 1914, which Scorsese cites as one of the most important early films of cinema, the capabilities of L’Italia in filmmaking has been prominent and the rest of the film world has doubtlessly been inspired, informed and enhanced by the quality of that capture ever since. Indeed, I would argue that although the collective films from Russia in the 1920s and 1930s or France in the subsequent decades leading up to the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s have all made a remarkable impression on modern cinema (as many other European films have too), the films that persistently came out of Italy from the early years right up until the 1980s were more influential than most, particularly on Hollywood. This I imagine is likely due to their embellishment of culture, their sophistication, their intellectualism and their general drive for creativity and new forms of rational narrative. With Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in the 30s, 40s and 50s, Federico Fellini in the 50s and 60s and Pier Paolo Pasolini in the 60s and 70s (let’s not forget Luchino Visconti too), the countless bodies of Italian-made and Italian-based masterworks has been seismic on the movie world.
Ever since my classes for film studies in university, I have seen many of these great directors’ works: I was taken in by De Sica’s inspiring tale from 1948 of working class struggles in Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves). I was mesmerised by the dazzling moments in Fellini’s La Strada, La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. I have been moved to tears with the humanity of Rossellini’s Paisan and I have also been taught a lesson or two about faith in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew. All marvelous and authoritative works of art. But for the real deal, I do not think I can look much further than the work of Michelangelo Antonioni’s masterpieces from the early 1960s.
Known as the trilogy of ‘modernity and its discontents’, L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) saw the rise to infamy for Antonioni, who by then was in his late 40s. His fantastic musically-sounding name would roll off the tongue of many a film lover for the rest of eternity! He had honed his trait as a writer and assistant director during the neo-realist movement (spear-headed by Rossellini and Visconti) in the 1940s, before he himself directed a series of short films and documentaries. He continued to direct a series of feature films throughout the 1950s, which allowed him to develop a radical new style in filmmaking. At Cannes in 1960, the debacle over the showing of L’Avventura catapulted him into the international gaze. The unconventional narrative and complex storyline had the audience in knots with emotion and famously, there was a chorus of boos that followed its showing, later prompting the film to be awarded the critic’s choice. Some critics went as far to say that it was the greatest and most important film ever made. Well now, where do you start with that? I think you watch it and see what the fuss was all about, right?
I reckon yes. L’Avventura was followed by what can be essentially regarded as ‘companion’ pieces in La Notte and L’Eclisse, mainly because they shared similar themes. After Il Deserto Rosso in 1964, he tried his hand at English language films – successfully with the nude-heavy Blowup in 1966 and not so successfully with the Pink Floyd-heavy Zabriskie Point in 1970. None of these subsequent films elicited as much of an overwhelming reaction from this viewer as the earlier trilogy did. I’ll break them up individually (and tediously) here for discussion.
There is no easy way to disseminate an accurate review of L’Avventura since it is quite a perplexing and ethereal film. I will attempt it nevertheless. The initial focus falls on a woman called Anna (Leo Massari) who ponders over her relationship to a rich prick called Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). She makes it clear to her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) that all is not right between them. This, before they all embark on an afternoon excursion to an island off Sicily for a picnic with a group of other acquaintances (‘the adventure’). Simply put, Anna disappears, and like Janet Leigh in Psycho, we have the unprecedented scenario of the main character no longer in the film with only half of the film having elapsed.
Claudia and Sandro then become the central protagonists of the storyline – their lives become closer as they try to understand why Anna disappeared. But do not envision that the film becomes an episode of Columbo! No, this is a sophisticated Italian film remember. A strange nonchalance grips the habits of Claudia and Sandro as they slowly forget Anna and what happened to her. This is not to say that they are totally non-invested in unraveling the mystery around her disappearance, but there is an unexplained force here that allows them to drift away from that event (call it director’s contrivance). With Claudia in particular, there is a helplessness – she becomes less and less human after her friend leaves proceedings, as if there is no point for her in finding out. Sandro on the other hand is the sleazy, untrustworthy leech, whose motives, one has to work out for themselves, is terribly immoral. Did he kill Anna? Did he kill her so that he could have Claudia? It is never clear. Even on second viewing, nothing is ever clear in L’Avventura. Also, the concept of Sandro as the villain is never explicit, nor is it with Claudia as the heroine. Anna was the heroine but she did not last very long in that role.
It was this denial to a character’s development that caught out audiences at Cannes. How can you break a cornerstone of storytelling like that, and not give us a heroine?! You may accept that this has become the recognised genius of the film – the new, non-traditional narrative for the time. But more than that, Antonioni weaves an unsettling and real atmosphere, also capturing in all its beauty the Sicilian coast in a faded black and white cinematography. This creates the living landscape as another character. Perhaps this is the true villain of the piece, i.e. the world itself – a world full of listless and flawed human beings. This indeed prompts a interpretation of L’Avventura as a pessimistic and cynical outlook on the world. But Antonioni was the master of sophisticated befuddlement. In Claudia’s character, although infuriating at times, there is hope (more on that below). Additionally, in my opinion, L’Avventura‘s understated power has never been surpassed. It is the most remarkable ‘romantic’ film you will see. Simply because it is actually very un-romantic, if you catch my drift?
La Notte (1961)
Antonioni followed up L’Avventura with a similar theme of fractured humanity in the lives of the rich. La Notte has a less confusing plot and in all honesty, is the weakest of the trilogy. But in the main characters of Giovanni, played by the eternally arrogant Marcello Mastrianni, and Lydia, (Jeanne Moreau), there is a whimsical and interesting tale to be told, however frustrating that may be. Giovanni is an accomplished novelist (i.e. another rich prick), who during the course of a single day, sees his marriage to Lydia disintegrate towards the grave. The breadth of the film incorporates a series of events that lead to this less than dramatic, and expected, disintegration, ending at a high class soiree that night.
Lydia’s character is shown to be a victim of Giovanni’s success (no real surprises there, she really is better off without him) and he provides very little response to her struggling mental state, instead focusing on himself and his future. Basically, the inevitable conclusion to their loveless marriage comes quick and fast when Monica Vitti’s flamboyant character appears and appeals to Giovanni’s jaded demeanor (she is the antithesis of the way he feels). Vitti however tries to bring Giovanni and Lydia back together by speaking sense to them both. The end of the film resembles the final scene in John Huston’s last film The Dead (from Joyce’s ‘The Dubliners’) in that Lydia mournfully regrets upon her sexual choices in life (i.e. Giovanni). Both characters recognise that they do not love each other anymore, leaving us to only conclude that their marriage is finito. As indicated above though, nothing is ever clear in Antonioni’s conclusions. There is only remarkable depth and mystery.
If his two previous films were unclear, then try and disassemble this one. L’Eclisse, which translates as The Eclipse, has scenes that stay with you a long time – the wonderfully filmed chaotic stock market scenes and the montage ending all bear testament to the genius of Antonioni. I found in fact that the ending was the closest resemblance to a fully realised and perplexing dream as you will see on film (see snippet below). It was incredible and I think also that it was an incredible film. Strange and beautiful in equal measure.
Set in Rome, L’Eclisse loosely follows the burgeoning relationship of a translator called Vittoria (Vitti again) and a stockbroker called Piero (Alain Delon), who is yet another rich prick (probably the biggest prick of all!). Vittoria is fed-up about life after breaking up with her partner and she tries to recount her troubles to her mother who is more interested in stock prices, and her neighbour friends, who are more concerned about the security of their second homes in Kenya. Unbeknownst to Vittoria, Piero is, kindly put, a real piece of work – he ruthlessly works the stock market and then hires call girls for his pleasure, turning them away when they do not have the desired hair colour. When he meets Vittoria again, who he is besotted with since their first encounter, his sports car is stolen and both of them discover it later having crashed off the road with the car-jacker dead beside it. Piero shows more concern with the state of his car than the dead person. With this reaction as well as the whole non-drama of the scene, you cannot help but feel deeply unsettled. There is no high significance applied to anything by Antonioni. It just unfolds as it is, with no music, no close-up of anything in particular..
After this, Vittoria and Piero’s relationship turns sexual and in Piero’s eyes at least, they appear to become closer. But Vittoria is more elusive than that. You never get the feeling that she is invested in Piero, which is just about right because he starts to get visibly annoying at this stage! She appears not to have fallen in love with him, instead she just sees it as a thing to do, perhaps as an escape. There is a feeling at the end, just like La Notte and L’Avventura that the relationship will never come of anything and it will pass into an inconsequential moment of the past…just like the moon passing between the sun and the earth as shown in the eclipse at the end.
The presence of Monica Vitti
One of the very clear connections between all of the three films discussed here is the presence of Monica Vitti. Antonioni met Vitti in the early 1950s (she was an aspiring actress and 20 years his junior) and their rise to stardom across the world coincided with each other, initiating as it did from the hoopla at L’Avventura at Cannes in 1960. As with many European male directors of the time, these working relationships were usually backed up by intense personal relationships. Like Fellini and Giulietta Masina (La Strada and Nights of Cabiria), and Godard and Anna Karina (Vivre sa Vie and Alphaville), the function of the female ingénue to the dominating male director was a fairly common occurrence back then.
The key I guess to understanding why this commonly occurred is, on the face of it, pretty obvious. Sexually desirable woman on the screen or in trailers and posters for movies means audiences will flock to see more. Sex sells, people! We see Vitti presented in lots of close-ups (as shown on the title image) with hair and make-up obviously being a vital part of the film crew. So the exuding beauty of Vitti as captured by Antonioni over and over in these three films is without doubt intentional and likely a product of their own personal relationship with each other. If she was comfortable with him personally at the time, then she was ok with his camera gazing at her image and figure constantly…right? Well, there have never being any reports to the contrary but I guess they did split up in 1965 so it was not as if it was a long lasting relationship (a bit like the relationships in these films!).
We must also understand though that this is not just the viewers gaze but the gaze of Antonioni. It is representative of the man’s obsession with his own beautiful ingénue and I think there is something deeply unsettling about that, right? Not that these films were not unsettling enough as it was. In many ways, we have seen this become normalised in films since the 1960s so it is very hard for us to understand what exactly is wrong with it now. I say this facetiously of course, because when we consider the sexual abuse (Bernardo Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris), the harassment (Casey Affleck) and the creepy demands (Blue is the Warmest Colour) that male directors have inflicted upon female actors on film sets over time, then this type of stuff becomes easily more intolerable. I have always found this to be the same with the use of Karina in Godard’s movies. There is no excuse to enforce upon the actress real, insecure feelings so as to get a better picture but it sounds like it was a common practice. Just listen to the recent You Must Remember This podcast series on ‘dead blondes’.
Having said all that, what we see in these films with Vitti, Moreau and Massari for example, are powerful and nuanced female performances – and I am not just saying that. They live in a male-dominated world (in the films and in the background of the films) and it ain’t bloody great! Despite Anna (probably) losing her life in L’Avventura, there is a beacon of positivity amongst the doom and gloom, particularly in each of Vitti’s characters, and to an extent Moreau’s character in La Notte. There are realisations had about relationships that can lead to better outcomes and also to empowerment and this can be seen at the end of La Notte and L’Eclisse most clearly. If anything, and setting the personal backdrop to this, at least Antonioni was aware of the imbalance of sexual politics and he did effectively try to instill this in his work.
There are also many other recurring themes in this trilogy: the loss of humanity, the exploration of love between two people, the arrogance of the rich, the disconnectedness of the past with the present. What Antonioni did best was probe towards previously impenetrable depths in his films. He established a form that was more present in classic literature and drama than ever had been present on the film screen before. The alignment between his film’s themes and the work of Ingmar Bergman are unavoidable – both are critically recognised as the greatest directors in the history of cinema, and their films are a staple for film students around the world. Their work are presented as challenges rather than as entertainment and I know this will likely cause sizable portions of film goers sprinting for the exits. But understanding the impact they have had on modern cinema, as I said before, is crucial to understanding what makes films work nowadays. There are a whole range of other things that could be discussed about this but I think I will leave it at that. Suffice to say that L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse are must-watch masterpieces.