I remember well the first time I saw a classic Italian film on the big screen. It was, as is almost inevitable, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (known in the US as The Bicycle Thief), the film that has remained part of the American cinematic landscape in the more than sixty years since its debut, revived at least as often as Fellini’s classics.
Neorealism hit me hard. A simple tale from a time of want. No movie stars. One story among many in the impersonal modern city. My formal film education had consisted of one course in college that used mostly classic American films to makes its points about the way film functions. It would take me some time to catch up with what had happened in the rest of the cinematic world, an effort that is ongoing.
Last September marked the centenary of Michelangelo Antonioni, the great Italian director born in Ferrara in 1912. I wish I had been able to stay in Italy long enough for the commemorative events held in Ferrara, including an exhibition and film retrospective. By the time I saw Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) on Criterion’s DVD release more than a decade ago, I had been prepped for the next stage of Italian cinema beyond neorealism, especially through Fellini’s La dolce vita and 8 ½. My irrational love for L’avventura is such that I inflicted it upon my students in Florence last summer, and all my preparatory remarks failed to secure more than a mixed response. The arguments against it are obvious. Slow tracking shots. Long takes. A story that does not seem to conclude so much as end. And then the black and white and the subtitles. Even the beauty of Monica Vitti and Antonioni’s compositions only go so far for many viewers. So many of the elements that make up modern cinema seem to be missing here as surely as the character Anna is in the film itself. But all was not lost. A few of my students flew to Sicily, rented a car, and circumnavigated the island. They recognized locations from the film, including Taormina, where Antonioni frames emotional desolation in company with a distant Mount Etna.
Antonioni’s reputation as a significant director during a time when film seemed to really matter is quite secure, though his work does not attract the critical devotion it once did. Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Tonio Guerra (who died last year at 92), Antonioni constructed a distinctive cinematic world. The pleasures of immersing oneself in that world are evident whenever there is a chance to see his work on the big screen, as I was able to recently. La notte (The Night, 1961) is the second in what makes a loose trilogy, the bookends being L’avventura and L’eclisse (1962). In this tale of the high life gone sour, Antonioni brings together three of the great European stars of the era: Jeanne Moreau from France and the Italians Marcello Mastroianni as yet another dashing cad and, in a supporting role, the luminous Vitti.
The film opens with a congested, noisy Milan growing perhaps too fast as an engine of Italy’s “economic miracle.” Always sensitive to architecture, Antonioni shoots modern skyscrapers as symptoms of claustrophobia, reinforced by the couple getting stuck in traffic. The same year, Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto used a young man from a small town to seek the humanity (and a job, of course) in this new Milan. Antonioni’s characters seem to have been desensitized not only by money but by their surroundings, even their connections to each other weakened under an onslaught of new construction and ladder-climbing imperatives. When successful novelist Giovanni (Mastroianni) tells his wife Lidia (Moreau) that he has been offered a job doing internal relations by the construction magnate whose estate is the setting for the nocturnal party of the title, she retorts that he would finally be independent—of her inherited wealth, that is. The sellout occurred long ago. His disavowal of his own art mirrors her renunciation of her love, and the juxtaposition reveals their differing priorities as well.
Antonioni must have seen Jeanne Moreau walking to the accompaniment of Miles Davis’s trumpet in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Her gait is a true combination of intelligence and sexiness: resolute, purposeful, and above all, aware. Her departure from her husband’s book event and subsequent walk through Milan is a signal that hers is a finely tuned antenna, picking up on emotional cues and erotic contexts that seem lost on the distracted Giovanni. Returning to the outskirts of the city where once they were young lovers, she is fascinated by model rockets shooting off in a field, perhaps anticipating erotic excitement to come. But the boys have packed up by the time Giovanni arrives after a nap at home encased by shelves of books. It is clear that he has only limited interest in her sentimental homing device. Nor does her not-so-mild hinting from the bathtub back at home seem to have any impact.
The film’s long middle sequence at the party, punctuated by a jazz band (playing its traditional role as a sign of decadence), a rainstorm, and the couple’s failed efforts at mutual infidelity, is a bravura set piece nearly on a par with anything Fellini or Visconti constructed. And just as Visconti’s celebrated ballroom sequence in 1963’s The Leopard seemed to define a historic moment, the stakes seem high in Le notte as well. Italy is about to tip over into the pool, just as several of the revelers do during the rainstorm, and the values that motivated the younger Giovanni seem almost irretrievably compromised. The irreversible process of modernization exacted painful costs, and the effort to remain a robust modern nation-state is still an ongoing project for a not-quite-united republic, as the recent parliamentary elections show. Glamour and corruption seem still to be the dual image of Italy. But, then again, thinking back to earlier centuries, when has it not been thus?
Le notte ends in an ironically pastoral scene, shot on what appears to be a private golf course adjacent to the villa, and features some of Antonioni’s most expressive camera work. When Lidia, sitting at the edge of a sand trap in the cold light of the morning after, reads a love letter Giovanni had composed to her years ago amid a remarkable montage, he has to ask who wrote it. Giovanni insists on a new consummation of an old love—in the trap—as the camera slowly and wistfully pans away.
When Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died on the same day in 2007, it seemed that an entire era of classic cinema had gone with them. Jean-Luc Godard made so many left turns so long ago that he seemed to have been out of the game much longer than either of them, and Kurosawa, Fellini, Truffaut, Bresson, Tarkovsky, and the rest who had made such an international impact in the 1950s and 60s were long gone. Antonioni’s cinema of emotion—as often repressed as expressed—and his sensitivity to the way people are shaped by the environments they create for themselves, with unintended consequences laid bare by his probing lenses, still endures.
Other Antonioni favorites:
Gente de Po (1947) and N.U. (1948) (short documentaries)
Le amiche (1955)
Red Desert (1964)
The Passenger (1975)