Think of Antonioni and certain keynotes come to mind. Beautifully spare aesthetics. Lingering silences. Themes of alienation and eroticism. In a career that spanned over 50 years, Antonioni made more than 30 short- and feature-length films, many of which have become canonized as classics integral to film history and European art cinema.
In his early career Antonioni dabbled in the Italian neo-realism of his peers, documenting fishermen near his native Ferrara; his Il Grido (1957) chronicles the desperation of a working class mechanic in love. But the bulk of the auteur’s films would trend upwardly into the social elite, exploring relationships between woman and man, and man and modernity, with the director’s eye for architecture lending powerful imagery to stories of human frailty.
It is often tempting to ask filmmakers, especially those that like to challenge their audiences, to explain themselves and the ideas behind their work. A former film journalist himself, Antonioni seemed to encourage moviegoers to find the secrets and messages in his films themselves, and imbued his work with such significance — metaphorical imagery, tone, thematic questions of the human condition — that he certainly helped elevate cinema into the realm of high art.
Gianfranco Mangozzi’s 1966 documentary Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials (“the first documentary about Antonioni to receive his approval”) introduces the auteur thusly:
“Antonioni is a poised, reserved and demanding northern Italian. Like his movies, he’s quite unfathomable at first. He doesn’t believe that any director’s statement about himself or his work, will help in the understanding of the work itself; the path traveled by a director to realize a movie is filled with doubts, mistakes, faults, and the strangest thing we might ask him to do, is to talk about it.”
One of Antonioni’s best known films is L’Avventura, an existential drama about a search for a missing woman that melts into an affair between her friend and her lover. Shot memorably on the volcanic archipelago island of Lisca Bianca, L’Avventura features deliberate pacing, themes of upper class ennui, and an unconventional narrative that devolves from mystery into romance halfway through the film — all of which led famously to audience booing at the film’s Cannes Festival debut in 1960.
On Criterion’s L’Avventura disk, Italian actress (and Antonioni muse) Monica Vitti recalls leaving the infamous Cannes screening in tears, only to be buoyed the next day by an open letter of support from international journalists and filmmakers (including director Roberto Rossellini and legendary Variety critic Gene “Mosk” Moskowitz). Despite its detractors, L’Avventura won that year’s Special Jury Prize and has since been recognized as essential and groundbreaking in its use of imagery and composition in film language.
The film trilogy that began with L’Avventura continued with La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), unrelated stories that shared Antonioni’s signature style and examined similar themes of isolation among men and women. All three films starred Vitti, whose most famous roles came from her fruitful pairing with Antonioni. Vitti also starred in the director’s subsequent Il Deserto Rosso (1964), thought to be the unofficial fourth film in the series.
Antonioni found international success with a subsequent set of English language films. Blow-Up (1966) follows a London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) whose superficial life of photo shoots and sex orgies takes a serious turn when he photographs what may be a murder. His obsession with uncovering the truth of the event becomes maddening, and Antonioni breaks with convention to make the viewer complicit in the ambiguity. As in many of his films, Antonioni leaves his ending unexplained.
The success of Blow-Up was not repeated with his next film, Zabriskie Point (1970). Widely remembered as Antonioni’s biggest failure, the film about America’s counter-culture boasted songs by Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones but grossed only a small fraction of its $7 million production cost. It’s worth noting that Zabriskie, though flawed in its simple assessment of anti-establishment youth, kept true to many of the director’s trademark styles in forgoing traditional story structure to tell a story of disaffection.
At 57 percent on the Tomatometer, Zabriskie Point is the lowest-scoring of Antonioni’s films made during his golden era (the 1960s and 1970s). His next film, The Passenger (1975), would be the last bright spot before Antonioni’s arguable decline in the years to follow. The film stars Jack Nicholson as a weary journalist who rashly adopts the identity of a dead man, and continues to keep the man’s gun-running appointments while inexplicably accompanied by a student (Maria Schneider) who becomes his lover. Re-released in 2005 by Sony Pictures Classics, The Passenger has scored a 91 percent Tomatometer.
For this writer, it all comes back to L’Avventura. A truly revolutionary exercise in filmmaking, the picture gave life to Antonioni’s assertion of a new cinematic language, one in which objects and architecture — a volcanic island, an archway, a crumbling church tower — provide not just symbolic, but literal spaces for people to inhabit. Antonioni’s masterly compositions carefully place his characters in relation to these rigid structures; his rebellious use of long takes and moments of silence draw attention to every unspoken degree of change in each person and their relation to each other. To read L’Avventura with care is to learn to read movies, to reach beyond simple images on a screen and grasp ideas, concepts, and lamentations that are impossible to speak.