Remembering Michelangelo Antonioni

A look at what made Antonioni one of the greats.

by | July 31, 2007 | Comments

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who gave the world such influential films as L’Avventura, Blow-Up, and The Passenger, died Monday at the age of 94.

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.

Tag Cloud

vampires DC Universe RT History Brie Larson Best and Worst CNN Warner Bros. spanish language aliens Nickelodeon cults Hallmark Christmas movies discovery critics El Rey based on movie HBO Max period drama Marvel Television E3 Ghostbusters emmy awards justice league Comic Book Infographic nature BBC Sony Pictures ghosts 24 frames The Arrangement Super Bowl australia child's play james bond political drama Masterpiece versus Columbia Pictures 2016 Country TNT Awards Tour cancelled TV shows BET comic books TCA Awards TV RT21 doctor who Year in Review Sci-Fi Anna Paquin social media Netflix Christmas movies Paramount thriller comiccon Women's History Month south america natural history BBC One composers Red Carpet Acorn TV twilight FX on Hulu Funimation spider-man reviews dogs screen actors guild Amazon news 007 Hear Us Out italian Pop worst animated MSNBC ITV japanese game of thrones adventure Hulu nfl Interview best Chernobyl Vudu Netflix New York Comic Con TV renewals laika dragons AMC series streaming Emmys cinemax The Witch historical drama strong female leads YouTube Premium comedies GLAAD SXSW PBS WGN Academy Awards A24 Emmy Nominations X-Men Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Mary Tyler Moore Certified Fresh Toys TV Land award winner dramedy Endgame Reality Competition ESPN richard e. Grant cats psycho Tarantino Sundance Now diversity video on demand Pet Sematary stop motion dceu rotten movies we love Sundance superhero DC streaming service Trivia Disney Plus space YouTube FXX Western Pixar nbcuniversal YouTube Red TIFF First Look BBC America what to watch TCA Winter 2020 First Reviews Binge Guide Alien ABC free movies Spring TV DC Comics Drama sequel toronto Showtime American Society of Cinematographers BET Awards Television Critics Association See It Skip It Schedule Amazon Prime Fall TV werewolf TruTV sequels Universal hollywood screenings Musical Discovery Channel CMT theme song Pride Month venice rotten romantic comedy Music San Diego Comic-Con cancelled Nominations kids National Geographic sitcom Sneak Peek video scary movies Extras cars comic hist Premiere Dates Marathons Set visit Esquire DGA singing competition crime drama The CW festivals all-time 21st Century Fox Superheroe History black Video Games dc spinoff Elton John crossover Spike IFC Films stoner VOD Turner Classic Movies cooking elevated horror deadpool festival game show films a nightmare on elm street foreign Valentine's Day Christmas 4/20 robots Polls and Games TCA 2017 Peacock Fox News Paramount Network movies Teen miniseries scorecard 2018 Podcast Lucasfilm Thanksgiving Black Mirror Logo Action halloween spain Crunchyroll Apple revenge cartoon WarnerMedia disaster Ellie Kemper HBO Go parents The Purge teaser Syfy anthology Rock 99% blaxploitation 2015 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt children's TV christmas movies Tubi The Academy medical drama Holidays VH1 indiana jones Stephen King HBO GoT cancelled television Mindy Kaling NYCC universal monsters IFC Classic Film NBC Ovation Summer PlayStation Adult Swim 45 CBS DirecTV Creative Arts Emmys Spectrum Originals slashers binge Mudbound Film Film Festival classics Comics on TV zombie President hispanic Marvel Studios Crackle Sundance TV quibi Disney Channel television die hard supernatural APB Turner Amazon Prime Video remakes asian-american archives anime Biopics Rocky ratings Lifetime Christmas movies war zero dark thirty Reality Shudder Freeform MCU USA Network independent spy thriller TCM Hallmark Mystery obituary police drama TCA golden globes Trailer ABC Family OWN docudrama Captain marvel breaking bad Television Academy blockbuster Countdown Awards Avengers unscripted Winter TV TLC SDCC Quiz tv talk 2017 Rom-Com Calendar Cannes concert CW Seed 2019 canceled TV shows canceled 2020 Kids & Family Grammys LGBT french biography Amazon Studios latino dark movie Baby Yoda Star Trek serial killer Pirates chucky witnail casting technology MTV LGBTQ Rocketman Character Guide documentary reboot Cosplay talk show adaptation Star Wars directors Family Watching Series documentaries Pop TV Mary Poppins Returns The Walking Dead Britbox stand-up comedy comics mutant Lionsgate transformers Horror true crime Trophy Talk Comedy Central Opinion A&E Writers Guild of America renewed TV shows ID Photos sag awards Oscars Tomatazos romance harry potter Disney BAFTA toy story cancelled TV series football Apple TV Plus mockumentary cops Winners Heroines jamie lee curtis OneApp VICE Mary poppins book zombies Black History Month Superheroes science fiction E! psychological thriller Holiday USA YA 71st Emmy Awards spanish Tumblr Shondaland fast and furious FOX 20th Century Fox Disney streaming service Martial Arts travel PaleyFest Epix Musicals halloween tv satire fresh politics FX Apple TV+ name the review Marvel Animation Walt Disney Pictures rt archives sports 72 Emmy Awards Lifetime boxoffice green book Starz worst movies facebook SundanceTV batman Box Office criterion Travel Channel mission: impossible Dark Horse Comics Cartoon Network Nat Geo boxing Disney+ Disney Plus crime thriller indie GIFs Food Network finale Comedy Fantasy joker Arrowverse Song of Ice and Fire Election Bravo Fox Searchlight crime CBS All Access franchise TBS