Michelangelo Antonioni

Films: Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), I Vinti (The Vanquished, 1952), La Signora Senza Camelie (The Lady Without Camellias, 1953), Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955), Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957), L'Avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964), Blowup (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), Chung Kuo, Cina (1972), The Passenger (Professione: Reporter, 1975), Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), Identificazione di una Donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982), Beyond the Clouds (Par Dela Les Nuages, 1995).

Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), like his equally long-lived contemporary, Robert Bresson, altered the boundaries of cinematic expression by following his own unique path to explore and question basic issues concerning how we live and interact in the world. Even though his films were often emotionally unsatisfying, Antonioni was, in the estimation of many (including me), one of the cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

In his childhood Antonioni was talented in music and art, but when he went to college he studied economics at the University of Bologna and then began working as a journalist in Ferrara, concentrating on film criticism. He continued his film writing activities after moving to Rome in 1940, but the world war soon disrupted everything, and he entered service in the military. He nevertheless managed to get assignments during the war to work under both Roberto Rossellini (Un Pilota Ritorna, 1942) and Marcel Carné (Les Visiteurs du Soir, 1942). We might suspect in hindsight, in light of the stylistic affinities connecting Carné and Antonioni, that Carné’s influence at this time on Antonioni’s later development may have been rather significant. After the war and after engaging in the production of some successful Neorealistic-inspired documentaries, Antonioni finally managed to launch his feature film career in 1950 along entirely different aesthetic lines, with Cronaca di un Amore.

That unique cinematic aesthetic of Antonioni’s is what places his standing along side the greatest filmmakers, such as Von Sternberg, Hitchcock, Renoir, and Fellini. In some ways, Antonioni was the most profound of them all, because his aesthetic – his unique means of visual expression – was intrinsically connected with how he engaged some of the deepest aspects of human existence. At the same time this more philosophical bearing to his work gave Antonioni’s cinematic narratives a wider scope – one that was often outside the conventions of traditional storytelling. Indeed, his narratives invariably have something of an enigmatic nature:
  • They don’t have much action, and yet they are highly visual.
  • Many words are spoken, and yet the characters do not fully reveal what is on their minds.
  • The story rarely achieves closure in the everyday world of affairs, and yet there may be a sense of closure on some other plane of thought and feeling.
Antonioni combined this narrative open-endedness with his signature mise-en-scène, which not only expanded some of our notions of cinematic expression, but also seemed to play a fundamental role in the story.

We might compare Antonioni’s narratives with those of conventional films, which often have two parallel narrative lines presented:
(1) an external, action-oriented narrative and
(2) a relationship narrative, often concerning romantic love, involving the principal characters.
And it is usually the case that both of these narratives achieve resolution by the film’s end. Most films focus on (1), the external, action-oriented narrative, but we are all familiar with films, particularly from other Existentialist-oriented directors like von Sternberg, Mizoguchi, and Bergman, which have emphasized (2), the relationship narrative. Antonioni, too, tended to emphasize the relationship narrative, but his films usually featured a third major narrative plot line:
(3) an internally-focused evolution of the protagonist’s mind – his or her stance towards the world and towards the “Other”.
Interestingly, Antonioni managed to accomplish his kind of storytelling that focuses on the third type of narrative line without resorting to the use of internal monologues, a device that naturally fits in with textual expression and one which is often duplicated on the screen via voiceover monologues. There may be a number of aesthetic reasons why Antonioni avoided the use of voiceover monologues, but we might speculate that one of the reasons why he avoided such devices was because he wanted to probe feelings and attitudes that are beyond the capabilities of verbal expression. In this connection we often see lengthy conversations in his films in which the involved characters are unable to reveal their true feelings, and the critical personal issues occupying them are only obliquely addressed.

In telling his cinematic tales that encompass these external and internal issues, Antonioni seems to have been sensitive to the fact that the stories we tell to others, and even to ourselves, are quite different from the real, fragmented experiences that we have in an immediate sense. In order to convey the distinctiveness of consciousness as really experienced, as opposed to the way that it is retrospectively presented by narrative conventions, Antonioni emphasised the contexts of his characters, and the degree to which those are situated in their physical environments. It is said that when Antonioni would begin working on a film project, he would sometimes first choose a physical location and then build a story around it. The physical environment was the foundation for the moods, both individual and collective (when a group was involved), that the film was to depict. He employed long tracking shots that continually turned around in the scene, so that the architectural environment seemed almost to be a participant in what was being told. These shots also gave the viewer a subtle feeling of being dominated by that architecture, almost as if one were entrapped within the scene. Ultimately, Antonioni’s characters are trying to understand the world and at the same time understand themselves – what it is that they seek in life. But one’s self-understanding is heavily influenced by the social context in which one operates; and that social context, in turn, is often influenced by or reflected in the physical context in which one finds oneself.

Antonioni’s films also reflect the truth that self understanding is intimately tied to authentic engagement with others. And this is reflected in a recurring metaphor in his films: missed connections. Appointments are not met; people miss each other at train stations; and sometimes important characters just wander off and disappear. And then when two souls in need do finally meet, they often speak at cross purposes, and the opportunity is lost.

Examining Antonioni’s aesthetic further, it is interesting to observe that five of the greatest film directors, Josef von Sternberg, Kenji Mizoguchi, Carl Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni, all shared commonalities across two dimensions that must be linked in some indeterminate way:
  • lush, highly visual expressionistic styles
  • a narrative fascination with women
Each of these directors, in fact, was highly sympathetic towards women (four of them were often romantically attached to their leading actresses), and, of course, they each saw women not in an objective sense, but from their own particular male perspective. For each of them, though, women were not fully understood or understandable – they are an eternal mystery and a never-ending source of inspiration. In the cases of all five of these great directors, their films depicted women accorded to their constructed understandings, on top of which was superposed their own specific personae. Von Sternberg’s women were passionate, uncompromising romantics; Mizoguchi’s women were self-sacrificing and under-appreciated companions; Bergman’s women struggled with the conflict between their expected roles and their inner desires; and Dreyer’s women were guided by a mysterious heartfelt inner compass. For each of those four directors, women were certainly enigmatic and only partially knowable. But Antonioni’s women were maybe even more difficult to fathom, perhaps because they were both passionate and also highly self-reflective. And Antonioni attempted the daunting task of trying to see directly inside his women. It is this reflective, philosophical dimension of Antonioni’s women, coupled with a narrative focus on the romantic passions that engage us all, which makes Antonioni’s films memorable.

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