Together with Fellini, Bergman and Kurosawa, Michelangelo Antonioni (1912 – 2007) is credited with defining the modern art film. And yet Antonioni’s cinema is also recognized today for defying any easy categorization, with his films ultimately seeming to belong to their own distinctive genre. Indeed, the difficulty of precisely describing their category is itself the very quintessence of Antonioni’s films. Among the most-cited contributions of Antonioni’s cinema are their striking descriptions of that unique strain of post-boom ennui everywhere apparent in the transformed life and leisure habits of the Italian middle and upper classes. Detecting profound technological, political and psychological shifts at work in post-WWII Italy, Antonioni set out to explore the ambiguities of a suddenly alienated and dislocated Italy, not simply through his oblique style of narrative and characters, nor through any overt political messaging, but instead by tearing asunder the traditional boundaries of cinematic narrative in order to explore an ever shifting internal landscape expressed through architecture, urban space and the sculptural, shaping presence of objects, shapes and emotions invented by camera movement and depth of focus.
Antonioni deftly manipulates the quieter, indirect edges of cinematic structure, often so discretely that his existential puzzles are felt before they can be intellectualized. The negative space is as prominent as the positive, silence as loud as noise, absence as palpable as presence, and passivity as driving a force as direct action. Transgressing unspoken cinematic laws, Antonioni frequently focuses on female protagonists while refusing to sentimentalize or morally judge his characters and placing them on equal footing with the other elements within his total dynamic system, like sounds or set pieces. And he violates spoken rules with unconventional cutting techniques, fractured spatial and temporal continuity, and a camera that insistently lingers in melancholy pauses, long after the actors depart, as if drifting just behind an equally distracted, dissipating narrative. Leaving questions unanswered and plot points irresolute, dispensing with exposition, suspense, sentimentality and other cinematic security blankets, Antonioni releases the viewer into a gorgeous, densely layered fog to contemplate and wrestle with his characters’ imprecise quandaries and endless possibilities. Culminating in tour de force endings that often reframe the narrative in a daring, parting act of deconstruction, Antonioni’s rigorously formal, yet open compositions allow his great, unwieldy questions to spill over into the world outside the cinema and outside of time.
Born into a middle-class family in the northern Italian town of Ferrara, Antonioni studied economics at the University of Bologna where he also co-founded the university’s theatrical troupe. While dedicating himself to painting, writing film reviews, working in financial positions and in different capacities on film productions, Antonioni suffered a few false starts before expressing his unique directorial vision and voice in his first realized short film, Gente del Po, a moving portrait of fisherman in the misty Po Valley where he was raised. Uncomfortable with the neo-realist thrust of Italian cinema, Antonioni directed a series of eccentric and oblique documentary shorts that, in retrospect, reveal his desire to investigate the psyche’s mysterious interiors. In his first fictional feature, Story of a Love Affair, Antonioni immediately subtly challenged traditional plot and audience expectation in ways that anticipate the formal and emotional expressionist dynamic that would fully flower within the groundbreaking L’Avventura.
Reversing its raucous 1960 premiere to an infuriated Cannes audience, L’avventura was rapturously lauded by fellow artists and filmmakers and awarded a special Jury Prize “for its remarkable contribution toward the search for a new cinematic language.” It also presented the controlled ambivalence of Monica Vitti, who would become his partner, muse and psychological constant throughout his famed trilogy of L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse in addition to the exquisite Red Desert, a film that marked another significant shift toward expressive color, male leads and working with soft focus and faster cuts. After the phenomenal commercial success of the MGM-produced Blow-up, Antonioni was devastated by the anti-climactic box office disaster of Zabriskie Point andreturned to documentary. Invited to make Chung Kuo China by the Chinese government, Antonioni delivered a mesmerizing yet unsentimental four-hour tour of China which was vehemently rejected by its solicitors. A few years later, Antonioni returned to fictional form in his last masterpiece, The Passenger, an enigmatic fable of vaporous identity that offers a bold companion piece to L’Avventura. Aside from the thematically retrospective Identification of a Woman and a period film made for television The Mystery of Oberwald in which he conducted unusual experiments with color and video, Antonioni closed out his career with mostly short films, many of which were made after he suffered a stroke in 1985.
Tremendously influential yet largely taken for granted, Antonioni made difficult, abstract cinema mainstream. Embracing an anarchic geometry, Antonioni turned the architecture of narrative filmmaking inside-out in the most eloquent way possible, with many of his iconic scenes eternally preserved in the depths of the cinema’s psyche. Observing modern maladies without judgment – sexism, dissolution of family and tradition, ecological/technological quandaries and the eternal questions of our place in the cosmos – Antonioni’s prescience continues to resonate deeply as we find our way in the quickly moving fog.
Upon his centennial celebration, the Harvard Film Archive is proud to present an extensive retrospective of the feature-length and short masterworks of the incomparable Michelangelo Antonioni. — Brittany Gravely
Presented in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy, Boston, with the cooperation of Cinecittà Luce and the Cineteca Nazionale. Special thanks to Giuseppe Pastorelli, Ubaldo Panitti – Consulate General of Italy, Boston; Laura Argento – Cineteca Nazionale; Rosaria Folcarelli – Cinecittà Luce; Todd Wiener, Steven Hill – UCLA Film & Television Archive; Margaret Parsons – National Gallery of Art.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Haden Guest and David Pendleton
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari
Italy 1960, 35mm, b/w, 145 min. Italian with English subtitles
The first of Antonioni’s breakthrough film trilogy, L’avventura proved an “adventure” from its rough, perilous production to its troubled release, including charges of obscenity and immorality. Using a widescreen canvas for the first time, Antonioni’s signature experimental narrative style blossoms fully and radically around absence, initially in the form of a woman’s mysterious disappearance during a trip to an island. The ensuing search is composed of behaviors not fully comprehensible, desires abandoned and central plot points forgotten. Upon this dizzying post-war terrain, truth, love and happiness are unequally exchanged for money, sex and status, and all characters suffer from an emotional seasickness. Antonioni describes with stunning precision his indistinct, inarticulate explorers apprehensively treading toward, in his words, “the moral unknown.” Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti
Italy/France 1961, 35mm, b/w, 122 min. Italian with English subtitles
Still redolent with the doomed perfume of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), Marcello Mastroianni plays Giovanni, a novelist whose charming intellectualism has earned him a place as a sought-after conversation piece, while Jeanne Moreau’s taciturn Lidia gazes critically at a marriage that has dissipated into an “apathy of habit.” Over the course of one day and one night in Milan, the bourgeois couple sleepwalk through lyrically-composed, multivalent vignettes framed by city streets, hospital rooms, bars and night clubs, and finally, an elaborate party. Mapping out their separate inner journeys through the modern architecture of a displaced, emotional time and space, Antonioni’s profound soundtrack and articulate camera waltz between a cool, civil present and a lost past, between a dispassionate, pristine beauty and melancholic dissonance, between the erotic and the compassionate. His flawlessly composed anti-narrative offers an exquisite enunciation of the couple’s ambivalent attempts to negate the irrevocable loss within their union and within a disjunct modern world. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Lucia Bosè, Massimo Girotti, Ferdinando Sarmi
Italy 1950, 35mm, b/w, 96 min. Italian with English subtitles
In his feature debut Antonioni takes a few pages from The Postman Always Rings Twice (and Ossessione) to describe tormented, detached souls fluttering helplessly in post-war Milan. When a wealthy industrialist hires a private detective to uncover what lies beyond his beautiful wife’s diamond-and-silk-encrusted veneer, he unintentionally pushes his moody caged bird into a dark web of adultery and conspiracy. The illicit lovers are distanced by class and burdened by the weight of secrets, guilt and ultimately, a passive indifference that proves as powerful a force as active passion. Vestiges of late Antonioni are already visible in the long takes and carefully composed frames that almost coalesce into noir and yet, in Antonioni’s hands become desolate, melancholic dances between figures as isolated from each other as they are from their inner selves. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Vanessa Redgrave, David Hemmings, Sarah Miles
UK/Italy/US 1966, 35mm, color, 111 min
The first European art film to enjoy mass popularity, Antonioni’s mod London romp/metaphysical conundrum exploded commercially and critically – its graphic after-effects still felt today in both pop culture and high art. David Hemmings’ iconic photographer divides his work into authentic art and vapid economic necessity, yet his egotistical objectification of reality and blasé ownership of the image tests the limits of such simplistic divisions. While endlessly distracted by the frivolity and sensual diversions of the 60s, the detached artist confronts a perverse fantasy of the photographer: uncovering an actual crime through his art. However, the “real” exposé lies within the essential problems of perception and representation. While Antonioni discretely removes characters and “facts” one-by-one, he finally throws the resolution to this veritable thriller audaciously into the viewer’s court.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Monica Vitti, Paolo Bonacelli, Franco Branciaroli
Italy 1981, 35mm, color, 129 min. Italian with English subtitles
Antonioni’s fascination with the ties between Eros and Thanatos underpins all of his fiction films, and it receives its baldest statement in this adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Eagle with Two Heads. The allegorical plot illustrates the erotic attraction between a widowed queen and the revolutionary poet who seeks to assassinate her. Oberwald marks Antonioni’s return to directing after a six-year hiatus, his first film shot in Italy in over a decade and his reunion with Monica Vitti, but it is also a radical departure. Shooting on video, Antonioni takes advantage of the change in medium to experiment with color, as objects, décor and the air itself change hue at certain moments, in concert with the ebb and flow of desire and affect. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Eleanora Rossi Drago, Valentina Cortese, Yvonne Furneaux
Italy 1955, 35mm, b/w, 104 min. Italian with English subtitles
The pivotal work of Antonioni's overlooked middle period, Le amiche boldly introduced the major themes of his later masterpieces: urban ennui, class prejudice and enigmatic female desire. In Antonioni's engrossing adaptation of a Cesare Pavese novel a suicide attempt introduces an ambitious young fashion designer into a world of coded silence and surface, a glittering and lonely world of bourgeoisie prosperity embodied by a circle of young women locked into an intricate web of uneasy friendship and furtive competition. Shooting largely on location in wintery Turin, Antonioni captures the slow lacerations of troubled relationships less through dialogue than elegant camera movement and expressively austere sets – from the de Chirico haunted cityscapes to the windswept beach where the film's intricate narrative and emotional choreography reaches a subtle climax. Print courtesy the Film Desk.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Lucia Bosè, Andrea Cecchi, Gino Cervi
Italy/France 1953, 35mm, b/w, 105 min. Italian with English subtitles
In his second feature, Antonioni is already exploring the behind-the-scenes theatrics, economics and soullessness of the film industry. The elegant Lucia Bosè stars as a young, beautiful actress whose independent, unconventional nature succumbs to the dominating expectations of men, family and legions of capricious spectators. Her professional and private identities are constantly crossing during a fast rise to stardom and eventually fuse in a reluctant marriage to her producer. Disappointed with all the generic roles offered her on screen and in love, she flutters impotently, trapped within others’ projections and fantasies. Personifying the cruel destiny of the starlet, pinned to the silver screen, she struggles to realize a simple dream “of really being alive, flesh and bone.” Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Steve Cochran, Alida Valli,
Italy/US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 116 min. Italian with English subtitles
In one of his greatest roles, the Hollywood star Steve Cochran (White Heat, The Best Years of Our Lives) stars as a laconic, brooding loner whose ostensibly stable, organized life effortlessly dissolves, sending him on a harsh, aimless journey with his young daughter through the bleak, post-war landscapes of Antonioni’s homeland, the Po Valley. Parenthetical, irresolute events surround the heartbroken man’s elliptical wanderings – heavy with the weight of psychological silences, negative space and delicate instances of remarkable, naked humanity. Trapped between traditional and modern existences and needs, the wounded working-class figures that dot his journey only push him further away from his soul and toward the end of his nomadic path, a closed circuit which seems to complete itself of its own accord. Print courtesy Kino Lorber.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Monica Vitti, Richard Harris,
Italy/France 1964, 35mm, color, 117 min. Italian with English subtitles
Color film provided the gifted painter Antonioni with a dynamic canvas to explore the visionary hues that profoundly saturate Red Desert, forming a moving painting that softly shifts between Abstract Expressionism and the blurred photographic canvases of Gerhard Richter. Inseparable from this psychosomatic palette, Monica Vitti is again the emotional nucleus whose ennui of the previous films has bloomed into a diagnosed neurosis, further alienating her from the inhabitants of an unbalanced world. Subsumed by the dislocating, poisonous beauty of the industrial wasteland around her, she searches for a self within her family, vague ideas of a career and the empathetic attentions of Richard Harris’ modern nomad. Antonioni invokes an intricate spectrum of hazardous divides between the working class and bourgeois, humans and nature, and as always, a disturbed Eros. Traces of horror, fairy tale and science fiction are finely woven into an ineffable texture describing humanity’s unsettling shifts in and out of a spiritual haze, looking for a stable center. Print courtesy Janus Films.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Franco Interlenghi, Anna-Maria Ferrero, Evi Maltagliati
Italy/France 1953, 35mm, b/w, 110 min. Italian, English and French with English subtitles
Arguably his most conventional in form and content, Antonioni’s third feature film suffers from compromises made due to its controversial depiction of actual events. Antonioni had to concede to open and close the film with sensationalistic, blatant moralizing, decrying the “squalid reality” of “the burnt-out generation”: the delinquent spawn of post-war bourgeoisie who are bored and alienated, seeking a cinematic idea of fame, fortune and the thrill of transgression. Under Antonioni’s poetic direction, however, the three stories in different cities – Rome, Paris and London – emerge as cultural, existential exposés in which the young, confused offenders unwittingly make bitter, valid points. The most radical alteration occurred in the Italian segment, in which the original protagonist was an impassioned Communist activist rather than the somewhat ambivalent ne’er-do-well who dabbles in smuggling to achieve a fleeting sense of independence. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Italy 1953, 35mm, b/w, 22 min. Italian with English subtitles
Part of the omnibus film Love in the City (L’amore in città) in which each director pulled a story from the news and used the actual locations and subjects,Antonioni’s segment presents three troubled young women who describe and re-enact their suicide attempts, each speaking their truths in a blurry realm between fact and fiction. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Italy 1943, 35mm, b/w, 9 min. In Italian
A quiet ode to the arduous lives of fisherman along the River Po, Antonioni’s first film is a poetic inquiry into the uncanny dialectic between environment and inhabitants. Although completed in 1943, the temporary loss of crucial footage during post-production delayed the film’s release until 1947. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy 1948, 35mm, b/w, 8 min. In Italian
Antonioni’s second film documents a day in the life of Rome’s sanitation workers, highlighting a marginal culture so taken for granted they are virtually invisible. Both somber and charming, his lyrical investigation into their gritty existences revels in quotidian moments of mystery and humor. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy 1949, 35mm, b/w, 10 min. In Italian
Considered the inspiration for Fellini’s The White Sheik (Lo sceicco bianco, 1952), Delightfully exploring the vernacular fantastic of the fotoromanzi, the bawdy photographic comic-strip novels that were a staple of post-WW2 Italian popular culture, Antonioni tracks a day in the life of the stars of this new genre. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy 1948, 35mm, b/w, 9 min. In Italian
A poetic ethnography of anarchic rites and beliefs, Superstizione reveals the stubborn presence of a pre-modern folk imagination in the twentieth century Italian peasant class. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy 1950, 35mm, b/w, 4 min
For this dramatic exploration of landscape, Antonioni mounted his camera on the aerial tram that runs from Cortina d'Ampezzo to the top of Monte Faloria. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy 1983, 16mm, color, 9 min. In Italian
Twenty-three years later, Antonioni revisits the island in L’Avventura in this short initially produced for a television program that was not completed. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Italy/India 1983, 16mm, color, 9 min
Like Rossellini, Antonioni had a long fascination with India which gave way to this 1977 short capturing the country’s most important Hindu festival, Kumbha Mela, during which millions of worshippers gather to pray where the Ganges, Jamuna and Saraswati rivers converge. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and Enrica Antonioni
Italy 1993, 35mm, color, 8 min
Produced for the Italian pavilion at the Seville Expo, Antonioni observed specific aspects of Sicily, including exquisite studies of almond trees in bloom, aerial investigations of volcanoes and a look at the colorful carnival of Aciraele. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre
Italy/Spain/France 1975, 35mm, color, 122 min
Antonioni’s troubled characters often speak of escape to a foreign land or beginning their lives anew. In The Passenger Jack Nicholson’s David Locke, a television journalist traveling into the depths of Africa attempts to realize further liberation by trading his identity with that of a dead man. Gradually picking up clues as the audience does about his new self’s precarious livelihood, he discovers a more active, passionate, political participant of life. When an equally mysterious woman mirrors and diffuses his displaced self even more, they flee together from pursuers of both men. Interweaving actual and fictional documentary footage with fluid, dissolve-less movements back and forth in time, Antonioni delivers a subtly and profoundly rich existential treatise. All cinematic elements and spaces flow seamlessly to the deceptively leisurely choreography of the camera, concluding with the brilliant tracking shot at the end of an inscrutably drawn double-ellipsis. Print courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Italy 1972, 35mm, color, 210 min. Italian and Mandarin with English subtitles
At the height of his international fame, Antonioni's career took an unexpected and extraordinary detour, a sudden return to his early roots in documentary poetics occasioned by a commission from the Chinese government to make a documentary portrait of post-Cultural Revolution China. In accepting the daunting project, Antonioni almost seemed to embrace the Chinese authorities' censorship of where and what he could film, declaring his desire to capture the official image and imagination of China. In the film itself these restrictions were retrospectively acknowledged as both a challenge and an obstacle, acknowledged both in the film's introduction and its often wry voice-over narration. Antonioni skillfully edited the massive bounty of footage gathered from three weeks of continuous filming into a three-part epic which journeys from Beijing to the rural countryside and factory towns, capturing the striking and at times precarious balance between new and old China. Antonioni's impatience at the draconian control imposed upon him and his crew is further legible in those scenes caught on hidden cameras, or the now famous episode where he broke away from his entourage to film a clandestine black market. Although it received a celebrated premiere on Italian television, Chung Kuo was immediately denounced by the Chinese government as "anti-Communist" and not screened in China until thirty-two years later. Rarely exhibited or discussed today, Antonioni's legendary documentary is a fascinating voyage into the heart of Communist China. Print courtesy Cinecittà Luce.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Monica Vitti, Alain Delon,
Italy 1962, 35mm, b/w, 126 min. Italian with English subtitles
Literally arranging art objects in a frame as the film opens, Monica Vitti tacitly calls attention to the ever-shifting frames of meaning within Antonioni’s entire, expansive cinematic space, reminding us of the inextricability of narrative and character within his cinema. Frequently framed or obstructed by the structures of modern architecture, wandering Vitti and a dashing Alain Delon manage to unite intermittently via a tentative affair. Like the mesmerizing dance of the stock market where he works, Delon’s handsome charms are mere distractions from a disturbingly cold opportunism, one of many indirect challenges within Antonioni’s formal, yet expressive composition in which the natural and the synthetic, the economic and the emotional attempt – as his film does – to create new, modern shapes which take increasingly abstract configurations. This inversion culminates in a stunning ending which retroactively reframes the entire film, throwing the world on and off screen into sharp, negative relief. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin,
US 1970, 35mm, color, 110 min
The opening half-verité footage of a student activist meeting sets the tone and themes of Antonioni's meandering portrait of 60s America, a painterly magazine spread of the anti-establishment that at times alternates between abstract urban montage and humane illustration of iconic Americana. Encased within his glossy, seductive cinematography are abrasive scenes of police brutality, overt racism, oblivious consumerism, capitalistic violence and the ubiquitous drone of the Vietnam death toll. Non-professional leads Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin became involved both on and off screen as respective symbols of Activism and Pacifism, illustrating the persistent tensions within the counter culture's own psyche. A notorious financial disaster for MGM that received brutally negative reviews and momentarily set Antonioni in the FBI's crosshairs, Zabriskie Point – like its uninhibited protagonists – plays with the existential depths despite its reflective surface, its horror and beauty climaxes in the film's stunning psychedelic ending – a cathartic summary of the USA with all of its conveniences and contradictions. Print courtesy Warner Bros.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. With Tomás Milián, Christine Boisson, Daniela Silverio
Italy 1982, 35mm, color, 128 min. Italian with English subtitles
“I don’t know the story yet, but the main character is a woman,” claims the disoriented film director in Antonioni’s last Italian-set inquiry into the imprecise nature of human relationships. Pursuing both an ideal mate and the perfect star for his new film, Niccolò receives an onslaught of challenging feminine puzzles. Two of them manifest in the forms of an elusive, unpredictable aristocrat and an emotionally open actress – both resisting easy definition or clear answers. Filmed as Antonioni approached seventy, he revisits and extends themes and visions broached throughout his career in vivid, updated cinematographic sweeps, sharpened by a raw, direct sexuality and encased in the existential Antonioni fog, now tainted by the insecure trappings of conspiracy, corruption and classism that have fallen out-of-sync with humanity’s need for the profound. Print courtesy Cineteca Nazionale.