Michelangelo Antonioni, the great Italian director, died this past July at the age of 94 (born in 1912). In his honor, I decided to spend the past few weeks watching six of his films: L'Avventura, The Night, The Eclipse, Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger.
What a viewing treat this was! If you're looking for story and narrative, Antonioni's probably not your guy. But if you're looking for a director who treats his locations as though they were characters, and composes his scenes as though they were paintings, you'll enjoy the visual feast Antonioni provides. Lots of attention to detail. Lots of visual surprises.
L'Avventura (The Adventure), 1960. (Link to trailer.) Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti. A woman disappears on a boat trip off of Sicily, and the effect this has on the people in her party. Alienation and the lives of the post-War Italian rich. The shots, pacing, and structure of this film were so different that it initially confused its viewers; when L'Avventura was shown at Cannes, much of the audience either booed or walked out. However, several days later it was awarded the Cannes Jury Prize, and a new star director had been created.
La Notte (The Night), 1961. (Link to nightclub scene with exotic dancer.) Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, and Monica Vitti. Twenty-four hours in the lives of a successful writer and his wife in Milan. They visit a dying friend, childhood haunts, a nightclub, and an all-night party. Again, the composition of the various scenes is striking.
L'Eclisse (The Eclipse), 1962. (Link to dogs and poles scene). Alain Delon and Monica Vitti. This film is often called the third part of Antonioni's Trilogy (along with L'Avventura and La Notte). About love, money, fear and alienation in early 1960s Rome. I felt as though I were watching an extended version of a "Twilight Zone" episode. As in his other films, the locations are the stars. He really brings them to life. I especially liked the stock market scenes and also the one in which the car is pulled out of the lake. Cannes Jury Prize winner.
Blow-Up, 1966. David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sara Miles. Antonioni's first English-speaking film and probably his most commercially successful one. A photographer believes that he has witnessed a murder. The film deals with the question of "what is real and what is not." I loved the final scene of the mime troupe engaged in a tennis match (here's a link). Nice time capsule of mid-1960s "Swinging London." Antonioni was nominated for Best Director Oscar.
Zabriskie Point, 1970. I had a difficult time getting a hold of it (I finally got it through a Russian distributor). This film was the strangest of the bunch. I think Antonioni wanted to created his own version of "Easy Rider." If you want to get a sense of "what the scene" was like in 1969-70 California, check out this film: student demonstrations, real estate moguls, drug orgies, police violence, youth rebellion, and counter-culture ethics. I loved the scenes in Death Valley. The exploding house sequence at the end is a classic (here's a link). Wonderful soundtrack that includes Jerry Garcia and Pink Floyd. This film really took me back.
The Passenger, 1975. (Link to trailer.) Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. My favorite of the bunch. It's the story of a journalist covering rebel wars in Africa who takes on the identity of a man who has died in the hotel room next to his. Only after he begins living his new life does he discover that he is now an arms dealer. Great scenes in Barcelona and southern Spain. The six-minute long tracking shot of the murder at the end is legendary (here's a link). Nicholson is excellent. I especially enjoyed Nicholson's commentary and Antonioni stories on my second viewing.
Viewing Antonioni is time well spent. I came away from these films feeling inspired. I got to see an artist who approached his medium on his own terms, and was able to make innovative statements. He continually tried new things, and sometimes failed. But he was able to advance the state of his craft.