Where to begin with Michelangelo Antonioni

A beginner’s path through the modernist masterpieces of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni.

Michelangelo Antonioni on location for Zabriskie Point (1970)

Why this might not seem so easy

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni – certainly his most critically acclaimed pictures such as L’avventura (1960), Red Desert (1964) or Blowup (1966) – would seem to tick all the boxes when it comes to the clichéd view of so-called art(house) cinema. Slow rhythm, loose narratives, enigmatic characters, inconclusive endings – all these elements are here.

Antonioni is known for being the great chronicler of (bourgeois) ennui and while he has a strong interest in character psychology, it’s not the clearly delineated psychology familiar from Hollywood cinema. In an interview with Il Tempo from June 1962, Antonioni argues: “If man is today more alone, it’s because communication has become more difficult. In my opinion, this happens because we can’t find our bearings in this environment. Maybe this uneasiness rests in the fact that technology has progressed at such an alarming rate […]”

Of all the Italian filmmakers of the post-neorealist era, Antonioni is the most influential. His shadow – whether in terms of subject matter or style – looms large over the work of filmmakers as diverse as Wim Wenders, Dario Argento, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, Sofia Coppola and Paolo Sorrentino. This might explain why he’s so well served by DVD/Blu-Ray. In the UK, 14 out of his 16 features are currently available, including lesser-known pictures such as La signora senza camelie (1953) and Le amiche (1955).

The best place to start – Story of a Love Affair

Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950)

The temptation would be to plunge straight into the famous ‘alienation’ tetralogy, or the English-language features Blowup, Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975). But to get an idea of how Antonioni’s style began to take shape, I’d suggest starting at the beginning with his debut Story of a Love Affair (1950). It features Lucia Bosè in one of her earliest performances as Paola Fontana, a young wife whose husband hires a private detective to look into her past. Antonioni was interested in chronicling what, in a 1961 masterclass at Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, he called “the moral coldness of certain elements of the Milanese haute bourgeoisie”.

We immediately get a sense of a filmmaker interested in mystery, in the ambiguous qualities of both character and landscape. In 1953, Antonioni would make another film with Bosè, self-reflexive drama La signora senza camelie, about a shop assistant who rises to become a movie star. 

What to watch next

After sampling early period Antonioni, you’ll be ready to tackle the quartet for which he is best known. L’avventura, one of the cornerstones of European cinema, famously met with hostility upon its release during that incredible period which saw the release of films such as Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959), Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), Rocco and His Brothers (Luchino Visconti, 1960) and La dolce vita (Federico Fellini 1960). Critics and audiences were bewildered by the film’s apparent longueurs, how it never resolved its central mystery.

It tells of a disaffected young woman, Anna (Lea Massari), who goes on a boating trip with her architect fiancé Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and a small group of friends including Claudia (Monica Vitti). When the group stops off on an island, Anna disappears. After this dramatic event, Antonioni toys with audience expectations, letting his narrative drift into surprising directions. L’avventura was the director’s first collaboration with Rome-born actress Monica Vitti. She would appear in all four films in the tetralogy, taking on the most substantial roles in L’eclisse and Red Desert.

La notte features Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as Giovanni and Lidia Pontano, a couple going through a crisis in their marriage. The scene where Lidia walks the half-empty streets of Milan is one of several beautifully composed passages in what is a masterclass in monochrome photography by the great DoP Gianni Di Venanzo.

In L’eclisse, translator Vittoria (Vitti) meets Piero (Alain Delon), a brash, confident stock market trader but, like the earlier two couples, their relationship struggles to move forward. The disparity between material and emotional wellbeing is keenly felt in L’eclisse and we also have greater awareness of a world outside of the tribulations of the central characters (epitomised by the film’s masterful final sequence).

L’eclisse (1962)

Red Desert was Antonioni’s first colour film and it’s in many ways his most abstract work. “I like the dynamism of colour, that’s why I like Jackson Pollock so much,” he told critic Aldo Tassone in 1979. “In Red Desert I wanted to change the face of reality, of water, of streets, of landscapes, to physically paint them.” Pier Paolo Pasolini praised Red Desert’s “free indirect subjectivity”; the way Antonioni allows the audience to experience the world (including the bleak, flat industrial landscapes of Ferrara and its surrounding areas) through the sensibility of protagonist Giuliana (Vitti). The film features more breathtaking, painterly compositions, not to mention a haunting experimental score by Giovanni Fusco.

Between 1966 and 1975, Antonioni made a trio of English-language pictures for producer Carlo Ponti and all three saw him engage closely with socio-cultural currents of the time. His collaboration with screenwriter-poet Tonino Guerra (which had begun with L’avventura) continued, but he brought through younger talent in the form of writers and theorists such as Sam Shepard and Clare Peploe for Zabriskie Point and Peter Wollen and Mark Peploe for The Passenger. The latter sees Jack Nicholson play David Locke, an American journalist filming in central Africa who assumes the identity of a dead man, unaware that the man, called Robertson, was an arms dealer.

The Passenger (1975)

Where not to start

It’s a towering (not to mention underrated) achievement in documentary, but the three-and-a-half-hour Chung Kuo Cina (1972) is probably not the best place to begin an exploration of Antonioni’s body of work. Commissioned by the Chinese government, it presented the director with another opportunity to explore a foreign culture. Faced with constraints as to what he could and couldn’t film, Antonioni was nonetheless determined to go beyond the rhetoric of the regime. The finished picture angered the authorities to such an extent that it was only screened in China more than three decades later.

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