What Antonioni’s movies mean in the era of mindfulness and #MeToo

He defined cool modernism on screen, setting his characters adrift in a world defined by alienation and loneliness. But do the films of Michelangelo Antonioni still speak to us in the 21st century?

Stephen Dalton
Updated:

L’avventura (1960)

L’avventura (1960)

“The theme of most of my films is loneliness,” Michelangelo Antonioni declared in a 1969 interview. “Often my characters are isolated. They are individuals looking for social institutions that will support them, for personal relationships that will absorb them. But most often they find little to sustain them. They are looking for a home.”

A towering figure in 20th-century cinema, Antonioni enjoyed greater international success than most of his European auteur peers. His influential visual grammar – extremely long takes, striking modern architecture, painterly use of colour, tiny human figures adrift in empty landscapes – often felt more like modern art than cinema. The surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, renowned for his eerily empty urban dreamscapes, seems to haunt much of Antonioni’s work.

Antonioni films typically featured jaded lovers in middle-class urban settings, their lives blighted by quiet desperation, joyless sex and existential ennui. His open-ended plots were elliptical, elusive and experimental, providing rich material for both his most ardent admirers and harshest critics. Inevitably, after an almost unblemished run of classic films spanning the 1960s and 70s, shifting fashion and ill health forced him into semi-retirement. It makes perfect sense that he spent his twilight years painting big, bold, colourful abstract art.

Revisiting Antonioni’s classic films from a 21st-century viewpoint, their erotic frankness and modernist urban geometry no longer have the shock of the new. But as timeless cinematic explorations of the human condition, they stand up surprisingly well. In an era of sense-pummelling blockbusters and multi-media overload, these slow-paced ruminations on desire, despair and alienation feel strangely, jarringly fresh. Once you adjust to their languid rhythms, Antonioni’s films still have a bewitching intensity about them, like a kind of cinematic mindfulness session, or a bracing dip in a cool mountain stream. Many remain unsolved mysteries, jealously guarding their secrets.

L’avventura (1960)

L’avventura (1960)

In Antonioni’s breakthrough film, L’avventura (1960), a psychologically fragile young woman called Anna (Lea Massari) vanishes without trace during a boat trip around the rocky Mediterranean islands off Sicily. Her feckless boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) spend months fruitlessly trying to solve her puzzling disappearance, sliding into a tortuous love affair themselves. A cryptic suspense thriller that flouts narrative convention, the film initially received a harsh reception in Cannes, but was subsequently hailed as a masterpiece and awarded the festival’s prestigious jury prize.

Martin Scorsese was one of many aspiring young filmmakers mesmerised by the new cinematic language suggested by L’avventura. He later paid warm tribute to Antonioni’s early films with a New York Times tribute, following the Italian maestro’s death in 2007. “It was the fact that they were unresolved in any conventional sense that kept drawing me back,” Scorsese wrote. “They posed mysteries – or rather the mystery, of who we are, what we are, to each other, to ourselves, to time. You could say that Antonioni was looking directly at the mysteries of the soul.”

Antonioni and Vitti, his leading lady both on screen and off, were both propelled to international fame by L’avventura. They followed it with three more stylish dramas about middle-class metropolitan couples caught in anguished psycho-sexual crisis. La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962) pushed the director’s coolly detached style further into experimental terrain, notably his signature use of ‘dead time’, extended takes and gliding camera shots that play with temporal perception, often lingering on oddly tangential moments outside the main plot.

L’eclisse (1962)

L’eclisse (1962)

Almost 60 years later, the lyrical seven-minute montage that closes L’eclisse remains one of the most arresting codas in modern cinema. After a missed assignation between the story’s central couple, played by Vitti and Alain Delon, Antonioni’s camera drifts away to explore the empty urban spaces where their lukewarm love story failed to catch fire. Pure visual poetry.

Antonioni and Vitti separated soon after their last major collaboration, Red Desert (1964), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Set among the newly industrialised zones and modern housing estates outside Ravenna, Antonioni’s first colour feature was an attempt to depict “a world in which even factories can be beautiful”. Vitti plays Giuliana, a young wife and mother on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing, spiritually numbing new world.

Oddly, Red Desert now feels more dated than the monochrome trilogy that preceded it, perhaps because Antonioni departs from his trademark cool detachment here and strays into mannered melodrama. All the same, the film looks ravishing, and would almost work stripped of dialogue as a series of wordless, visually striking tableaux.

Antonioni and his cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who would become Vitti’s new long-term partner, shared a strong painterly vision on Red Desert. They used deliberately blurred focus, desaturating colour filters and telephoto lens shots to give the film the flattened feel of an abstract contemporary art canvas. For the factory scenes that book-end the story, they even painted acres of industrial wasteland matte black to heighten the contrast with Vitti’s vivid green coat and lustrous copper-toned hair.

Blowup (1966)

Blowup (1966)

Buoyed by growing international acclaim, Antonioni made the leap to English-language films in the mid 60s, striking a three-picture deal with producer Carlo Ponti and MGM studios. He scored a splashy hit with Blowup (1966), a maddeningly cryptic thriller about a bohemian fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who accidentally captures evidence of an apparent murder in a south London park. With its all-star cast of swinging 60s faces, including Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Birkin and Jimmy Page, this psychedelic Pop Art classic gave Antonioni his biggest ever critical and commercial success. Its box office take of $20m translates to around $120m today.

And yet, if anything, Antonioni’s move onto more mainstream terrain only emboldened his uncompromising high-art style. With its painted landscapes and hallucinatory, surreal visuals, Blowup sets up a mystery then obstinately refuses to resolve it. According to co-star Ronan O’Casey, more scenes were originally planned that explained the story as an infidelity murder plot, but they were dropped for budget reasons. Various narrative loose ends in the film back up this claim, but Antonioni ultimately turned this puzzle into a selling point.

“In Blowup, a lot of energy was wasted by people trying to decide if there was a murder, or wasn’t a murder, when in fact the film was not about a murder but about a photographer,” the director told Roger Ebert in 1969. “People think that the events in a film are what the film is about. Not true. The film is about the characters, about changes going on inside them.”

If London energised Antonioni, Los Angeles would bring him crashing down to earth. His next film, Zabriskie Point (1970), was an ill-fated attempt to distill America’s radical hippie counterculture into an epic, trippy, orgiastic road movie. Largely shot in the deserts of California and Arizona with two bland, young, unknown leads, Marc Frechette and Daria Halprin, this allegorical misfire opened to overwhelmingly negative reviews and tanked at the box office. It was a major blow to Antonioni, from which his reputation never fully recovered.

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Despite later attempts to reclaim it as a misunderstood masterpiece, Zabriskie Point remains Antonioni’s grandest folly. More lethargic than lysergic, it leaves the doors of perception firmly closed. Even so, it’s still worth seeing on the big screen, chiefly for its majestic desert vistas and an inspired, much-quoted final sequence that imagines the consumerist clutter of a bourgeois family mansion exploding in slow motion.

Antonioni’s final English-language film is widely regarded as his last great work. Shot across Europe and North Africa, The Passenger (1975) stars Jack Nicholson as David Locke, a TV war reporter who decides, almost on a whim, to steal the identity of a fellow traveller who dies of natural causes at a remote hotel in sub-Saharan Africa. But when the dead man proves to be an arms dealer, Locke finds his reckless attempt to flee the prison of his own life has only led him into a deeper, darker trap.

The Passenger (1975)

The Passenger (1975)

In his 2006 DVD audio commentary, Nicholson calls The Passenger “probably the biggest adventure in filming that I ever had in my life”, paying tribute to Antonioni’s leisurely pacing and dispassionate eye. Like Blowup, the film began as a more conventional Hitchcock-style thriller. But Antonioni deconstructed Mark Peploe’s script into an existential mystery about fluid identity, emotional estrangement and political disengagement.

The Passenger ends with another of Antonioni’s bravura long shots, his camera sailing through the barred windows of a specially constructed Spanish hotel set to survey the dusty square outside. Meanwhile, a murder occurs silently off screen. According to Nicholson, the director engineered this memorably poetic final flourish purely because he “didn’t want to shoot a death scene”.

Antonioni’s high critical standing began to collapse in the late 60s, partly due to the growing influence of Marxism and Structuralism on film theory. At the height of the New Left era, with student radicalism and anti-Vietnam protest spilling over into cinema, contemporaries like Godard and Pasolini were bringing Marx and Mao to arthouse audiences. But Antonioni preferred to continue exploring the existential angst of bourgeois intellectuals like himself, pointedly avoiding political polemic on screen.

“I detest films that have a ‘message’,” Antonioni wrote in Film Culture magazine in 1962. “I simply try to tell, or, more precisely, show, certain vicissitudes that take place, then hope they will hold the viewer’s interest no matter how much bitterness they may reveal. Life is not always happy, and one must have the courage to look at it from all sides.”

Unsurprisingly, Antonioni’s urbane musings on first world problems drew flak from left-leaning critics for their decadent, navel-gazing narcissism. In a series of essays published in 1968, simply titled Antonioni, Marxist film lecturer Robin Wood attacked the director’s “retreat into a fundamentally complacent despair”.

Nevertheless, Antonioni began to make more explicitly political statements on screen as the 60s deepened. In Red Desert, factory strikes and workers’ rights play a fringe role in the story. At one point, Monica Vitti’s nervy heroine asks her putative lover, played by Richard Harris, if he is left or right wing. He replies with a vague commitment to humanity, progress, justice and “socialism, perhaps”. It is tempting to read this speech as autobiographical, Antonioni indirectly addressing his dogmatically leftist critics.

Red Desert (1964)

Red Desert (1964)

“I would say my films are political, but not about politics,” Antonioni told Roger Ebert in 1969. “They are political in their approach, they are made from a definite point of view. And they may be political in the effect they have on people. Blowup, for example, was not only about a certain lifestyle in London, but it expressed a feeling about that style.”

Ironically, Antonioni’s most overtly political statement, Zabriskie Point, also proved to be his biggest critical and commercial disaster. He would never again attempt anything so clumsily didactic, turning back to more personal psychodrama in the latter stages of his career.

Today, with half a century of hindsight, the progressive political dimension of Antonioni’s work now seems more pronounced. A more charitable, less rigidly ideological viewer could easily discern a wry critique of late capitalism running through these sardonic depictions of the listless, alienated, self-absorbed bourgeoisie. There are certainly subtle jabs at casual racism, colonialism and consumerism scattered through his early films.

Viewed through 21st-century eyes, Antonioni’s grasp of gender politics also looks unusually advanced for his era. While he clearly had an eye for decorous young actresses, and often depicted women as stereotypically moody neurotics, his proto-feminist depiction of female characters is far from the leering male gaze of so many directors. Indeed, his golden decade of Italian dramas from Le amiche (1955) onwards is dominated by strong, smart, sexually independent women. Decades before cartoonist Alison Bechdel coined her famous measure of gender representation on screen, L’avventura and L’eclisse would have passed the test.

L’eclisse (1962)

L’eclisse (1962)

Even in his 60s prime, Antonioni’s highly mannered style grated with many of his famous filmmaking contemporaries. Pier Paolo Pasolini once quipped, “I don’t like Antonioni, abstract art, or electronic music.” François Truffaut called him “solemn and humourless”. Ingmar Bergman singled out La notte and Blowup for muted praise, but accused Antonioni of becoming “suffocated by his own tediousness”.

Orson Welles even went so far as to shoot a spoof Antonioni movie for the film-within-a-film in his infamous unfinished swansong project The Other Side of the Wind, which was posthumously released by Netflix in 2018. The plot revolves around a grizzled old Hollywood director (played by John Huston) struggling to complete a modishly cool counterculture art film under strained financial conditions. It can hardly be coincidence that Welles shot the central party scene in an Arizona mansion directly opposite the house featured in Zabriskie Point.

But while Antonioni left some of his contemporaries cold, he would prove inspirational to generations of younger filmmakers, starting with Martin Scorsese and the New Hollywood generation. Both Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma paid direct homage to Blowup with their own paranoid surveillance thrillers, The Conversation (1974) and Blow Out (1981). More recently, Coppola’s filmmaker daughter, Sofia, has also invoked Antonioni’s ruminative, doleful aesthetic, notably in Somewhere (2010).

Inspired by Antonioni: Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010)

Inspired by Antonioni: Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010)

Wim Wenders and Wong Kar-wai, both of whom collaborated with Antonioni in his later years, also share some of his brooding, melancholic travelogue style. But perhaps Antonioni’s key 21st-century legacy is his influence on the so-called ‘slow cinema’ movement, whose long shots and minimalist plots feel like rebukes to the fast-cutting, sense-blitzing overload of mainstream contemporary media.

Gus Van Sant, Carlos Reygadas, Kelly Reichardt, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz and Jia Zhangke are just a few of the prize-winning directors, most from outside the Anglosphere, who have adopted a slow-motion cinematic grammar largely pioneered by Antonioni. As film scholars Karl Schoonover and John David Rhodes noted in their 2012 essay ‘Rethinking Michelangelo Antonioni’s Modernism’, these contemporary auteurs “use extended duration, wandering camera movements and overtly graphic frame compositions to produce counter-narratives against globalisation and neoliberalism”.

Of course, Antonioni’s track record as a cinematic philosopher, sly political commentator and godfather of contemporary art cinema will always remain open to debate. But there is no denying the sublime, hypnotic, still-fresh beauty of his classic films. He may have elevated tedium to the level of high art at times, but Antonioni was also a supreme visual stylist who, occasionally, whether by accident or design, gazed directly at the mysteries of the human soul. 

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