In an early scene from Ettore Scola’s Rome-set 1970 comedy Dramma della gelosia, we find a group of five women – flower sellers – sitting together next to their stalls having lunch. As they eat, the world going by in front of them, they listen to a record teaching them English phrases. One of the women, Adelaide (Monica Vitti), says – deadpan – as she makes a few jabs into her pasta: “My English pronunciation is better when I’m eating.”
This unaffected image of Vitti as street trader – fingerless gloves, oversized knitted cardigan, Roman dialect, heartily tucking into food – is a far cry from her cool, enigmatic performances in the early 1960s work of Michelangelo Antonioni, the films for which she is still best known, especially outside of Italy.
Boldly challenging conventional cinematic syntax in their depictions of middle-class ennui, Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962) and Red Desert (1964) – sometimes referred to as the ‘tetralogy of alienation’ – are canonical works in postwar art cinema. They made Vitti an international star as well as a style icon, “dethroning Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot” according to Vogue’s Eugene Walter in 1966.
Born in Rome in 1931, Vitti studied at the city’s Academy of Dramatic Arts. Fully committed to a career in drama, she was told by one of her teachers that she was equally gifted in comedy. She initially had little ambition to work in film, aware that the trend in Italy at that time was for films in the neorealist style, which mostly relied on non-professional actors. In a 1979 Vogue interview with Pierparide Tedeschi, she looked back at her first experiences of film auditions: “I was told I had an excessively irregular face and was a bit too tall and slim. One director offered me a role, but on the condition that I changed my facial features. However, partly because I was afraid of surgery and partly because I wasn’t that interested in the project, I turned it down and went back to the theatre.”
Her first encounter with Antonioni occurred soon after, when she was hired as a dubbing artist for the director’s 1957 film Il grido. It was the start of a professional and personal partnership that lasted over a decade.
Post-Antonioni, Vitti worked with similarly-renowned filmmakers such as Joseph Losey on Modesty Blaise (1966), Miklós Jancsó on The Pacifist (1970) and Luis Buñuel on The Phantom of Liberty (1974), but she became hugely in-demand for comedies after director Mario Monicelli had the vision to cast her in his 1968 – mostly UK-set – revenge satire The Girl with a Pistol.
Monicelli had already worked with Vitti when she dubbed an actor on his crime comedy The Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958). “I knew that she was funny and entertaining, bursting with humour […],” Monicelli explained in a 1986 interview with Lorenzo Codelli, “but in film, she hadn’t really done many comic roles. This was mostly down to the short-sightedness of producers who couldn’t see past her work with Antonioni.”
In The Girl with a Pistol, Vitti plays a young Sicilian woman who pursues a former lover from Sicily to the UK, to avenge her honour. Filming locations for the picture, which co-starred Stanley Baker, included Edinburgh, Sheffield and Bath.
Several dazzling comic performances followed, perhaps most impressively, in Dino Risi’s episode film That’s How We Women Are (1971), where Vitti takes on 12 separate roles. In one segment – a gentle parody of Antonioni in its use of modernist architecture, its air of mystery and lack of dialogue – Vitti plays a lone character clad in a long black trenchcoat and black leather gloves who’s seen transporting a large case across town on foot.
In 1980, Vitti was reunited with Antonioni for Jean Cocteau adaptation The Mystery of Oberwald, the first film by the director to be shot on video. During the rest of the decade, Vitti continued to be active in film and TV. In 1990, she made her directorial debut with a screenplay co-written by her partner (and later husband) Roberto Russo. Secret Scandal featured Vitti and Elliott Gould as Margherita and Tony, a middle-aged married couple whose relationship comes under strain when Margherita brings a video camera into their home. “In my life the camera has looked at me more than my mother has,” Vitti told The Guardian’s John Vidal. “But the camera I can never talk to, it never answers. In the film, the camera is dangerous because it is a witness. It takes everything, has many faces. A camera, you know, once you are conscious of it, changes everything.”
Vitti’s final film credit came a couple of years later, and around the same time she also wrote the autobiographical volumes Seven Skirts (1993) and A Bed Is Like a Rose (1995), both of which showcased her characteristic warmth, humility and playfulness as well as an uncommonly acute appreciation of her craft.