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- This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Sight and Sound.
In the years following the 1962 release of Giorgio Bassani’s evocative novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Vittorio De Sica’s equally sumptuous 1970 cinematic adaptation, tourists flocked to Ferrara, a city in northern Italy, searching for the garden of the title. Painstakingly described as an Edenic haven for a Jewish-Italian family amid the rise of fascism, this patrician patch of greenery, however, does not exist. The fruitless quest of its admirers resembles the chasing of a mirage, albeit a beautiful one. Bassani might have given all the hints – he provides directions to the Finzi-Continis’ villa in strikingly vivid detail – yet this vision of idyllic idleness is forever locked away in the bounded pages.
Watching Beyond the Clouds (1995), the final feature from Michelangelo Antonioni who, like Bassani, grew up in Ferrara, I became afflicted with a similar curiosity. Co-directed with Wim Wenders, the film consists of four romantic vignettes, beginning in Ferrara and ending in Aix-en-Provence. The first chapter, titled ‘Story of a Love Affair that Never Existed’, follows a chance encounter between Silvano and Carmen, who stay at the same hotel and share an immediate attraction. But the couple never consummate their lust, even when they run into each other again.
My obsession began with their sudden reunion at a movie theatre in Ferrara. The cinema was unusually bewitching. Flanking the flickering screen are two tall white Corinthian columns. When Carmen stands up as the screening ends, the camera glimpses Silvano in the back, peering over the audience from a gorgeous, baroquely inscribed balcony. As the almost-lovers leave, they pass an outdoor, orange-painted staircase ornately done in the architectural style typically found in Ferrara, complete with gothic arches. From here, they leisurely stroll through a passage that leads them directly to the city’s cathedral, whose façade is made of crisp, white marble.
Desperately seeking this unknown theatre, I wondered if it could be another case of mistaken geographical identity? Cinema is full of trickery. Images are perpetually enveloped in smoke and mirrors. Perhaps Antonioni shot the interior and exterior in different places. With Google Maps as my partner in crime, I collected clues from the screen and digitally scoured the streets of Ferrara like a virtual ghost, before ‘arriving’ at my longed-for destination. Unease about our age of hyper-surveillance aside, finding the theatre was strangely satisfying, collapsing material, virtual and cinematic realities all at once.
Fast-forward to my preparation for this piece, when I panicked at my foolish failure to write down the cinema’s name. This induced a feeling of loss; but how could I ‘lose’ a place that I had only seen from the outside? Fortunately, when I found my digital way back to this dream palace, the interior columns still looked the same. The paint on the exterior is now a new yellowish hue, however, a shade that is simultaneously more and less real than the one found in Antonioni’s film. But enough teasing: shall I tell you its name? This fateful spot for the Italian director’s lovers, and the object of my fixation, is Sala Estense, nestled in a corner between the cathedral and the Este Castle.
Perhaps this is undue attention to pay to a three-minute scene in a two-hour long film. And yet, Antonioni’s return to Ferrara for his final feature after a debilitating stroke feels especially poignant, given that the city also marked the beginning of his filmmaking career. His very first venture into film was a botched attempt to document the patients at a local psychiatric facility, and his first fiction film, Story of a Love Affair (1950), alludes – like Beyond the Clouds – to his hometown’s enigmatic nature. While the action mostly takes place in Milan, it begins with an investigation into the past of an industrialist’s young wife, born in Ferrara. As the detective moves around the city’s familiar cloisters, not only the inhabitants but even the walls appear to whisper secrets. The unknowable woman and the unknowable city merge into one mysterious entity that haunts the narrative; Ferrara is startlingly present even when the camera returns to glitzy Milan. This omnipresence reflects Antonioni’s own relationship to his birthplace. “I was breathing a little of the air of Ferrara in Prague,” he once said, seemingly unable to release himself from the place’s spiritual hold.
Antonioni is not the only artist gripped by Ferrara’s mystique. In Sala Estense, the final image of the unidentified film seen by Silvano and Carmen features a lone industrial chimney blowing smoke over a field of muted greens. The pairing of industrialisation and nature recalls the metaphysical paintings Giorgio de Chirico made during his convalescence in Ferrara during World War I. In one of these surreal representations of the city, the Este Castle is foregrounded by eerie dummies and geometric blocks. In others, the cloisters of Ferrara are reduced to mere objects, lying among a clutter of thermometers or drawing compasses.
While this incongruity has been interpreted as a traumatised response to the horrors of the war, Ferrara is also the catalyst for these strange reveries. The stasis of de Chirico’s works recalls the city’s stillness which so enchants Antonioni. The director dreamed of “the long and wide streets, the streets of a flat city, beautiful and still, like an invitation to elegance, to dissipated idleness”. While this “idleness” is perhaps emblematic of Antonioni’s bourgeois upbringing, Ferrara’s secrets remain as alluring as ever, beckoning my curious footsteps.