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Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film in black and white, L’eclisse (1962) completes the unofficial trilogy formed along with L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). In them, the psychological disturbance beneath the gloss of the good life of early 60s Italy is rendered with glacial unease. They are also enigmatic – films defying meaning. Yet Antonioni does provide clues as to why his middle-class characters are so adrift and troubled – and never more so than in the precise, almost documentary images of the seven-minute montage that brings L’eclisse to an end in a way almost unique for narrative cinema.

After almost two hours, all the sound drains away and is completely mute for a few seconds, signalling that this is now another register, a different plane of cinematic reality. Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a young translator, is looking at some trees beyond a wall in her neighbourhood, the Esposizione universale, a development begun in Rome in the 1930s. The housing is modernist, overshadowed by a space-age water tower, its phallic elongation capped by a huge concrete mushroom ready for take-off – for a trip. Yet it’s a soulless landscape – little here to quench spiritual thirst, only an uninviting water barrel, more like an oil-drum. It is just one of a series of images which we have seen earlier in the film and which are reprised here, often from different angles.

L’eclisse (1962)

Throughout the film Vittoria’s expressive though sometimes hermetic face has revealed the inner drama of her consciousness, as she ends an affair with writer Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) only to begin another with stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) – which might already be over. In the closing montage, is Vittoria reliving her recent past and so reconjuring up the body of the film? It certainly feels more than a walk down recent memory lane. The camera leaves Vittoria behind and takes off to lead a life of its own. People other than Vitti inhabit the montage and we cannot help but wonder what their story is – like the man driving a pony and trap, and the uniformed nanny with her little charge. We have seen them earlier but we also see ‘new’ people, like the dark-haired woman waiting in daylight by the kerb for a date or a more dubious assignment, and the couples arm in arm later on at dusk. The city, though as depopulated as a Hopper or de Chirico painting, still has many tales to tell.

The very first shot in the film is of a lamp, artificial light in a darkened apartment. It is only when the curtains are opened that we realise it is morning. Vittoria and her soon-to-be ex-lover have been up all night trying to save their relationship. The very last shot in the closing montage is also of artificial light, the substitute sun of a street-lamp at night. It could easily be the prelude to the couple’s very long night of emotional eclipse.

If Antonioni is playing with the idea of the cyclical, of circularity, it is not glibly. It is not so much that history repeats itself as that there are also those other stories. The tale we’ve been watching is just one of them, and one that’s determined by factors beyond the immediately personal. Through Vittoria we are made aware of the wider, more political world – as when her mother (Lilla Brignone) complains that socialists are ruining things.

L’eclisse (1962)

The modern high design of Vittoria’s and her discarded lover’s apartments contrast with that of the parental home – dark, claustrophobic spaces even in the case of the more opulent one owned by Piero’s parents. Apart from Vittoria’s mother, who with her gambling on the stock market is no traditional matriarch, the parents themselves are absent.

What has happened to an older, more clannish and religiously observant Italy? Are we seeing the Death of the Family? This is the story behind the newspaper headline in the montage: ‘The Atomic Age’. Enter the nuclear family, splitting off and off until there are only couples left arguing, their offspring – if they ever get that far – outsourced to other people, like that perambulating nanny who is the first person we see after Vitti in the montage.

Even if life in the fast lane is symbolised by Piero’s stolen Alfa Romeo ending up in a canal with the thief drowned inside, Antonioni’s positioning of an older Italy against a shiny new one never feels like he is taking sides. But we know where his sympathies lie in the raucous, even Rabelaisian, depiction of the Rome stock exchange. The Borsa trading floor is smelly and likened by turns to a boxing ring and a brothel. So Piero the trader refers to himself as a “call-girl”, and Vittoria as a “real number” compared to the market figures. The montage, then, can be interpreted as a kind of countdown, even an occult numerology – but paradoxically ending the film, not launching it.

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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