“Modern man lives in a world without the moral tools necessary to match his technological skill. He is incapable of authentic relationships with his environment, his fellows, or even the objects which surround him because he carries with him a fossilized value system out of step with modern times.” — Michelangelo Antonioni, Cannes, 1960
If Federico Fellini was the flamboyant, self-reflexive modernist of the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni was his brooding, existential twin, a sort of shadow self. Both directors, along with Jean-Luc Godard in France, essentially reinvented cinematic narrative over the course of the decade. After starting off rather conventionally, Antonioni embarked on a unique trajectory with L’avventura in 1960, with its unresolved central conflict, creeping slowness, and sparse, almost non-existent dialogue. Its Cannes premiere caused boos and catcalls from the crowd, with star Monica Vitti and Antonioni fleeing the theater, or so goes the legend. L’avventura became one of the most polarizing and debated works in the history of Italian film. The two films that followed–La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)–moved along similar thematic lines, with all three loosely called a trilogy by film scholars today.
Although it was De Sica who initially filmed La ciociara (see other blog entry on that film), Antonioni is really the artistic spiritual kin of existentialist writer Alberto Moravia, who was at the very forefront of Italian literature throughout the 1950s-1960s. La notte, in particular, bares more than a passing resemblance to Moravia’s seminal 1954 novel Il disprezzo (Contempt), which Godard later filmed in 1963. Above all, Antonioni and Moravia are equally obsessed with the inability of human beings to interconnect in a real and genuine manner, to get beyond the facades of the everyday. Their protagonists are often embedded in inner conflict, stranded in situations of social and psychological alienation that are as self-perpetuating as they are unavoidable. And it was Antonioni who codified this shared vision of modernist isolation for the cinema, perhaps none more successfully than Il deserto rosso (Red Desert), from 1964.
Red Desert is Antonioni’s finest moment, combining his earlier stark visions and narrative ideas with a full Technicolor palette (all films prior were black-and-white). Admittedly obsessed with cinematography (he was an avid artist growing up), every frame of the film is a tightly composed work of art. Antonioni has often commented on how Red Desert is often misinterpreted as his “anti-industrialism” film, with its spewing nuclear reactors and factory landscape. In fact, his intent was quite the opposite and reflected popular Italian attitudes of the day: these were symbols of civic progress, of modernity, of entering a new era in Italian history. Environmentalism was not on the radar, as there was still an “away” for Italians to throw things to in 1964. Watching the film today can leave quite a different impression. Shot during the winter months, the landscape still lacked the bleakness Antonioni required, so, in an inspired fit, he had the ground and foliage covered in a dust of grey paint in order to accentuate the colors he had carefully selected as the psychological focal points for certain scenes.
Antonioni’s following three films were done in English for MGM, including the immensely popular Blowup (1966) and the counter-culture manifesto Zabriskie Point (1970); Antonioni’s failed attempt to get 10,000 extras for a lovemaking scene in the California desert should clue you in about the latter. The director was frustrated by Hollywood interference and, after The Passenger with Jack Nicholson, he returned to Italy. Although finishing several other projects, his legacy today rests on his hypnotically spartan early-1960s output, which revolutionized modern film narrative.