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Michelangelo Antonioni – Poet of Alienation

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015


L'eclliseThe BFI have released a digitally restored version of one of the most famous films by this filmmaker – L’ecclisse / The Eclipse (1962). This is a welcome return of one of the most important directors of art cinema in the 1960s. I hope that this film will be follows by re-issues of L’avventura (1959) and La Notte (1961) 


Antonioni was born in 1912. In the 1930s he experimented with 16-mm film and also contributed film criticism to a local newspaper. In 1940 he attended the Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, including on one film for Roberto Rossellini. His first film as a director was a short documentary, Gente del Po, on which he worked from 1943 to 1947. In the 1950s he directed a number of features and continued as a scriptwriter, including contributing to Fellini’s The White Sheikh/Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952).

In 1960 L’avventura bought him international success. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. It formed a trilogy with his next two films La notte, winner of the Best Film Award at Berlin in 1961: and L’eclisse, which also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1962. All three films starred the actress Monica Vitti; almost as regular in Antonioni’s films as was Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s. Antonioni was clearly seen as an auteur. His dominant theme was the emotional barrenness of modern man – the futile search to assert him or herself in a technological world and their frustrating inability to communicate with others. Ephraim Katz comments “Long lingering shots follow his characters until their inner selves are revealed. By their leisurely immobility the shots suggest the overbearing pressure that times exerts upon human emotions. The surrounding physical world is also used to convey a state of mind and to express the strains of alienation and psychological agony. Antonioni’s films are almost plotless, their narrative vagueness almost bordering on mystery. “ [In the International Film Encyclopaedia, 1994].


Italian film context:

Antonioni grew up under Fascism and his early filmmaking career paralleled the development of Neo-realism. These films focussed on the lives of ordinary people. Neorealist used location shooting, non-professional actors and a somewhat unconventional style compared with mainstream studio films. In the 1950s Antonioni’s films moved away from the Neorealist aesthetic and began to display the visual and narrative ambiguities of his most famous films.

At the same time changes in cinema audiences and film exhibition impacted on Italian filmmakers. These were part of wider changes in international post-war cinema. Cinemas, especially in rural areas and small towns, frequently closed. City based cinemas survived but prices increased. Moreover there developed what we now call ‘niche’ audiences. There were the mainstream popular films, including imports from Hollywood, And there were ‘quality’ or art films. The latter often made a virtue of black and white cinematography, which generally cost less. But it also provided a distinctive style as colour became the norm in the mainstream . Antonioni only made a colour film, The Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Along with the style went a distinctive approach to plot, character and the resolution of the film story.

Antonioni – The trilogy


L’avventura, La notte and L’ecclise form a thematic trilogy. Antonioni made them between 1960 and 1962. All won festival awards, and they established his reputation and his directorial persona. Monica Vitti appears in all the films. Antonioni together with Tonino Guerra wrote the scripts. Eraldo Da Roma was the editor on all three films; Gianni Da Venanzo was director of photography on La notte and L’eclisse; and Giovanni Fusco composed the music for both L’avventura and L’eclisse. In the same period, apart from Fellini’s La dolce vita, Igmar Bergman directed Winter Light; and Alain Resnais directed Last Year in Marienbad. All great modernist films.

In L’avventura “A young woman, Anna [Lea Massari], disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro Gabriele Ferzetti], and her friend, Claudia [Monica Vitti], search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna’s disappearance is never explained and ceases to be of nay interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action is seen in real time. Its characters communicate little dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape.” [Andrew Tutor]. 

La notte “is about an artist’s life at the height of Italy’s economic miracle; it depicts several hours, including the whole night, in the life of Giovanni Pontano [Marcello Mastroianni], a novelist, on the day of the publication of his latest book. Jeanne Moreau plays his wife. And Monica Vitti plays the daughter of an industrialist whom Giovanni attempts but fails to seduce.

Antonioni manipulates entrances and exits and ambiguous shifts of scale, in order to shift regularly between his principal characters while maintaining the impression that their independent actions are linked together, almost as if they see each other in their privacy.” [P. Adam Sitney].


L’ECLISSE [The Eclipse].


L’ecclisse is set in Rome and the central relationship involves Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon). The plot involves the city’s Stock Exchange whilst the settings are mainly in the upmarket and fashionable EUR area of Rome. The film is [for my money] the most abstract of the trilogy.

The film is set in two areas of Rome, though there is also a light aeroplane flight to Verona aerodrome. The prime focus is in the EUR district where Vittoria lives in a modern, smart apartment. EUR was a project of the 1930s Fascist regime. It was to be an architectural and planning monument constructed round a great expo Exhibition. The exhibition never took place and the area was developed post-war as both a residential and business area. So the district has a mixture of styles from pre-war and post-war. And, as is so often the case in Italian films, architecture caries a particular resonance from the past.

The film opens in the nearby apartment of Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) whose relationship with Vittoria is coming to an end. Later Vittoria returns to her own apartment. Riccardo vainly calls there. Later in the film Piero will call, more successfully. There is also a sequence in the flat of a neighbour visited by Vittoria and a friend. This is a somewhat oddball sequence. The hostess has lived in Kenya for a period and she is quietly racist about the black people there. The women actually play and dress up in her collection of African costumes. I find this sequence dates the film in a way that does not happen with L’avventura.

The second area is the old centre of the city. Here is sited the Stock Exchange, the apartment of Piero’s parents, and the office from which he works. Vittoria and Piero meet at the Stock Exchange, where Vittoria’s mother goes to check investments. This offers a bedlam of noise and frenetic activity. And in the first sequence there this is emphasised by a minute’s silence held for a departed stock broker. The Exchange is a centre of gambling fever, for me it recalled the shorter and stylistic different sequence in Fritz Lang’ Doctor Mabuse (1922). Piero is as afflicted as every other member of the exchange, at one point Vittoria says to him:

“you never stand still”.

The events at the Exchange feature a bubble and crash, reflecting actual economic events in Italy in 1961.

There is also a sequence at the Tiber. Piero’s sports car was stolen and the driven into the river. We see the car, and the dead driver, hauled from the river. But it is followed a by a sequence when Piero and Vittoria walk across a park together.

It is an exterior and a junction that dominates the last reels of the film. This is in the EUR district at a cross roads. There is an unfinished building with scaffolding and coverings: even a water running to a tank and leaking onto the road. We see this junction on several occasions. We see passerby, including a nurse pushing a pram. And at one point in the twilight a bus stops, passengers disembark and it drives on. It is here that we return at the end of the film. We see some of the passerby, including a man with a newspaper. Then the junction becomes deserted. We are waiting but never see what may happen. Visually this is a stunning sequence, with a series of shots of the junction, the building, and close-ups of detail. It also seems to be the most abstract sequence in an Antonioni film.

The film is constructed round dolly shots. The camera cuts frequently, often to oblique angles. They very much service the mise en scène. Characters are placed against objects, walls and buildings. There is a shot of Vittoria in Riccardo’s flat, on the extreme left of the frame, facing into the room and a mirror. Riccardo is separated by space, walls and furniture. When Vittoria and Piero first talk at the Exchange, they converse round a large pillar as the minute’s silence proceeds. Some of the shots, especially of Vitti, reminded me of those in La Notte. The shots are not especially long. There are a number of tracks in the film and they seemed mainly to occur when there is some sort of ending occurring.

We have both daytime and night-time sequences and a range of interiors and exteriors. What I had forgotten from a previous screenings was that a night-time sequence features a number of dogs. Vittoria chases these, in particular the pet of her neighbour. I cannot remember other dogs in Antonioni films?

Apart from dialogue and noise the soundtrack is sparse. There are two diegetic songs and a diegetic singer. Non-diegetic brief musical phrases occur early in the film. There are more of them in a sequence where Piero shows Vittoria his parent’s apartment. But the greatest amount of accompanying music is in the final lengthy, and also most empty of people, sequence.

Elclissee still

There is no doubt that Antonioni is an auteur in themes and style. However, this is a work [as his others] that relies on the team of filmmakers involved. The cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is especially fine. And the production design and editing are also excellent. Whilst the sparse music by Giovanni Fusco is atmospheric.

Like all of Antonioni’s films there is a high degree of ambiguity, both in regard to the characters and the plot, but also in terms of the themes it expresses. But this is certainly a modernist and alienating environment. But whilst the old centre has far more life and action it also is fairly vacuous, when it is not merely exploitative. The visual quality of the film offers great pleasure, and the sound and music add to this. It is also stimulating because whilst some viewers may be bored, [I have heard this said] if the film involves one it seems very difficult not to ponder and question after the final ‘Fine’.

Italy / France 1962. Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim.

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; sound: Claudio Mailed and Mario Bramonti; production design: Piero Poletto; music: Giovanni Fusco.

Cast: Alain Delon (Piero); Monica Vitti (Vittoria); Francisco Rabal [Riccardo]; with Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Mirella Ricciardi, Louis Seignier.

Screening in a DCP, black and white with English subtitles: running 126 minutes.

Synopses from the Macmillan International Dictionary of Film.


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Cathedrals of Culture, Denmark 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 30, 2014

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

The Salk Institute one of the impressive shots that recur in this film.

This is a portmanteau documentary comprising six films that offer a study of a classic modern buildings.

If buildings could talk, what would they say about us?

This appears to be the brief given to the directors. What they have produced are six films that offer a portrait of a building and to a degree a study of the place of the human users within them. I found the films interesting but there was a lack of variety in the different works. The brief did seem to encourage a very similar approach even though the buildings are fairly different.

Some of them use a voice over that offers a possible impersonation of the ‘soul’ of the building. There seem to be only limited variations available for this approach. This also applied to the style – all the films rely to a degree on the moving camera, using a Steadicam. The cinematography though is frequently impressive. And the music in four of them also lacked variation. Several films used older archive footage. This was cropped to the 1.85:1 format of the film. This seems to be an unfortunate standard approach in contemporary documentary. It was less noticeable here because of the techniques employed – even so, given that architecture is about space, the cropping seemed misconstrued. The film was made for 3D but I saw it in a 2D digital version: it appears from IMDB that the project started as a sequence of short film for television. I am not sure how much difference the 2D format may make: the film was designed, at least in part, for the 3D format.

The ones I enjoyed most were art buildings – a concert hall and an opera house – the aspect of performance provided greater variation and the music was also more varied. The prison film was in some ways the most interesting, but I found the voice-over less than compelling.

The Berlin Philharmonic – directed and written by Wim Wenders [also Executive Producer for the whole film].                                                       This is the film I enjoyed most, perhaps because it was first and therefore had a sense of freshness. The film presented the modern concert hall built in the early 1960s in Berlin: close for a time to the separation wall erected by the DDR. The building is impressive and when built was a new style of concert auditorium. There were both rehearsals and performances. The film also used archive footage and interviews which provided variety and it took in the care and maintenance of the building. The theme was the relationship between architecture and culture: there were also comments relating the film to the social – less convincing.

The National Library of Russia – written and directed by Michael Glawogger.                                                                                                  This film took a rather different approach: a voice in Russian, which for the most of the film was replaced by dubbed English, read a selection of extracts from writers whose books are housed in the library. Meanwhile the camera prowled round the building from morning to dusk, picking out the staff and occasionally the users. The camera work was fine but I found the commentary rather uniform. This seemed to be the case for both the Russian and English voices: rather ironic. The range of authors whose work we heard seemed fairly varied and the unchanging tone of the reader really obscured this.

Halden Prison – written and directed by Michael Madsen.                       This modern and carefully designed prison was presented set in the snowy wastes of Norway. The film opened with a quotation from Michael Foucault where he drew the parallels between prisons and schools. Disappointingly the commentary did not really develop this angle. The film did show the situation and treatment of the prisoners, and there were some stark shots which offered an unsettlingly contrast between the consciously liberal regime and the fact of removal from society. The film did achieve a certain haunting ambience, but the commentary [spoken by the prison psychotherapist] was quite pat at times.

Salk Institute, San Diego – directed by Robert Redford, written by Anthony Lappé.                                                                                         This was one of only two films with discrete direction and writing and it had the most distinctive form among the films. Rather than a voice over commentary we had archive material interspersed with interviews of the workers at this prestigious scientific institution. The early part of the film presented the buildings, standing out in the somewhat desolate landscape. The archive material took us back to pioneering work of the founder and media responses at that time. The interviewees included two scientists and a maintenance worker. The archive material broke up the film of the building itself, though in the latter stages it did tend to the moving camera treatment seen in every one of these films.

The Oslo Opera House, written and directed by Margreth Oil.               This was the only film in which the writer/director also read out the commentary. The Opera House was an imposing building all in white. Olin commenced with shot which counterposed the celebrated structure with some of the derelict people and places found nearby. But the film failed to return to these. We still saw the familiar moving camera: and there were sequences of rehearsal for both opera and ballet. Some of the counterposing of shots suggested wry humour: something in short supply in the portmanteau film overall. And the film closed with some whimsical overlapping shots.

Céntre Pompidou, directed by Karim Ainouz and written by Deyan Sudjit.                                                                                                          This was the other film with discrete direction and writing. It also used the steadicam shots but these were more frequently cut to standing shots. We saw various aspects of the Céntre over a day, from dawn till late evening. There were performances, cinemas, concerts, exhibitions and a library. This is the only one of the buildings that I have actually visited, so I was intrigued to see parts that I recognised and parts that I had missed.

Overall I found the film somewhat repetitions: especially the recurring sequence shots and the personalised voice over. It held my interest and did provide a sense of the buildings. Not all the films provided a focus on the history of a building: something that I thought added interest. And in fact I had little sense of the Russian Library’s provenance.

One aspect that was almost completely absent was the economic. The closest we came was when Dr Salk, in an interview, replied to a question that the vaccine he developed ‘belonged to the people’.

As the film progressed I longed for a completely different and less reverent approach. I wondered what for example, we might have seen and heard if Jean-Luc Godard or in a different manner, John Akomfrah, had been included in the commission.

One moment I did enjoy was when I discovered that it appears possible to take a dog [not apparently accompanying a blind person] into the Céntre Pompidou – something the British ‘dog loving’ culture fails to allow.


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