Sunday 7 January 2024

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 the Sixties part 6 (21), Italy Part 4 Post-neorealism (i): Antonioni

Michelangelo Antonioni

Seen as a time of crisis for neorealism, the 50s into the 60s saw “a proliferation of neorealisms.” Fellini sought freedom from the neorealist constraints of subject matter and ideology in what was termed “phenomenological realism.”  Visconti’s “troubled marriage of spectacular form and revolutionary content in Senso, ultimately broadened critical tolerance for film styles free of neorealist austerity. 

In the context of neo-realism and his early experiences with documentary filmmaking centred on the appearance of things, Antonioni developed his own approach to narrative in an art film mode.   

His concentration on the internals of character and psychology Antonioni saw as not deserting the neorealist legacy: “not trying to show reality“…[but] attempting to recreate realism.”  Millicent Marcus points out that this was not a play on semantics by Antonioni but an offer, on his part, “to go forward by going backwards, that is, by returning to the cultural antecedents of the post-war movement […] taking them along a different path” (189).

Massimo Girotti, Lucia Bose, Story of a Love Affair

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) in four features, 1953-57, beginning with Cronaca di un amore/ Story of a Love Affair (1950), within the limits of a detective story he commenced the opening up of new narrative and fictional possibilities in the very activity of dissolving conventional plots to emphasise internal rhythms in the story. This is most evident visually through Antonioni’s destabilising of forms and structures to accommodate new themes, making new forms appear (Rohdie 49). The tetralogy (1959-64) helped to radically reshape expectations of what cinematic narrative can be. 

Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, L'Avventura

Mira Liehm places the four breakthrough films as together exploring “the decline of emotions” in contemporary society:  L’Avventura (1960) represents the gradual development of this theme, “the plot becoming more contingent than causal” (Chatman) ; in La Notte (1961) the possibility of love still exists if in crisis;  in L’Eclisse (1962) love is eclipsed by the dominance of objects and their imagined value over human relationships, in the final sequence, an establishing shot in reverse frustrates the viewer’s expectations of a well-formed narrative” (ibid).  In Il Deserto Rosso /Red Desert (1964) the alienation from reality provokes a neurosis portrayed as a conscious yearning for the return of feelings (225). In the tetralogy as a whole, it is the women who are more sensitive to feelings.

Steve Cochran, Alida Valli, Il Grido

Kovács describes Antonioni’s distinctive form of modernist minimalism, present in his early films prior to Il Grido, as “analytical” in its tendency towards geometrical compositions in long takes and associated camera movements. Compared to Max Ophuls’ camera movements in long takes identifying with the characters, “Antonioni’s camera tends to be more detached, more reflective, a more acute social observer” (Gilberto Perez ‘The Eloquent Screen’ 260).  Kovács identifies the split Antonioni made in his films “between different dimensions of the form: the background on the one hand, the plot and the viewer’s time experience on the other.”  His use of landscape and cityscape as framing for his wandering characters and their role in the plot, is identified by Kovács as “important watermarks of Antonioni’s breaking away from his neorealist roots” (149)”.

Kovács points to the disappearance, in Antonioni’s films, of the dramatic tension between the characters and their environment found in films like Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) and Stromboli (1950) which share neo-realist settings in poor or desolate locations emphasising emotional or spiritual emptiness in the characters. In Antonioni’s films this dramatic tension disappears. Their relationship to the environment is reduced to radical isolation and alienation. “This condition of disconnection is no longer indicative of a “social or cultural condition represented by the background world” (ibid). If “the perfect existentialist film could be imagined,” Bondanella suggests, “it would probably be one of the works in Antonioni’s trilogy, or possibly Red Desert” (221).

"radical isolation and alienation",  Red Desert

In contrast to those of Rossellini, Antonioni’s films in the early and breakthrough phases, in comparison, can have, it seems, a more predetermined feel although, like Rossellini, Antonioni said that he began each day’s shoot without clear ideas, preferring to start “from a virginal point,” the priority being ‘who he was’ at the moment of shooting, never working from the script - “autobiographical” with every line changed. In place of the sense of a completed work; when he looked back, Antonioni spoke of seeing an earlier work only in terms contemporary with his viewing (Bachman interview).

Antonioni in the tetralogy and Rossellini in Journey to Italy mark the “de-theatricalisation” of modern cinema. “L’Avventura has the breadth and structure of the novel, as well as its flexibility” (Pierre Laprohon Antonioni 70). Kovács notes that from Il Grido to L’Eclisse, most radically in the latter, “the peak of dramatic tension takes place at the beginning of the film before the development of the plot…representing a radical continuity independent of editing and camerawork” (155).

Rohdie’s focus is on narration and documentation of objects in the work of both Rossellini and Antonioni.  Above all, Rohdie notes their connection in the matter of documentation, of “writing” with the camera, its position not predetermined, “seeking to find and waiting to find, its subject.” In the case of Rossellini the subject is more certain and intuitively established, apprehension of it is relatively unproblematic and realistic which often resulted, at the time, in critical dismissal; in Antonioni, the uncertainty and slippage of the subject becomes the drama of the narrative” (Rohdie 149-50 quoted by Sitney 144-5).

The landscape and general atmosphere in the film preceding Antonioni’s initial critical breakthrough, Il grido/The Cry (1957)might seem to invite a symbolic interpretation as a physical extension of the central character’s depressed state. Kovács notes Antonioni’s expressed intention was not to use the environment to evoke a psychological state but “to create a landscape of memory: the landscape of my childhood” (quoted Kovács 150 -  Antonioni experienced “a happy childhood” in Ferrara on the Po River delta). 

Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, La Notte

As becomes fully apparent in the tetralogy, Antonioni “had arrived at another, modernist, conception of using the landscape - as that which isolates it from the psychology of the characters” (ibid). 

Rohdie writes that “Antonioni’s narrative reticence and ‘objectivity’ was something strikingly new in Italian cinema with reference to neo-realism,” not so much in terms of techniques of observation as in a different set of assumptions about the things observed. This accounts for his style being nominated as cold, inexpressive, without love, his objectivism seen as contrary to neo-realism’s humanism. 

Antonioni took this reticence a step further in his ‘distanced narratives’. What had potential to disturb was that the atmosphere and landscape failed to function as explicative or causal while being moved to the fore and given equal weight with the characters remaining ‘just there’ without connections. The social and physical are not, in his films, a determination. The characters are not only distanced from each other but disconnected from context. As Rohdie puts it, “it was as if Antonioni had taken his objectivity too far…an objectivity that had seemingly gone beyond ‘realism’” 

What was positive, “even exhilarating,” was the way Antonioni’s films opened up new possibilities in the very activity of dissolution referred to above, rejecting what neo-realism had made positive.  What had been declared established, unshakeable things, certainties and orders, by the mid-50s, even Antonioni’s critics had to admit, no longer held (see Rohdie 46-9).

Michelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti

Central is the defining presence of Monica Vitti in Antonioni’s tetralogy. Their symbiotic relationship has a lineage in cinema history between male director and female actor:  von Sternberg and Dietrich, Rossellini and Magnani then Ingrid Bergman, Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullman, and Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Vitti’s acting in the tetralogy “is understated and minimal, relying on the union of camera movement and mise en scène, creating an aura of ambiguity, undermining the clear outlines of the character’s subjectivity yet conveying a sense of crisis” (Marcia Landy Italian Film’ 296).

Il Deserto Rosso/Red Desert (1964), set in Ravenna the famous artistic city, and then also an industrial city, is a radical extension of the trilogy, Antonioni’s first film in colour and arguably “the first film to use colour in a denatured, modern way.” In Red Desert  “colour is integrally linked to character, as landscape was in L’Avventura or architecture in The Eclipse, and the director uses colour in many cases in place of dialogue” (Bondanella 219). The above reference to ‘writing’ almost becomes a case of ‘painting’ with the camera. 

Monica Vitti, Red Desert

Red Desert 
marks the beginning of a shift from centring on female, to male protagonists becoming first apparent in Blow-Up. This is accompanied also by a shift in narrative techniques accompanying the move from Sicilian landscapes and modern Milanese architecture to the more abstracted environment of modern technological society.  As Antonioni indicated, this shift is not meant to carry with it a condemnation of technological society in the name of ecological purity and a romantic return to the past. He saw Giuliana’s neurosis as caused by her failure to adapt to a new world (see Kovács 153-4). While most commentators emphasise the ugliness of the industrial landscape belching poisonous yellow fumes it is in turn ugly and aesthetic (Antonioni painted the trees and industrial accoutrements).

This change, begun in Red Desert, is accompanied by a transition to a more rigorously objective narrative and camera positioning. “Concentration shifts from interaction between the characters in the trilogy to the relationship between the characters and the things around them” (Bondanella 218). There is also a move toward a more complete and comprehensive dissolution of the subject and the appearance of a fully abstract film (the desert island fable) within the narrative. Giuliana’s (Monica Vitti) instability is reflected in her relation to objects and colours viewed with an intensity as seen and felt by her but her gaze is a distorted and abstracting reality, including her own. As Rohdie observes, while the look of the camera is often subjective, the look, regarded objectively, becomes more the object being observed rather than identified with. Chatman refers to this as “a remarkable double vision through which we see alternately from Giuliana’s point of view and from the camera’s own” (97).

David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Blow-Up

 (1966), his first film in English, in other critical ways represented a further new direction in which Antonioni employs a different rhythm in his editing, the sound track also assuming a new importance. He “developed the potential of cinema for heightening our aesthetic perception of the modern world as well as photography itself. 

There is a striking narrative correspondence in Blow-Up and earlier films (as in Lidia’s walk in Milan in La Notte) in the displacement of figures and bodies in space. Thomas, the photographer, obsessively seizes on ‘must have’ objects for them to immediately become throwaways. Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), in desperation attempting to retrieve the photographs that Thomas has wilfully taken of her and her companion in the park, becomes an object to be photographed amidst the disconnected spaces, objects and arrangements in the studio seemingly having a life of their own. “The narrative of Blow-Up literally loses its way in pursuit of an image“ (Rohdie 68). The diffuse fragments of life in swinging London adhere around the photograph at the film’s centre. What the photographer sees and what the camera sees are two different things 

Rohdie distinguishes the tetralogy which he terms the ‘women’s films’, from the later male centred films - Blow-Up Passenger, and Identification of a Woman.  While the couple in crisis is the central concern in the women’s films, the men are limited in their vision, “seeking to grasp something of the world and of themselves, and of the women they have encountered.” The women are more resistant, in comparison more open, lucid, interested in looking than seizing. The crisis arises from “the cross purpose of sight, of rigidity on the one hand, of flexibility and understanding on the other” (189).

Rohdie refers to Pasolini suggesting in his essay ‘Cinema di poesia’  that what was wrong with ‘the women’s films’, was that Antonioni imagined (perhaps inadvertently) that a female perspective is actually “a subjective alibi“ which enabled him to have a clear-cut narrative while at the same time escaping from it in a series of departures which, according to Pasolini, allowed him, in Il deserto rosso, “to present images purely for their abstract beauty” (ibid 153). However, as Rohdie further points out, this perception is more than a social alibi on Antonioni’s part: the women, at the centre of a changing  and uncertain fictional landscape, could in the films “perceive the multiplicity, variety and even incomprehensibility of the world while the men lack that facility and become victims of the world and their need to possess it. The first startling example of this,” Rohdie notes, “is Aldo in Il Grido” (189).

Maria Schneider, Jack Nicholson, The Passenger

Antonioni's modernist objectification in the later films shifted the subject from that of the images seen, to more directly, the act of seeing itself from the outside, as in The Passenger (1975).  Antonioni no longer needed a narrative excuse for what he viewedThe narrative was elsewhere […]  Earlier, before The Passenger, ‘in’ the fiction he sometimes chose to wander from it (towards beauty, to follow a flock of birds, to fix an eye on colour, to become fascinated with an object), but always forced to return, to pull back and by so doing to encounter the necessities of the narrative he had only a moment previously seemed to escape” (ibid).  

In The Passenger, the central character, Locke (Nicholson), already suffering an identity crisis in an outpost in central Africa, assumes the identity of a man whom he had just met when he finds him dead in the hotel from a sudden heart attack. Locke dissolves his own identity as if into the landscape, a repeating trope in Antonioni’s films, then recreates it as if to seem unreal, “estranged from itself,” a blurring of the subject-object distinction. The subjective camera inside the fiction is displaced. David Thomson refers to this as “a loss of identity in the modern world [that seems] to hover on the brink of some ultimate memory loss” (Biographical Dictionary). In the memorably complex final shot of 7 minutes this process of objectification is doubled as the camera detaches itself from the fiction and “gazes upon itself.” Thomson observes that “a narrative never wholly eventuates suggesting a multiplicity of narratives.” 

Tomas Milian and Daniela Silverio, Identification of a Woman

In his last major film after five abroad Antonioni returned to Italy and familiar themes on the difficulties of establishing relationships in the modern world. Identification of a Woman (1982), like nearly all his films, as Rohdie points out, is structured as an (unresolved) investigation. A film director, Niccolò (Thomas Malian), searches for a woman as a subject for his next film, and for a second ‘ideal woman’ visualised by him in an image of Louise Brooks. He has brief affairs with two women: the elusive, aristocratic Mavi explicitly seeking it seems realisation through sex, and the warm, down to earth actress, Ida, offering inspiration and security to Niccolo. Neither cohere as assumed centres of the film. Each results in intense emotional contact, one in a dense fog, the other on the Venetian lagoon. Niccoló, the initially presumed centre of the main film - the camera is always non-judgementally with him - never assumes that central position. This leaves a fiction of two narratives in search of something which is never found.  As already mentioned, from 1966 onwards the central characters of Antonioni’s films are male and “the camera and narrator become, over time, completely ‘objective’, no longer viewing with the eyes, or from the perspective, of any character.” 

This objectivity first reached a new kind of coherence in the China documentary Chung Kuo Cina (1972), The Passenger (1975) and Identification of a Woman (1982) (Rohdie 187). In freeing the image from the functional demands of narrative without entirely dispensing with narrativity, interest lies in the mystery and profound uncertainty threatening the story. In these films, plus Blow-Up and Zabriskie Pointthe fiction replaces the subjectivity of the characters, the film becoming what Rohdie calls, “a documentary of a fiction, including the fiction of its construction” (153). In other words Rohdie seems to suggest that, through the cumulation of these works, Antonioni, in cinematic terms, reworked/redefined the meaning of objective and subjective, fiction and documentary. In what would seem to be encapsulating  Antonioni’s implied critique of classical narrative’s self-sustaining fiction, Rohdie concludes, “women, along with men, have, if not their rightful place, a place free of any condescension, or, what amounted to the same thing, free of the fiction of subjectivity” (190).

Tonino Guerra, a scriptwriter on all Antonioni’s films from L’avventura on, is quoted by Don Ranvaud as confirming the director’s own account quoted above, of the way he chose to work. Guerra, spoke of how an elaborate, dense script was progressively abandoned until devoid of any literary values making it clear to the writer that Antonioni’s objective was “precisely that of destroying in the word anything that might interfere with the overall cinematic effect.” Carried to its furthest in The Passenger and Identification of a Woman, it was a cause of some early critical tentativeness at Cannes (before the critical and commercial success in Italy of Identification), and critical hostility after its screening at the New York Film Festival resulted in the evaporation of distribution interest in the US.

Speaking of The Passenger with its penultimate seven-minute sequence Antonioni said: “I have never quite felt this liberty. I have replaced my objectivity with that of the camera… the liberty in the making of this film is the liberty the character in the film tried to achieve by changing identity” (Rohdie 154).


Sam Rohdie Antonioni, BFI 1990

Seymour Chatman  Antonioni or, the surface of the world 1985

Michael Pursell “Remembering Antonioni”  review of Chatman’s book in Literature Film Quarterly 4/3 1986 

Gideon Bachman A Love of Today  interview with Antonioni Film Quarterly Summer 1983                                                                                         

Millicent Marcus  Italian Film in the Light of Neorealism 1986

Don Ranvaud review of identification of a Woman and Chronicle of a Career Monthly Film Bulletin March 1983

Jonathan Rosenbaum  review of The Passenger  Monthly Film Bulletin  June 1975


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

6(19) - Rossellini, INDIA and the new Historical realism

6(20) - Rossellini in Australia

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