30 Day Film Challenge: Day 11

A Film by Your Favorite Director

My first Antonioni film was, I think, Blow Up. I wasn’t crazy about it. Now I realize that it is probably one of those movies I saw too young and should watch again.

Everything about how I see movies changed when I saw L’Avventura. If there was ever a reason to see movies in theaters, L’Avventura would be it.

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Review: L’Avventura (1960)


My discovery of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s films occurred sometime in August. Antonioni died on July 30 at the age of 94, ironically the same day as Swedish director Ingmar Bergman.

The following weekend, when I was reading Martin Scorsese’s tribute to Antonioni, I realized that I had no idea why Antonioni meant so much in film history. So I did the most sensible thing possible. I rented every Antonioni film I could find and watched them. Of the eight or so films I saw, the one that has meant the most to me is L’Avventura.

Antonioni began his career in the Italian film industry in 1942, during the Italian neorealism movement. From 1950 to 1957, Antonioni directed five feature films. These films show Antonioni’s growth as a director and the development of his style that would be perfected in 1960’s L’Avventura.

In L’Avventura, a group of wealthy Italians are yachting off the coast of Sicily when one member of their party, Anna (played by Lea Massari) disappears. The other couples move forward, but her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti) and her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) continue to look for Anna across Italy. Their search eventually develops into a love story and the mystery behind Anna’s disappearance is never solved.

L’Avventura is often seen as the first part of a trilogy that includes La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). These three films explicitly deal with alienation from the modern world. The upper class characters fill their purposeless and passionless lives with expensive outings, parties, and casual seductions. In L’Avventura, when the search for Anna becomes useless, the characters return to their decadent lives and easily forget about the vanished girl.

The true beauty of L’Avventura occurs in the way Antonioni builds emotion and creates tension from events that seem meaningless. Characters just act; there is no explanation or moralizing of their flaws. In this sense, L’Avventura is not a film about alienation from society but rather Antonioni simply shows characters who are alienated, without questioning why.

When L’Avventura premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1960, audiences booed the film for its unusual narrative structure, slow pacing and seemingly meaningless characters. Yet it is L’Avventura’s style and composition that makes it remarkably fresh and powerful after each viewing. Critics have always adored L’Avventura; it is now considered to be Antonioni’s best work and one of the most influential European Art Films.

Published: Mount Holyoke News
December 6, 2007

Inspired by The Masters

In the two weeks following the deaths of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, countless tributes to the directors continue to appear. The following excerpts are from just some of them (including salutes by Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen):

By A. O. Scott, The New York Times
“By an awful and uncanny coincidence — the kind of occurrence that, in a movie, would have to be taken as symbolic lest it seem altogether preposterous — Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman died on the same day. Since Mr. Bergman was 89 and Mr. Antonioni 94, neither man’s death came as much of a shock, but the simultaneity was startling. Not only because they were both great filmmakers, but more because, in their prime, Mr. Antonioni and Mr. Bergman were seen as the twin embodiments of the idea that a filmmaker could be, without qualification or compromise, a great artist” […]
The deaths of Bergman and Antonioni end a great chapter in film history
By Ty Burr, Boston Globe, August 5, 2007
“The world of cinema mourned the passing of two titans last week. Ingmar Bergman was 89, Michelangelo Antonioni 94. Front page obituaries celebrated their accomplishments and the nightly news tossed up 30-second clips of The Seventh Seal (Bengt Ekerot’s Death coldly moving his pawn) and Blow-Up to remind us of their greatness.

The two filmmakers almost seemed relevant again.

In truth, they’re anything but. The hallowed days of post-World War II art-house cinema — that period from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s when people went to the movies expecting metaphysical transcendence to go with their popcorn — is long gone, and all the Criterion DVDs in the world won’t bring it back” […]
Ingmar Bergman

The Man Who Asked Hard Questions

by Woody Allen, from The New York Times, August 12

” […] I’ve said it before to people who have a romanticized view of the artist and hold creation sacred: In the end, your art doesn’t save you. No matter what sublime works you fabricate (and Bergman gave us a menu of amazing movie masterpieces) they don’t shield you from the fateful knocking at the door that interrupted the knight and his friends at the end of “The Seventh Seal.” And so, on a summer’s day in July, Bergman, the great cinematic poet of mortality, couldn’t prolong his own inevitable checkmate, and the finest filmmaker of my lifetime was gone” […]
Michelangelo Antonioni
By Martin Scorsese, August 12, 2007
“The more I saw “L’Avventura” — and I went back many times — the more I realized that Antonioni’s visual language was keeping us focused on the rhythm of the world: the visual rhythms of light and dark, of architectural forms, of people positioned as figures in a landscape that always seemed terrifyingly vast” […]

In tackling the big questions, Antonioni raised the bar for filmmakers
Like Bergman, the Italian director explored the forces of modern-day existence.
By Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2007
“At the time of their deaths they were arguably Europe’s two most famous great film directors. How very different they were in style, temperament and culture: Bergman grappled with faith and the danger of its loss while Antonioni became the master of alienation. Bergman’s films tended to have a classical formality while Antonioni experimented with very long takes and bravura tracking shots” […]

By Richard Corliss. from Time Magazine, August 5, 2007
“These are the existential blahs that critic Andrew Sarris called “Antoniennui.” For audiences unable to get on the director’s wavelength or into his measured rhythm, seeing his characters suffer in slow motion was like watching paint dry. Movies were supposed to move, not slouch against a wall, and the pace of Antonioni’s movies was a special test for the antsy. […]
“Pro or con, a filmgoer had to be diverted by the beautiful people in an Antonioni cast: stunners like Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Alain Delon and especially Monica Vitti, the director’s mistress and muse for five crucial films. These stars helped Antonioni make anxiety glamorous, passivity photogenic, entropy entertaining. You could say he made “boring” interesting. “

Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)

The famed Italian director, died yesterday (ironically the same day as the equally legendary Ingmar Bergman) at the age of 94.

An excerpt from his New York Times obituary:

Tall, cerebral and resolutely serious, Mr. Antonioni harkens back to a time in the middle of the last century when cinema-going was an intellectual pursuit, when purposely opaque passages in famously difficult films spurred long nights of smoky argument at sidewalk cafes, and when fashionable directors like Mr. Antonioni, Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were chased down the Cannes waterfront by camera-wielding cinephiles demanding to know what on earth they meant by their latest outrage.

Mr. Antonioni is probably best known for Blowup, a 1966 drama set in Swinging London about a fashion photographer who comes to believe that a photograph he took of two lovers in a public park also shows, hidden in the background, evidence of a murder. But his true, lasting contribution to cinema resides in an earlier trilogy — L’Avventura in 1959, La Notte in 1960 and L’Eclisse in 1962 — which explores the filmmaker’s tormented central vision that people had become emotionally unglued from one another.

This vision of the apartness of people was expressed near the end of La Notte, when his star Monica Vitti observes, “Each time I have tried to communicate with someone, love has disappeared.”

In a generation of rule-breakers, Mr. Antonioni was one of the most subversive and venerated. He challenged moviegoers with an intense focus on intentionally vague characters and a disdain for such mainstream conventions as plot, pacing and clarity. He would raise questions and never answer them, have his characters act in self-destructive ways and fail to explain why, and hold his shots so long that the actors sometimes slipped out of character.

It was all part of the director’s design. As Mr. Antonioni explained, “The after-effects of an emotion scene, it had occurred to me, might have meaning, too, both on the actor and on the psychological advancement of the character.”

Mr. Antonioni broke other conventions, too. Many of his cuts, scene lengths and camera movements were highly idiosyncratic, and he frequently posed his characters in a highly formalized way. He employed point-of-view shots only rarely, a practice that helped erect an emotional shield between the audience and his puzzling characters.

What is impressive about Antonioni’s films is not that they are good,” the film scholar Seymour Chatman wrote. “But that they have been made at all.”

You can read the complete obituary here.