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What Antonioni’s cinema means to me

Michelangelo Antonioni was a director who pushed the boundaries of narrative cinema, looking past played-out storylines in his never-ending quest to capture a national mood and transplant it onto celluloid. His brand of cinema is so atmospheric, so rich, so free of tropes and so captivating that watching a single one of his films is guaranteed to be an unforgettable connection with the immediacy of human emotion and the art of the moving image.

After watching dozens and dozens of modern action films, comedies and thrillers that barrel forwards with a relentless pace through barriers of exposition, breaking the speedy, expository monotony with a film that unfolds at the pace of life is bliss. Antonioni’s films are slow. They are Thoughtful. They are beautiful.

L’Avventura is often considered his best film. This critically adored 1960s classic is a mystery story that never solves its central mystery. Instead, it tries to reflect, mirror and capture a specific time and place, immortalising it in cinema. A vision of post-War Italy, dominated by a bored, drifting bourgeoisie tumbling into ill-advised affairs, ignoring their responsibilities and repeating their own cycles of meaningless toxicity is preserved forever in this extraordinary film.

Claudia and Sandro go on an existential road trip through Italy

Antonioni manages to deconstruct the very concept of narrative cinema by setting up a tantalising central plotline and then completely abandoning it. After Claudia, her friend Anna and Anna’s boyfriend Sandro sail to a small, rocky island with a party of wealthy Italian couples, Anna goes missing. In search of their friend and girlfriend, Claudia and Sandro go on an existential road trip through Italy searching for clues to her whereabouts.

As Anna is slowly forgotten, her neglectful searchers stumble into their own passionate, awkward love affair. The first hour of the film revolves around the trip to the island and Anna’s disappearance. Mood, sense and atmosphere are prioritised above storytelling.

The relaxed pace and hyper-focus on the detail of the local architecture, the beauty of the natural rock formations and the inconsequential conversations of the bickering wealthy couples challenges the audience. We are used to being spoon-fed a clear, constantly developing storyline. Here there are only stilted lives and disconnected relationships playing out at walking speed.

When Anna and Sandro first meet, they retreat to Sandro’s room for sex. Claudia is left alone on the street outside. With any other film we’d expect a sudden cut to the next scene. Not here. Antonioni shows us Claudia wandering aimlessly through an art gallery, onto a balcony, back through the gallery and outside again. She sighs, stares at nothing in particular and waits. Without a single word, we understand. We feel Claudia’s loneliness. Her isolation. Her conflicted feelings towards her friend. Using nothing but the most basic elements of cinema (a camera and a silent actress) Antonioni creates an emotional environment so rich, tactile and alive that we feel captured within it ourselves.

Antonioni’s films are full of these silent, lonely reflections. His distinctive brilliance was his ability to make plotless, slow-paced films utterly absorbing. As crucial as Antonioni’s technical skill was, he must share the credit for the quality of his best work. L’Avventura and L’Eclisse would be far lesser films without the striking screen presence of Antonioni’s muse and frequent leading lady: Monica Vitti.

Monica Vitti is my favourite actress.

The themes of Antonioni’s very best works are given eternal life by the potency of Monica Vitti’s performances

It’s often said that the very best actors can convey the meaning of a scene with a look. Monica Vitti is the very embodiment of that phrase. Haunting, charming and beguiling in equal measure, a simple scene of her walking down a street or looking across a horizon burns with meaning and resonance. Emptiness, desire, alienation, doubt, existential angst. The themes of Antonioni’s very best works are given eternal life by the potency of Monica Vitti’s performances.

Vitti excels as Claudia in L’Avventura but gives her most commendable performance in L’Eclisse, the film that Antonioni released two years later. L’Eclisse builds upon the thematic content of L’Avventura but is even less conventional in its structure and form, trusting Vitti’s anchoring presence with the film’s success. Fortunately, she’s utterly spellbinding.

L’Eclisse’s characters are lost people, haunting the ghostly, deserted streets of a barren, Cold War-era Rome. Their lives revolve around symbols and representations: pictures of exotic places that they’ll never travel to, money and stocks without a physical presence, empty relationships that they strike up in the hope of creating meaning. The hunt for sense in physical experience is replaced by the comfort of simulations of the real thing.

While in L’Avventura the characters seemed to be in active rebellion against the logical endpoint of the narrative, L’Eclisse has no narrative for the characters to rebel against. Monica Vitti plays Vittoria, a translator who falls into a passionate but restrained relationship with Piero, a stockbroker. That’s all there is to the story.

Despite the intensity of the physical side of Vittoria and Piero’s relationship, we feel that both are in some sense acting. They are solitary people tricking themselves into believing that they’re in love. L’Eclisse is lengthy, deliberate and light on dialogue. None of this matters. Through indelible imagery, intuitive performances and the brilliant use of empty space, Antonioni’s film creates its own barely inhabited universe.

A ferry-ride through an urban purgatory

L’Eclisse is a strange ghost story, a ferry-ride through an urban purgatory. At its very end a nameless character is shown to be reading a newspaper bearing the headline “The Atomic Age”. Suddenly we understand how crucial the context is. We are witnessing the futility of creating meaningful relationships under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Rome is a battleground waiting for a battle. The stunning, foreboding final sequence is wordless visual poetry that I wouldn’t dare to spoil.

I’ve discovered some very special films in the last year of my life, but L’Avventura and L’Eclisse are something else entirely. They’re films that I’ve identified with and loved to such an extent that they’ve become akin to internal organs. They’re part of me now.

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