Michelangelo Antonioni once described his work as “archeological research” which sifted through “the arid remains of our times”. If Fellini claimed to treat the past as science fiction, Antonioni gazed deeply into the future already visible in the present (L’Eclisse) or a past which uneasily hung onto a present that had outlived it (L’Avventura).
Born in an upper-middle class family in Ferrara in 1912; Antonioni studied economics at the University of Bologna, where he staged works by Luigi Pirandello as well as original work written by himself. Antonioni’s time as a film critic for the Roman Cinema magazine brought him in contact with Cesare Zavattini, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and others. For Rossellini, he would co-write Un pilota ritorna and with Fellini, he collaborated on the screenplay of his first feature The White Shiek.
Antonioni, however, yearned to begin his own career in film. To this end, he enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinemografia, the official state supported film school. This period included a brief detour to France where Antonioni worked as an assistant director on Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du Soir. Antonioni began his film career in earnest with documentary shorts Gente del Po (about the poverty surrounding the Po River Valley) and N. U. (about janitors in post-war Rome). His feature film debut Story of A Love Affair(1950) departed from the existing norm of neorealism in its focus on the nouveau-riche middle class of post-war Italy. This haunting work contains the hallmarks of what became the Antonioni style – visual richness, intricate camera movements, sensual rhythm and an unsentimental approach to love and human relationships. Antonioni developed this style in his subsequent films: Le Amiche, an adaptation of Cesare Pavese’s Among Women Only which focused on the lifestyle of working women; The Lady Without Camelias, a scathing satire of the Italian film industry which features a powerful performance from Antonioni’s first muse Lucia Bosè and the haunting Il grido, which focuses on the desiccated life of a factory worker after his long-time lover (played by Alida Valli - The Third Man, Senso) leaves him.
L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, his succeeding films, formed a loose trilogy. The international acclaim made these films the director’s most representative work; refining themes from his early features while breaking new ground in its poetic approach to narrative and its magnificent black-and-white cinematography. These films expressed the uncertain nature of modern life and the overwhelming influence environment held on human consciousness. All three of these films starred Monica Vitti. Her next film with Antonioni, his first in colour and their last real collaboration (barring the uncharacteristic video-theater piece The Mystery of Oberwald) was The Red Desert. The film used colours as dramatic material in order to transpose the psychological state of Monica Vitti’s character. Where his black-and-white works used stark compositions to emphasize the psychological impact of physical spaces on his characters, Antonioni would use colour to move further inside his character’s subjectivity. Antonioni succinctly explained his changing approach to Jean-Luc Godard in a famous 1964 interview:
Jean-Luc Godard: The drama is no longer psychological, but plastic . . .
Michelangelo Antonioni: It’s the same thing.
A three-film deal with producer Carlo Ponti initiated a period of travel that took Antonioni to England (Blow-Up), America (Zabriskie Point), China (Chung Kuo) and Spain (The Passenger). These films reflected a new optimism in the director, emphasized by a widening of geographical horizons. They also served as significant documents of the late 60s zeitgeist; Blow-Up being a definitive portrait of “Swinging London”, and Zabriskie Point is an unforgettable time capsule of late-60s Los Angeles. The latter film featured one of Antonioni’s most extravagant set-pieces, a climactic montage of consumer goods and household articles exploding to bits and pieces. Antonioni would better this with the end of The Passenger, which featured one of the most elaborate camera set-ups in film history.
The final phase of Antonioni’s career reduced Antonioni’s output to a film per decade, with only three features and two shorts completed before his death in 2007. Identification of a Woman, made in 1984, is the strongest of his final films. While revisiting themes from his 60s films, it also signals a major shift in style. The drama is more impressionistic, the visual design is restrained; Antonioni’s composition and use of colour is solely concentrated on his characters state of mind. The film director protagonist (played byTomás Milián) moves through unfulfilling relationships while deciding the theme of his next film. The film’s heightened self-reflexivity derives from Antonioni seeking a measure of serenity amidst the constant mutability of modern life. Serenity is the quest of many of his characters, what they seek at the end of their adventure, regardless of how fleeting and transient it proves to be.