Michelangelo Antonioni | Classic Italian Film | N.U. | Cronaca di un amore / Story of a Love Affair | I vinti / The Vanquished | Le Amiche | Il Grido | L'Avventura | La Notte | L'Eclisse | Blowup | The Passenger | Beyond the Clouds
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Classic Italian Film is often realist. It often accurately depicts some aspect of the real world.
Classic Italian Film most often shows extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. These extraordinary people are not the sort of folks we encounter every day. Some of these people often included in Classic Italian Film:
Classic Italian Film centers on well-developed characters, whose thoughts and feelings are vividly conveyed to the viewer. The characters are brilliantly acted, often by extraordinarily charismatic performers like Anna Magnani and Marcello Mastroianni. Audiences often identify with such characters, and see the world through their perspective. The film theory book Film as Film (1972) by V.F. Perkins sympathetically explores the idea of Participant-observer: the way viewers identify with characters in film, and see the world from their point of view.
Classic Italian Film is complex. It offers elaborate depictions of people and society, as well as often very complex visual style. It is the opposite of "minimalist".
Complexity and well-developed characters are also widespread in classic drama, such as Hamlet and Antigone.
Complexity is an important value in Classical Music.
Complexity is a value in classic prose mystery fiction.
Some classic mystery short stories center on related themes: G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" (1910), Karel Capek's "The Blue Chrysanthemum" (circa 1928?).
N.U. ends with a related image: a street or street-like path of some sort, with rows of posts down it. It is unclear what sort of "street" this is, ow what the posts are. This sort of ambiguity runs through N.U., where we don't always understand what we are seeing. Perhaps the Italian audience in 1949 understood the settings better. But today, many of the images have a mysterious quality.
Previously, in Gente del Po, Antonioni showed the shacks of the river people. N.U. depicts the tiny urban shacks of the street cleaners. These seem hardly bigger than telephone booths.
We also get more of water imagery, with what looks like a canal. And the staircase imagery in Antonioni, with outdoor steps.
The food dished out to the cleaners looks like some variety of cottage cheese. Both the food and its distribution process seem mysterious. And a bit haunting.
We also see the circular basin of a fountain.
The heroine, seven years before, had broken off completely with her earlier life, and started a new one. This is like the heroines to come of Il Grido, and L'Avventura. However, in those films we see the heroine's earlier life, and her future after she disappears is a mystery. In Cronaca di un amore the audience perspective is different. We gradually learn about both parts of the heroine's life: her current life in the present, and what she did as a girl before the big change. This is a bit like The Passenger, in which we learn about Jack Nicholson's new and old lives throughout the film.
The older husband, usually an unsympathetic person in Cain plots, is actually quite likable. He loves to go to the theater, concerts and night clubs, and to socialize with other couples. All of these are activities that the wife interferes with, twice in the film - she is a real killjoy. The husband is also the first of the sympathetic businessmen that run through Antonioni's films. He owns numerous factories, makes business deals, and is trying to explore new markets and products. He is a producer; the wife is a consumer. Antonioni likes to show how dynamic and exciting business is. The husband here is honest, and treats his wife well; she lies to him and exploits him, being interested only in his money.
The boyfriend's apparent economic status changes in the two halves of the film. At first, he is well dressed in a good suit and overcoat, and says he is a car dealer. Eventually, he says he has exaggerated, and turns into a penniless drifter sponging off the rich woman, as in James M. Cain tales. The feel of economic decline anticipates Il Grido - although that hero really declines in fortune, while the hero here merely lies about his real status at first. The boyfriend seems a lot more likable in the first half, when he seems gainfully employed. In a modest, middle class way, he seems like another of Antonioni's businessmen. Even the detectives, engaged in a somewhat sordid business, get brownie points from Antonioni for being in there and trying.
However, this is not the full story about the boyfriend. The professor in Ferrara dismisses him as a "good looking boy", and says how much he hates good looking boys. This seems like jealousy, perhaps, at the time. But future developments shows the boyfriend to be little more than a good-looking front who exploits other people. The heroine was attracted to him at once - he is as much a sex object as she is. And both are gradually revealed to be morally corrupt. The hero is also depicted a an ex-jock, successful at sports when young, but a failure at all grown-up activities.
The heroine looks drastically different, in the old photos that represent her before her current incarnation as a socialite.
The Milan shop windows the heroine passes later also remind one a bit of the London shops in Blowup.
The music combo at the nightclub anticipates the rock band in Blowup - both were probably cutting edge pop ensembles in their day. The nightclub suggests that Antonioni was interested in La Dolce Vita long before Fellini.
In some ways, the heroine here is like the Vanessa Redgrave character in Blowup. Both turn out to be involved in murderous intrigues, although both enter their films simply as sexy, desirable women. We learn all about the heroine's actions in Cronaca di un amore, however, while Redgrave's character is permanently mysterious, involved with some desperate, murderous intrigue, of which we never learn the details.
The mystery investigation in Cronaca di un amore is triggered by some old photographs of the heroine. This is similar to, but less elaborate than, the way the photographs of Redgrave are explored in Blowup, for clues to the mystery.
There are also shots along rivers, a perennial Antonioni image. One river landscape, with different kinds of steps along both sides of a road parallel to the river, is especially striking. One wonders if this is some sort of riverside sports complex. There is a huge curving white structure revealed at one point. This could be a set of sports bleachers. In any event, its curvature makes it seem like a very strange example of modern architecture. It is like a dream, or a Giorgio de Chirico painting. The hero and heroine wander all alone in it, as they will later wander alone in the deserted modernist village in L'Avventura.
The many shots along roads also anticipate Il Grido. These roads tend to be long and straight, stretching both directions in a flat, empty countryside.
It is hard for me to tell for sure, not being a resident of Italy, but it looks as if Antonioni is showing many of the same streets and buildings in Milan, as he will show a decade later in La Notte.
There is also a feeling of stasis, and being trapped, that comes through in both films. We are used to seeing Max Ophuls' camera moves, which follow people as they walk great distances through long paths. There is little of this in Antonioni - only the walk from the garage to the nightclub, with the boyfriend, model and car agent is of this form. The camera here will explore all over a room, but it is trapped inside, and goes nowhere. It is like a bird fluttering around inside a cage. This trapped feeling is even more pronounced in Cronaca di un amore. At least the steady pans of Il Grido give a feeling of some sort of progression. Here in Cronaca di un amore, the camera lurches all over a set, but never really gets anywhere.
In the Professor's room in Ferrara, the camera suddenly moves towards the window. In between the window-bars, we eventually see the detective walking in the street below. Then the camera moves back from the barred window, and resumes its exploration of the room. This shot anticipates the celebrated final long take of The Passenger, which actually moves between the bars of its window, out into the street.
Outdoors, there are numerous pans. One shows the overhead of a complex intersection in Milan. It is a fascinating panorama, which combines the features of a map, with a look at the actions of many people below. There is a policeman standing on a small platform directing traffic. Such overhead looks at cityscapes will be especially plentiful in L'Eclisse.
With young people committing murder and robbery, I vinti is often described as being about juvenile delinquency. This is true to a degree: the film's opening depicts youth crime as being a growing social problem. However, these are some of the cinema's most respectable-looking "delinquents", middle class and often neatly groomed in good suits and ties! They tend to plot "perfect crimes". All in all, the atmosphere is not like The Blackboard Jungle, but rather like a neorealist version of Rope (Alfred Hitchcock, 1948), a film which shows wealthy young men attempting a perfect murder. The episodes also recall the planned crime in Antonioni's own Cronaca di un amore.
The outing includes a depiction of a glider plane. Like other depictions of flying in Antonioni, it is happy and joyous. It offers a welcome respite from the downbeat crime plot.
And looked at abstractly, the camera movements and visual style are often fascinating. The many staircase shots, especially of a outdoor stairs system at the beach, are excellent.
The second half of both films depicts a disastrous adulterous affair. There are no mysteries here, just a steady progress towards calamity.
The heroine is faced with a choice at the end, between continuing her successful job, and getting married. I confess I did not understand this at all. I was born in 1953, and have vivid memories of 1950's America being full of married women who worked - most of my school teachers, for example. Were things different in 1955 Italy? No one ever suggests that it might be possible for the heroine to get married, and keep on working at her job.
The heroine is faced with a grim choice: a life of loneliness but employment at her job, or a life of extreme poverty as the stay-at-home wife of the working class man she loves. Since she desperately needs the money, why can't she get married and keep her job? Would people in Italy have shot her down in the street if she tried to do this? Her genial, puppy dog like boyfriend hardly seems like a man with ego-driven demands, for his wife to quit work or anything else. He in fact seems like a man who she could lead around by the nose. Unfortunately, Antonioni never clarifies the sociological context in Italy of the heroine's situation.
The film does make clear that in 1955, working class Italians still lived at the grim poverty levels shown in Bicycle Thieves (1949). The main alternative to such poverty is a relentless work-ethic lifestyle, in which would-be middle class Italians plunge ahead with total determination at some business or job. This is the route taken by the heroine. Antonioni shows the downside of such a committed, joyless life. But he does not caricature the heroine. She works hard, is honest and truthful, treats her customers fairly, and is honest in her dealings with her employees. While she thoroughly chews out the behind-schedule workmen she employs, the film also makes clear that they are in the wrong: they have been lying to her about the schedule they committed to. She is also the only character in the film who tries to help other people, taking practical steps on their behalf.
Later Antonioni films will present ambiguous images of big businessmen: part glamorized wheeler-dealers, part socially irresponsible capitalists. But the heroine here is not at their financial level. She is working her business so diligently, simply as a form of economic survival. Her alternative is life in a Bicycle Thieves-style slum.
The business woman heroine who rejects her boyfriend, and the working class boyfriend who is a skilled construction worker, anticipate Il Grido, and the working class mechanic who is rejected by his girl friend.
Many other Antonioni films contain mysteriously dissatisfied upper class heroines. By contrast the women in Le Amiche work for a living, and their dissatisfaction is anything other than mysterious. It comes directly from social mistreatment.
The lovers on the beach, recall couples making love on the ground in other Antonioni films.
Antonioni was born in Ferrara, and went to school at the University of Bologna. So this is his home region of Italy. This region, which looks like nothing else on Earth, is a major draw for Antonioni's films. Antonioni likes to film his stories in photogenic areas that are not much explored by other film makers. We have the islands of L'Avventura, the Death Valley landscapes of Zabriskie Point, and the industrial buildings of The Red Desert.
The gas station in Il Grido anticipates the sandwich shop in Zabriskie Point.
Emigration. Both Il Grido and The Red Desert concern people who emigrate to far distant lands in the Southern Hemisphere (Australia, Patagonia) to perform industrial work. There is also the man in the shack in L'Avventura, who has just come back from thirty years in Australia. The antique store owner in Blowup wants to emigrate to either Nepal or Morocco. The boyfriend in Cronaca di un amore did his military service in Africa, and talks about the stars there.
A woman who rejects. Many of the personal relationships in Il Grido seem to anticipate Antonioni's next film, L'Avventura (1959). Both films open with a woman who rejects her entire current life, who takes off and disappears. Both films show her absolute but somewhat mysterious distaste for everything around her. The remainder of both films show the negative effect of this on the people around her. In both film the hero has a series of affairs. He cannot remain faithful to any woman, and he experiences a personal disintegration, a sense of guilt over his inability to love and be faithful.
Hi tech vehicles. The boating scenes here anticipate those of L'Avventura. Antonioni obviously loves this sort of high technology craft - one also recalls the airplane of Zabriskie Point, and the rockets in La Notte. They represent an interval of joy and excitement in the hero's otherwise pervasive problems.
Men who make things. In both Il Grido and L'Avventura the hero takes to the road, constantly shifting from place to place. Both film's heroes are men who make things - they have a constructive role. The working class hero of Il Grido is a mechanic. He is outstanding at his job, and can repair any mechanical device. The much more upper class hero of L'Avventura is an architect. He too is a builder, very good at his job, and very successful. Both men's jobs show them in direct relationship to the world about them. In both films, the hero is someone who helps build the world around him, whether it is houses or machinery. Everywhere he goes, he encounters objects that his profession allows him to relate to, whether they are buildings or machines.
Unfortunately, both film's heroes suffer a degenerative relationship to their profession. The hero of Il Grido quits his steady job near the beginning of the film, and takes up a series of menial ones, to support himself on his wanderings. The hero of L'Avventura has abandoned his youthful idealistic dreams before the film has opened, and worked on a series of lucrative commercial projects instead. The writer hero of La Notte is considering abandoning writing.
Making love - in the earth. There are also images in Il Grido that anticipate Zabriskie Point. The scenes of lovemaking in both films are similar. In Il Grido, the couple makes love in a crevice in a vast sea of mud. They are the only living figures in a vast expanse of dead earth. This anticipates the famous desert love scene of Zabriskie Point, where the couple makes love on the dead sands of Zabriskie Point, the lowest point in the United States, and part of the arid wastelands of Death Valley. Here, too, the couple is in a crevice in the Earth - in both films it looks like an area that is the now dried up path of a water runway. The couple making love at the end of La Notte also are on the bare ground, outdoors but very isolated.
The political finale. The finale of Il Grido counterpoints its despair laden hero with political activists: a similar balance will be struck in Zabriskie Point. I confess I did not like this finale of Il Grido at all: it ruins what was otherwise a good movie.
Occasionally Antonioni tracks backwards. A beautiful shot of this nature occurs under the portico after the boat race. The camera watches two young lovers kiss, then tracks backward to reveal the hero and heroine, also in a romantic mood. It is a clever and joyous shot, one that conveys high spirits and joie de vivre, just like the characters' emotions at this time.
The first kitchen is seen completely in the round, with all four walls displayed. It is easy to reconstruct its spatial coordinates, especially on a second viewing of the film. Antonioni almost never stages two scenes in it at exactly the same camera angle. Each shot shows the interior at a slightly different angle or point of view from anything that has gone before. The idea seems to be an attempt to avoid monotony. Also, to find an angle which subtly suggests the "right" emotion for the scene. The angles, while varied, tend to be at recognizable variations on each other.
We are remote here from Fritz Lang, who attacks each new set-up in his interiors from a startlingly new angle, and who often makes it difficult for the audience to deduce the precise spatial coordinates of his shot. The fact that Lang's camera tends to be fixed in static composition for each shot, while Antonioni's is nearly always panning, also causes key differences in effect. For one thing, it is much easier in Antonioni to regard a current shot as a variation of the preceding.
One might compare Cochran's performance here with those in two American noir films: Felix E. Feist's Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951) and Don Siegel's Private Hell 36 (1953). Aspects of Cochran's Hollywood persona also play a major role in Il Grido:
The famous real-life Leaning Tower of Pisa also has a staircase which emerges on the tower's outside in a section.
Similarly, on land, when Antonioni shows an outdoor landscape, each object of the landscape is clearly portrayed, and forms its own separate region within the screen. There are rarely any obstructions in front of it. If Antonioni shows a building, we see its facade clearly, in one section of the screen. A tree will be all by itself, clearly outlined against a bare sky.
There are usually just a handful of such objects/regions on the screen. The viewer can take all of them in at a glance, although they are beautiful to linger on, as well. A composition might contain five regions, each one clearly and purely outlined.
Such pure compositions, with each region of the screen strongly outlined, recall traditional Japanese paintings. Early Renaissance Italian art of the 1400's also shows such a pure compositional feel.
Some of the early shots in L'Avventura have a visual organization that recalls Rossellini's technique in Stromboli. In that film, Rossellini often included a horizontal band full of architecture in the upper regions of the screen, while the lower portion of the screen was devoted to an open area through which the characters moved. This open area was sometimes just a big empty space; but it could also include rigorous, even maze like paths down which the characters wander. (Please see the discussion of Stromboli in the article on Rossellini for details.) The opening shot of L'Avventura has a similar approach. The upper portion of the screen shows the heroine's house. It is architecturally complex, with two sides of the house visible, regularly repeating windows, and a circular arch. The lower portion of the screen is a more open area, down which the heroine walks. It has a diagonally depicted path between two hedges, just as Rossellini sometimes showed a diagonal path between two low walls.
Similarly, when the heroine leaves the house and has the talk with her father, the lower portion of the screen shows an open field. It too has a conspicuous path, receding straight down to a vanishing point in the distance. Soon, a workman will walk down this path. Meanwhile, an upper rectangular portion of the screen shows architecture: a series of buildings in the distance. Most of these buildings are rectilinear examples of modern architecture, but one is a traditional dome of what is apparently a church. This church is conspicuously placed near the vanishing point of the path, as if it were a spiritual destination in our lives. Its prominently circular shape is just as conspicuous in this composition, as was the circular arch in the opening shot.
Circular arcs are prominent throughout the opening compositions in L'Avventura. The canal, against which both women are often framed, contains huge circular archways, through which the water flows. These shots combine rectilinear forms such as pillars and the banks of the canal, with these prominent circular arches.
Similarly, the hero's apartment is full of circular arches. These are worked into the compositions, which often contain one vast circular arc in a sea of rectilinear forms. These interiors match the many early exteriors which also combine an arch and rectilinear architecture. Such a repeated design pattern gives both unity and intellectual depth to the compositions early in the film.
The shot with the most circular forms is the one showing the hero's desk and study. Here, numerous circular arches repeat all over the upper reaches of the room, making a spectacular composition, and one of the richer curvilinear shots in film history. The complexity and beauty of these circles suggests the complexity of the hero's mind. It is a picture of the inner workings of his thinking processes. The human mind is very rich and beautiful. Here, Antonioni has found a visual correlative, one suggesting its richness, wonder and complexity. The hero's study is often an important region in Antonioni's films. The novelist's study is La Notte is a beautiful library, filled with books. It too seems to be a real work area of a major thinker. Both of the heroine's boyfriends are shown at their desks in L'Eclisse, as is the photographer in Blowup, and we see what seems to be the hero's study in The Passenger. The desk seems to be part of professional identity in Antonioni, signifying the hero's work visually. All of these characters are male, and of middle class status or higher. His films contrast with those of Fritz Lang, where it is chiefly villains who are shown working at their desks.
The overhead view of markings around the pillar outside the hero's apartment also has curvilinear forms. These are like pie shaped regions, perhaps marked out for parking. These regions are complex visual forms, and a shape we rarely see in the movies. Antonioni shows two nuns making their way across this region.
Once inside the buildings, Antonioni shows as much of the landscape outside through the windows as possible. Characters sometimes appear through these windows, as well. We also see shots from the outside of buildings, looking in through the windows; these anticipate the scene in L'Eclisse, where the heroine is going home at night, and we see into her apartment. Later, there are shots of the characters going down long, narrow corridors to the artist's room. When they return later, after the scene in the room, we see these corridors from outside the building, through the windows. Both within and without, these corridors seem like unusual architectural features. Antonioni loves this inside/outside dual perspective; it will be found again in L'Eclisse.
Outside, Antonioni favors scenes where the characters are standing in front of a hill. This allows the landscape to rise up behind the characters, and form their background. There are often buildings or other features at the top the hill, which appear over the characters' heads. Antonioni also uses canals and other human structures to form a "landscape" background for his performers.
Ozu specialized in scenes in which overlapping, transparent wires, trolley lines, power grids, laundry lines, etc., make geometric patterns in the sky above. Antonioni tends to avoid this kind of shot; he tends instead to show non-overlapping buildings or trees in his landscapes. One of the few shots of wires in L'Avventura occurs when the hero and both heroines are driving away towards the cruise. Here such wires gradually emerge in the sky, as the car drives along the curving road. They make a richer and richer pattern, and eventually fill the shot over the car.
After Anna disappears, we see scenes showing the interior and top of the island for the first time. The texture changes - instead of volcanic rock walls, the landscape now looks like sand with boulders and small rocks. The characters are now entirely engulfed in the island. Many of these shots have no water at all - they simply show the island's interior.
There are also shots beginning here, which show the coast, but from the point of view of some one on the top of the island, looking down. The most spectacular of these shots shows a channel between two rock cliffs, from above. After we have panned to the right along the channel, we see Sandro enter the frame from the right. Then the camera pans slowly up, till we see the top of the island, and the sea in the background. It is one of the most complex pans in the film. The final view is typical of the "top of the island" shots we have been seeing. But the shot as a whole shows the complexity of the island, and what has been underlying it.
After all this, we begin to see shots with more water in the background. There is also a shot of the hill, with the shack on top. Another shot shows an island as a whole. One wonders if this is the island we have been on - it always looks this way to me when I watch the film. But no - it is simply another island. The camera begins panning, and we see the top of our own island, and familiar characters on it.
The progression of shots - starting looking up at the rocky cliffs from below, then moving to the top of the mountain, then looking down the cliffs from above to water beyond - recalls the ascent of the rocks in the opening scene of Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur (1953). Mann's rocks are inland, in Colorado, and the water nearby is a river, not the ocean, but the organization of the shots is quite similar in both films. In The American Cinema (1968), Andrew Sarris pointed out that there were resemblances between Mann's and Antonioni's visual styles.
A classic shot shows Sandro searching the island's coast from a boat. This is one of the few tracking shots in the film - most of the camera movement consists of pans. We get a more detailed shot of the hill with the shack, but this time with some of the shore line included - so we are pulling back a bit. These shots show the coast walls head on, so they are somewhat similar to the opening series of shots of the coast line, when people first came to the island. The shot suggests that Sandro is retreating from the island, and becoming more distant from the search. This is perhaps not fair - using the boat to search is a good idea. But still it suggests a perhaps subconscious withdrawal on his part. The camera moves past a channel leading into the island, between two cliffs. The boat eventually moves into position so that we can see the channel head on, receding from the front to the back of the screen. This is a common function of camera movement in L'Avventura. A similar shot in a square with move the camera so that we get a direct look up a narrow street next to a basilica. The camera in that shot will in fact move so that we see both the receding street, and later the building along the right hand side of the street. Similarly, the shot of Anna' father near the beginning of the film shows an old road receding directly back from the viewer. Antonioni loves such perspective views.
The characters in the gallery are significant. We see some Americans, talking in English about art. These seem to be serious intellectuals, and they are treated respectfully by the director. They show that the milieu of the film is not restricted to Italy, but rather encompasses educated, modern people all over the world. Even more revealing are two men we see next, staring raptly at pictures in the gallery. Their overwhelmingly intense expressions convey the idea that art is the most important thing in the world. Such an intense interest in art was typical of the 1950's and 1960's, when many educated people regarded it as one of the most important things in life. One often saw such deeply engaged expressions in real life galleries and museums.
The main similarities are as follows: Both works open aboard a luxurious yacht trip; both then visit frighteningly barren volcanic desert islands. Both contain an eerie disappearance. Both contain an elaborate search through a rocky, deserted island for a missing person. After the mysterious events occur in both works, the yacht moves to another island in the chain to report the events to the authorities.
There are some differences, as well. There are three murders in The Affair of the Scarlet Crab. The first is the disappearance (Chapter 6). This takes place on board the yacht, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. One of the characters simply vanishes in the middle of the night, and is never seen again. The next morning the other members of the party notice his absence, search the boat for him unsuccessfully, and gradually come to the conclusion that he must have fallen overboard. This whole experience is disturbing to the reader. Nothing conclusive gets established, and no direct evidence of what happens is discovered. The character might just as well have evaporated into space. The disappearance resembles in its frustrating inconclusiveness the one in L'Avventura. The desire of the other characters to forget about it, to blank it out of their emotional memories, also recalls the film. Although the disappearance is eventually explained at the end of the book, this explanation comes many weeks later for the characters, and hundreds of pages later for the reader. The whole thing has some of the inconclusiveness of Antonioni's film. Also, the events sneak up on the reader, just as they do in the film. There is no clear line of demarcation. Ordinary story events just begin to include a character who is not present. Eventually worry begins to snowball, and people gradually realize something is wrong.
The second murder in the book is the one that takes place on the island (Chapters 16 - 18). This too starts out as a mysterious disappearance. It triggers an elaborate search of the island, just as in the movie. The searchers call out the victim's name, just as everyone cries out "Anna!" in the film. Unlike the film, this search culminates in the discovery of a body. However, before this, the second crime also has the appearance of a mysterious disappearance, just like the first. Knight's mise-en-scène of exploring a volcanic island is not dissimilar to Antonioni's. There is a shore line approached by small boats, flat places, hills and peaks.
The film's plot is more compact. There is only one event, the disappearance on the island. It is like a combination of the two first murders in the novel. Knight gives a complete resolution of all his mysteries at the end of the book; there is no modernist refusal to explain, which was such an innovative feature of the film. Also, there is no sense in the book that either victim might be still alive, as there is in the film.
The rich people aboard Knight's yacht live in Los Angeles; many have ties to Hollywood. They also have many romantic entanglements. They are not quite as modern and decadent as Antonioni's jaded socialites, but they have something of the same feel. They have a languid, sun-soaked quality, and a sense of erotic pre-occupation. Some of the characters are rich people whose lives involve both scientific research and being a member of Society. They are not conflicted about this as is Antonioni's architect turned businessman, but they do have a dual role in their careers.
The wealthy industrialist offers the writer a job doing public relations for his company. He wants to commission a history of his firm. In the United States in the last twenty years, such books are common, usually written by a professional writer and commissioned by a corporation or its CEO. I have no idea if they were equally common in Italy in 1960, or whether this was made up for the movie. What is different here is that the industrialist also offers the writer an executive position with the firm, as a public relations expert. This is an offer that carries enormous social prestige and financial rewards. It is consistent with the fascination Antonioni shows with business executives throughout his films. They are always glamorized, and their lives are depicted as being full of excitement. Antonioni also associates such an offer with selling out as an artist, the way the architect did in L'Avventura. Once again, it is unclear whether writers in 1960 Italy ever received such offers in real life. In today's United States, such an offer would be atypical. The writer would get a book deal and an advance, but no job offer with the firm.
The industrialist makes a speech about how his companies are works of art, which he lovingly built up for the joy of it. This suggests that capitalism has become a form of art. Unfortunately, the writer makes no declaration in the film of any love he has for writing. He seems jaundiced and exhausted. The offer made by the capitalist suggests that business might be replacing art in the modern world, or that business might be becoming the main art form of our world.
The behavior of the wealthy guests at the party is a bit hard to place sociologically. They are certainly not the sort of stuffy Society figures one associates with the 1930's rich or J. P. Marquand's satiric novel The Late George Apley (1937). They behave more like a group of unruly children or fraternity kids, playing party games, squealing, running around in the rain, and jumping into the swimming pool with their expensive clothes on. Their behavior definitely seems infantile. However, there is little sign of any indecent behavior here. The party, however wild and uninhibited, seems G-rated. Both the hero and his wife do spend a lot of time with other people, and are clearly contemplating having affairs. However, there is little indication that the other party guests are up to this sort of activity. Instead, the guests seem to be figures of wealth, who lead a life of frivolity and mindless amusement, but who are not actually up to anything sinister. Nor do the guests ever exhibit any signs of aggression to each other. They are a bunch of rich people who can indulge their whims. They are not out to pick a fight. They are self-indulgent, not hostile.
The first half-hour of the film is deeply architectural in its style. Its many exteriors often feature the city's buildings. A typical shot shows a city street or landscape.
Both the interiors and exterior shots are typically organized in a common pattern. The screen will be broken down into vertical sections. Each section or region of the screen will feature a different building or object in its background. These regions are dominated by a series of strong vertical lines. The lines reach from the top to the bottom of the screen. They mark off a series of rectangular sections of the screen. At the left of the screen, we will see the first region. It is a rectangle stretching from top to bottom of the screen's frame. Immediately to its right is another rectangle. It too reaches from top to bottom of the screen. Then follows a third rectangular region, and so on, until the right hand side of the screen is reached. Each rectangle is bordered by a left and right vertical line, one that reaches from the bottom of the frame to the top. The regions remind one of the vertical sections of the Italian or French flags.
The regions are of varying widths. Some are quite wide, taking up half of the screen or more. Others are narrow vertical strips, containing a single narrow skyscraper building or small section of a window. Antonioni shows a pleasing variety in the rectangles. They are always organized into the most harmonious compositions possible.
The above description shows what the screen looks like, considered as a flat rectangle, a two dimensional photograph projected on the screen. The actual composition is more complicated, however. It usually consists of a three dimensional area of Milan, such as a street. One can think of such a film image in two ways. One can regard it as a two dimensional composition on the screen, or as a three dimensional arrangement in space. Nearly all of Antonioni's images can be looked at in both ways. He clearly intends for the viewer to examine the images using both approaches. The images are designed to be fascinating, and full of visual interest, when looked at with both methods of seeing.
What do the images in La Notte look like, when regarded as 3D constructions? It is best to start with the numerous street scenes. Antonioni often shoots down a street. It has a strong perspective effect. We often see the street extending back into a great distance, from the front to the rear of the frame. Antonioni generates a strong sense of typical Renaissance perspective. The street often extends to a traditional "vanishing point" in the background, just as in a classical Renaissance painting that features strong perspective. Antonioni underscores the perspective effect by his choice of buildings on the streets. They often contain repeating elements, such as windows. As the series of windows or doorways repeats over and over again, each time looking smaller and smaller as they repeat down the street and towards the vanishing point, the compositional perspective effect is strongly underlined. It is like a classical perspective composition, heightened to the nth degree.
Antonioni often shows a building reaching from the top to the bottom of the frame. Looked at as a 2D image, this building forms one of the rectangular sections of the screen. As a 3D object, the building has a strong perspective effect, with its windows and other repeating architectural features contributing to the perspective view which dominates the composition.
The above discussion emphasizes Antonioni's strong vertical lines. But there is a counter-balancing feature to his compositions. The lower part of his frames also often include long horizontal blocks. Outside, these horizontal blocks are often made up of long, low buildings. These buildings tend to stretch part way across the screen. They rarely extend all the way across the screen. Rather, they extend across a few of the vertical sections of the frame. Looked at as part of the 3D construction, these buildings tend to add to the perspective effect. They tend to stretch out along the street, underscoring the classical Renaissance perspective effect.
Looked at as part of the two dimensional flat projection on the screen, the buildings add a new element to Antonioni's composition. The screen will principally be composed of a series of strong vertical sections and lines. The handful of horizontal blocks on the lower region of the screen will offer a counter-balancing force, allowing Antonioni to complete a graceful, forceful geometric composition.
The whole first half-hour of La Notte is built around such strong compositions. It is as if in each image, we were seeing a gigantic piece of sculpture, made up of a series of rectangular blocks. Most are vertical, a few are horizontal on the lower part of the screen. The characters can wander around in these giant sculptural environments. The viewer's eye can wander around too. Antonioni's camera lingers over the scenes, in his famous slow, exploratory style. It invites such a visual exploration of the scenes Antonioni displays. The use of the pause button on a video player allows an even more leisurely examination.
The structures in the film's first half are almost entirely rectilinear. They buildings are strictly rectangular blocks. The whole thing is constructed on pure geometric lines. It reminds one of Constructivist art movements of the early Twentieth Century, such as De Stijl, or the architectonic sculpture of Kazimir Malevich.
Antonioni's interiors in the first half-hour of La Notte are constructed on the same geometric principles as his exteriors. They too are made up of strong vertical blocks. Here the blocks are composed of doors, window sections, standing characters, parts of rooms, bookcases and so on. These objects are smaller than the buildings seen in the exteriors, but they function in almost exactly the same manner, to produce geometric compositions. Antonioni also gets perspective effects out of long corridors, stretching to the rear of the frame. All in all, the interiors of La Notte have the same effect of wandering around in a giant Constructivist sculpture as do the exteriors.
When the heroine Lidia reaches the outskirts of Milan, the visual style of the film changes. These outskirt shots are mainly constructed on different principles than the opening half-hour of the film. The outskirt scenes have a brief interlude in their middle, showing the hero back at his apartment. This apartment interlude in closer in style to the first half-hour of the film.
Antonioni's exteriors sometimes include "interiors", as well. He likes to shoot through windows of buildings, showing us lobbies or apartment rooms of buildings in the background of exterior street scenes. This is a mannerism that will be greatly extended in his next film, L'Eclisse. The effect is interesting. But it is also often hard to get a clear image of these interior rooms, as seen through glass windows on the street. In both films, the viewer really has to strain to see what is happening in these "interior", through-the-window-from-the-street shots.
Both the interiors and exteriors are often photographed by Antonioni using elevated camera angles. These angles outline the separate objects, and show them clearly to the viewer.
Other panning shots are vertical. When the characters leave the hospital, there is a beautifully framed image, that includes a row of trees in the background of the picture. As the car moves towards the rear of the image, Antonioni pans up to show a group of even larger trees in the background. Both the opening and closing images of the pan are among the most beautiful in La Notte. The opening image is especially lovely. The closing image is quite forceful. The vertical lines of the trees have a similar effect as all the strong vertical lines of the buildings in the rest of the movie.
The book party recalls the stock exchange scenes in L'Eclisse. Both are full of large groups of excited, animated, standing figures, crowded together in a single large room. Both are working at some job or intellectual profession: writing or publishing here, stock trading in L'Eclisse. People are dressed in business suits in both scenes. Both scenes are basically upbeat. Both show their characters as big successes in their profession. Both also contain undercurrents of social doubt: is this sort of public success really of any lasting value?
One should resist suggesting that the hero of La Notte is similar to the compromised architect of L'Avventura. The writer seems to be genuinely gifted artist, who writes good books. His friend Tommaso thinks his latest novel is his best. He also seems to be respected by the Nobel Prize winning author whose book he inscribes at the literary party. This is the latest of several books. The writer seems to work full time at his writing. He has a study crammed with books, and seems to be a serious intellectual. Our hero seems to be doing nothing to compromise his artistic integrity. He is suffering from a decline in confidence, however. As his dialogue states, he has run out of inspiration, and is not writing currently. He also has doubts about the future of literature and writing. He is not sure if it is still relevant or meaningful in today's world. This is more a portrait of a good man afflicted by an artistic crisis, than a man who has compromised his integrity, as was the case of the protagonist of L'Avventura.
I think in general that Antonioni is less negative than many critical accounts suggest. Some studies of Antonioni suggest that his films are constantly pointing the finger at his characters, indicting them for materialism, commercialism, infidelity, etc. Actually, Antonioni seems deeply sympathetic to the people in La Notte. They seem more like heroes than villains or case studies.
The party guests seem low-brow. The writer remarks that none of them would have read a serious book.
Anti-rationalism is often fashionable among the intelligentsia. Rationalism, which is associated with science and business, is often looked down upon. People often seem quick to assert what Vittoria does here: that she has strong feelings that she cannot explain in words, and which have no cause that can be explained or mollified. But in many ways, I think Riccardo is behaving much better. He is trying to reach out to another human being; Vittoria is not. He is trying to change his actions, if Vittoria will just give him some clue; she is inflexible. One also notes that tens of millions of women stuck in abusive relationships would love to find a man with all of Riccardo's care and good treatment of the heroine. Being a Good Guy seems to be earning him nothing in this relationship. After a certain point, Vittoria's anti-rationalism seems like a form of abuse. It is being used to hurt a man who is treating her decently. Admittedly, love is irrational, and cannot be fully controlled by reason or actions. But it can be explained and influenced by them, and Vittoria is denying this.
Riccardo is characterized in terms of traditional masculinity. He is dressed in a suit and tie. He is seated at a business desk in his apartment. He is sitting in a business-like leather chair; later he moves to a black leather chair that seems like the archetypal seat of the chairman of the board of some vast company. Antonioni has cast an actor (Francisco Rabal) who oozes a traditional masculinity. Later, we see Riccardo driving a fancy but business-like car - not a sports car. He is well groomed, has a haircut that would look good in any corporate office, and is seen shaving during a lull in his discussion with Vittoria - a masculine activity.
Riccardo differs from the heroes of Il Grido and The Passenger, in that he apparently refuses to go to pieces after Vittoria leaves. He is perhaps a bit too quick to accept her departure, and try to come to a bittersweet acceptance that their relationship is over. He might be criticized for a lack of passion. But we have already seen the disaster that befalls other Antonioni heroes when dumped, and one has to feel relief that Riccardo has some inner reserves of strength and sense. Later we see Riccardo trying to contact the heroine at night, at her apartment. One hopes this is not the start of a downward slide for him.
Later, the heroine will ogle a young man in the street, understandably upsetting her boyfriend (Alain Delon). This young man is of a physical type anticipating David Hemmings in Blowup. He seems even younger and more of a pretty-boy than Delon, and is not in a suit, unlike Delon's usual dressy business suits.
Rabal was around 35 when L'Eclisse was shot, Vitti 30, and Delon 25. It is clear in the film that Vitti starts out with a slightly older man, the standard social pattern of marriage in 1962, and soon is dating a younger man, a slightly daring thing for a woman of the time. Antonioni modifies this a little by ensuring that Delon is always seen in grown-up roles: we mainly see him doing his businessman's job at the stock exchange, he is always dressed up to max in spectacular business suits, we never see him with his parents or in any context that mark him as a child in his family, unlike the heroine's many scenes with her mother. He is definitely in an adult's role at all times, never that of an over-grown adolescent.
The two boyfriends in L'Eclisse embody different backgrounds. Riccardo at the beginning seems to be a writer. He has an intellectual's study, like the writer hero of La Notte. The stockbroker the heroine will soon meet comes from old money. His apartment is full of old paintings, while the writer's is full of modern art. This dichotomy between intellectuals and the big money rich also shows up in L'Avventura, with its architect hero mixing in with the jet-set representatives of Italy's old aristocracy, and La Notte, with its writer hero winding up at a party thrown at the lavish home of one of Italy's top businessmen. In all of these films, we see the contrasting home bases of the intellectual and moneyed characters, locales that play a key role in Antonioni's mise-en-scène.
A third kind of apartment decor in L'Eclisse is that of Martha, which is filled with photographs of Kenya. These three types of homes in L'Eclisse will recur in Blowup. The hero's painter friend across the street is an articulate intellectual and an artist, and his home is full of modern paintings; the party near the end will be in a house that typifies Britain's upper class old rich; and the hero's initially barren building will eventually be full of photographs put up on the walls.
The finale will refer, hauntingly, to the nuclear arms race. The film was made in the days leading up to the Cuban missile crisis in the fall of 1962, the most horrific nuclear episode of modern times. Antonioni clearly suggests that this is a deep part of the malaise felt by his characters, and modern society in general. In Blowup (1966), the protagonist will encounter ban-the-bomb peace marchers on the street. In L'Eclisse, too, the nuclear issue is read by a man getting off a bus, who walks down the street. It is just a much a part of everyday life as the woman with the baby carriage. This shows how deeply it is permeating into modern life.
The first stock market scene climaxes with its characters all standing in concentric circles, during the moment of silence. Huge circular pillars are also prominent in the building, throughout the sequence. The film's other most important piece of circular imagery is the barrel of water at the construction site, later in the movie.
The second episode instead climaxes on shots of the big board as a whole, rising over and dominating the traders below. The board's rectangular grid anticipates the equally rectilinear scaffolding on the strange building under construction in the finale, which also rises over the people in the street below.
The famous finale is unusual, to say the least, and widely commented on. The two leads do not appear at all, and their story is not resolved. But the finale is not a collection of arbitrary images, either. Everything in it is directly tied to locales or minor supporting characters we have previously glimpsed in the film. It develops this imagery in completely logical ways, allowing us a deeper understanding of what we have seen before. It other words, the finale is a full, logical climax to the film - but of a drastically different aspect of the film than a traditional movie. The logical connections here develop the locales and minor characters - not the plot and major characters.
If Antonioni had just slapped seven minutes of arbitrary footage on the end his film, the effect would have been startling, but not too deep. It would have been a one time stunt, something with a bit of a shock effect that violated the traditional rules of storytelling. There is a shock effect in what he actually did, but it is coupled with a deeply logical development of the previous bulk of the film.
Antonioni is trying to keep viewers informed, as well. Antonioni includes some vast panoramas taken from a high angle, both here in the finale, and in earlier scenes in the film. These show viewers the locales in the film as a whole. These deepen the viewers' understanding of what they are seeing. So does the finale's in-depth look at "minor" characters and locales seen previously. Paradoxically, while the finale violates traditional norms of storytelling, it is deeply committed to logical understanding and exposition.
The building stands on a corner of two streets, that are at right angles to each other. It is often shown from different angles of the streets. This gives the scene a 3D quality. So do the pans that move from one street to the other.
The finale shows the building blocks we have seen earlier. Here, the blocks are divorced from the fence, against which we and the heroine saw them earlier in the film. The hollow blocks recall the shots of Rome buildings seen from the air earlier in the film. The buildings are largely built around empty courtyards, just like the hollow rectangular blocks. The numerous, piled-up blocks also echo the numerous buildings crowded together in the aerial shot. It is a sort of visual pun or doubling, something Antonioni loves.
The shots in the finale tend to be either pans or static shots. Pans have also been used extensively throughout the film as a whole, recalling Il Grido.
There are three genuine tracking shots in the finale. Tracking tends to be used when Antonioni "has to" use it - when there is no other way to record the movement of characters or objects he is trying to film. Earlier in the movie, Antonioni had tracked when his characters had walked across the street in the crosswalk, only to stop halfway across the street. This track was a spiritual journey for the characters - the hero has announced they will kiss when they finish crossing the street, and the heroine symbolically stops them when they are halfway there, indicating the half-hearted commitment they bring to their relationship. This crosswalk will be one of the major locales of the finale, and one of its main compositional motifs.
The finale contains an equally symbolic tracking shot, showing the progress of water gushing out of the barrel, moving downhill across the earth, and disappearing into the gutter. This is a frightening metaphor for the brief progress of a human life, from birth to death. It recalls the other end-of-life imagery involving water, the drunk and the sports car. Once again, tracking is used to record a spiritual journey.
There also seems to be some tracking in the last shot of humans in the finale, showing the group of people leaving from the bus, as night falls.
Earlier, we see a lateral track past three small, really odd shack-like buildings. I have no idea what these buildings are used for. The track moves past corridors between the buildings, giving us glimpses of an apartment house across the street. The track causes the perspective down the corridors to shift constantly and change. This recalls the shifting perspective down streets caused by camera movement in L'Avventura. This too is an Antonioni tradition. At the end of the lateral track, there seems to be a final pan downward. This is one of the most complex shots in the finale.
Some of the human beings in the finale seem so sad. Even a baby seems melancholy. The ferociously angry or sad woman standing, perhaps waiting for a bus, is especially memorable. The women here recall the angry woman investors at the stock exchange.
Some of the imagery in the finale echoes modern abstract art. A shot of water washing away a splash of earth recalls Abstract Expressionist paintings, only animated as the water slowly takes effect. (These resemble a bit the paintings of the hero's friend across the street in Blowup.) Shots of the balconies of an apartment house form pure geometric shapes that recall some boldly simple abstractions.
Some aspects of the protagonist seem like a degenerate version of earlier heroes. His tawdry work as a photographer recalls earlier, more noble heroes with artistic gifts in Antonioni. And the protagonist's useless purchase of a propeller recalls the interest in helicopters, boats and rockets that gave a sign of hope to previous heroes.
Similarly, the yellow beams in the protagonist's loft through which Antonioni shoots recall the ceiling bars in the hero's apartment at the start of L'Avventura.
The blowup sequence is one of the few scenes in which the protagonist behaves in admirable fashion. Here he is using his genuine skills as a photographer. He also shows imagination, and the use of reason, while he discovers more and more interesting information embedded in the pictures. He is searching for truth, a truly admirable goal. His behavior represents that of a detective: a person who uses reason to uncover hidden truths.
Blowing up photos to obtain clues has a long history in mystery fiction. There are at least three 19th Century mystery short stories about enlarging photos. Please see this detailed list and history, part of my history of prose mystery fiction. Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955) is an important mystery film using enlargement of photographs to discover truth.
In his book, Peter Brunette regards the nuns as a symbol of sexual "repression". He also makes an interesting comparison between the nuns' habits and the uniforms of soldiers seen in Blowup.
One can suggest some other possible meanings of the nuns, far more sympathetic to them:
The gray-haired, dignified man Redgrave is with looks somewhat like the middle aged man with the glasses we see in the finale of L'Eclisse. The man in L'Eclisse seems full of mystery, but then so does everyone in the finale of that film. We just get a brief fairly close look at the man in Blowup. Both men have thick, heavy, straight and well-combed gray hair, and a general distinguished air.
Both films contain shots of the wind blowing through trees and shrubs. This is one of the most striking and eerie kinds of image in the films. These shots contain nothing but leaf-covered tree branches, blowing in the wind.
The protagonist is shown driving to the region with the antique store, at the start of the sequence. The older, British style buildings are mainly quite different from the modernistic ones in L'Eclisse, and the film's emphasis on the buildings' colors is a further difference here. However, there is a three story building with repeated geometrical motifs of square windows, that recalls the equally geometric apartment houses in L'Eclisse. This building is in the neighborhood that is undergoing construction.
Rectilinear buildings. The hero searches through a shopping district in London. These scenes recall the first half of La Notte, which also centers on urban buildings. The shots here are made up of a complex series of rectangles, formed by shop windows, signs, and architectural parts of buildings. They recall the similarly rectilinear compositions formed by Milan buildings in the first half of La Notte.
Colors. Throughout, colors of red and gold predominate, mixed in with black and white and other neutral tones.
One book store has a bright red sign pasted on its window, as well as a reddish background for its window display. Along the street, we see a young man walking. He is dressed in a style similar to the hero, with white pants and a dark jacket, but his shirt is a bright red. It echoes the red of the shop window (and the red buildings on the street the hero drove through on the way to the antique shop, earlier in the film). First we see this man from the side, in a brief shot that creates a burst of intense color. Then we see a longer shot that shows this man from the front, pans over to reveal an elegant alley, then pans back along the street. This young man is a kind of "double" for the hero, a man whose physical look, clothes and attitude match that of the hero.
The hero next attends a Yardbirds concert. Both the band and several men in the audience are wearing shiny shirts. These tend to be in shades of red, in keeping with the red and gold of the whole London section of the film's finale. So are other audience costumes, as well as being in plainer black and white. The many blond heads of men in the crowd both echo the hero's thick mop of blond hair, and keep with the gold color scheme. There is also a shot full of men in shiny blue clothes, that makes a pleasant color contrast with the dominant schemes of red and gold.
These spectacular clothes underscore one of the main principles behind the whole Swinging London era: it is in many ways essentially a fashion statement. Swinging London centered on people dressing in a bright, mod style that had never existed before. Its most famous locale was Carnaby Street, center of a new fashion industry that became a world-wide sensation. The hero of the film is himself a fashion photographer. And we see a dazzling array of new mod fashions throughout the film, helping to create its visual style.
High technology. We eventually move back to focus on the band. There is trouble with the sound equipment, and a young man who is a technical expert steps forward from the crowd, trying to fix it. He is in a long tradition of sympathetic Antonioni males who love modern technology, like the boat racers in Il Grido, and the rocket launchers in La Notte. He is also another sort of double for the hero, wearing a dark jacket too. His pants are also dark, unlike the hero's white, and his shirt is both shiny and a shade of purple.
The corruption of Art. The Yardbirds make destructive gestures towards the sound machinery. The young technical expert tries to prevent this. He only staves the band off for a short spell, however. Soon a band member is smashing his guitar, which drives the audience into an excited, admiring frenzy. Antonioni is fascinated, but also appalled. This represents another desecration of art, like the hero's corrupt fashion photography. Like the degradation of writing in the second half of La Notte, and the corrupt architect in L'Avventura, Antonioni is making a statement about how the modern world is coming up with new, anti-art forms. The only bright spot in all this is the sympathetic young technical expert, a kind of man Antonioni has always admired. The way this man is dressed as another one of the hero's "doubles" adds another layer of meaning to the scene.
Back on the streets: a visual climax. We see the hero back on London streets, for more well-done rectilinear compositions. These center on a shop window displaying women's fashions. These wonderfully complex shots also echo the early fashion photography scenes at the hero's studio. The windows are full of mannequins wearing bright. mod dresses, like the models wearing chic clothes in the fashion shoot. The shop windows form vertical translucent panes, echoing the vertical see-through panels the hero used in the fashion shoot. We also see the hero mirror reflected in the shop windows, adding a further sense of visual complexity. These shots climax the London street scenes, and form visual summations of the film, at once showing London streets, Swinging London fashions, make an echo of the hero's fashion shoot, and reaching a summit of visual complexity for the whole London finale sequence.
Inside the mansion, the party at first looks far more respectable - or at least upper crust - than the rock concert. People are talking, and all the men are in suits and ties. But we also see that everyone is dressed in trendy, mod versions of a suit, much like the hero's fancy sport coat.
Soon, however, we track over to a pot party, in which everyone is zonked out of their minds. This look at upper middle class characters behaving in a decadent way recalls the shack scene in The Red Desert. All of the drug users have been reduced to an animal level of existence. This includes a girlfriend, and the hero's friend Ron. Both have been reduced to withdrawn idiocy, including an exchange with the girlfriend that is perhaps the film's most frightening line of dialogue. The hero tries to tell Ron that a murder has been committed. But the friend is too drugged to understand or care. The hero's desperate urgings about the importance of the murder are rebuffed. Antonioni is making an anti-drug statement, showing how escapist drug use is destroying people's ability to make any sort of useful commitment to much needed social action. It is a scene of spreading social implication and commentary. It anticipates the way the unsympathetic male protagonist of Zabriskie Point rejects organized social protest and commitment, and instead embarks on a private series of wanderings and violence, which Antonioni condemns as futile. The more admirable hero of Blowup rejects an offer of drug use himself, and instead tries to get his friends to take meaningful action. But falling back into his fatal inertia, he falls asleep on a bed, one that re-echoes the red and gold color scheme of the whole London sequence.
The hero wakes up next morning. We see through windows to the outdoor world - an Antonioni specialty. It is now daylight, and we see mountains of green trees through the window. These are the first major green in the whole London sequence, although there was a woman at the rock concert with a greenish-tinged dress. This brilliant green foliage reminds the hero of the park, to which he sets out, bringing the London sequence to a close.
The final tennis sequence has perhaps been misunderstood. It often seems to be described by critics as a metaphysical statement, purporting to suggest that Antonioni believes that truth is relative, unknowable, etc. Perhaps this is the right interpretation, or one right interpretation.
But the scene can also be read another way. It can be read as an attack on the way society and conformism control thought, and destroy independent behavior. The mimes are a large group of people, all miming a tennis game with an imaginary ball. The hero is slowly seduced into watching the game. Soon, the mimes indicate that the imaginary ball has "landed" near the hero. First the young woman mime, then all the mimes, put pressure on the hero to act as if the imaginary ball is real. They stand there glaring with angry insistence at the hero, demanding he pretend the ball is there as well. The hero chooses to take part in the game, partly out of conformism, and partly yielding to social pressure. He throws the imaginary ball back into the game, which stands for society. Soon we see the hero, "watching" the imaginary game. The soundtrack makes actual noises now of a ball being hit. This represents that the hero is actually "hearing" the ball. His perceptions have now been altered so he is accepting the ball as real.
It is a frightening example of social brainwashing. Conformity has made the hero support lies told by society, and accept things that are nor true and not there as reality itself. Soon the hero disappears, quite literally through special effects. This symbolizes the way he has lost his identity and ability to have independent judgment, and is essentially destroyed as an individual, and as a person who can take moral action or perform social change.
It is hard not to see in 2005 that this sort of behavior is prevalent in the US-led Iraq war. First the Bush Administration, then over half the United States population, all committed themselves deeply to believing in Weapons of Mass Destruction that never existed. It shows the frightening power of sinister social forces to brainwash people into seeing an imaginary "reality" that does not exist at all - just like the symbolic, non-existent tennis ball in Blowup.
If the scene is read this way, Antonioni is not suggesting anything metaphysical about truth, or attacking the very concept of "truth". Instead, he is condemning social conformism, and its way of keeping people from seeing important truth. His protagonist, who has often abandoned his art for superficial social acceptance, is symptomatic of what Antonioni sees as destructive social conformance in society. The episode is thus a logically meaningful finale to the film, summing up the film's meaning, showing truth being lost to the hero through his conformity on the one hand and corruption as an artist on the other.
Like Blowup, the English hero works in a photographic profession, here a maker of documentary films for television. Being a documentary filmmaker makes this protagonist even closer in profession to Antonioni than the fashion photographer in Blowup. However, Antonioni has never been an onscreen newscaster for a TV network, as far as I know - his documentaries have been more self-contained cinematic works than the newscaster's in the film. As in Blowup, examples of the hero's work become films-within-the-film. Antonioni includes some intriguing transitions between scenes showing the hero, to his wife and producer watching documentary footage of these scenes on their television monitors. These resemble similar transitions in Orson Welles' F For Fake (1974). However, The Passenger never builds up the dramatic contrast between art and life that is so potent in Blowup.
One can see echoes of Il Grido as well. Both have a male hero who is apparently disturbed by his wife's or girlfriend's infidelity. In both, the hero gives up his steady work at his long standing profession, and adopts a new wandering life style on the road, one that turns out to be psychologically destructive. However, the working class hero of Il Grido has much less to lose than the wealthy, famous reporter in The Passenger. And he seems a lot more convincingly upset by his beloved's actions. The hero of The Passenger seems more beset by some inner, total alienation, than anything so human as being too emotionally involved in a bad marriage. The behavior of the reporter in The Passenger, never really becomes psychologically plausible, to me at least. I just can't imagine anyone giving up all the advantages this hero has.
I am a bit cynical about this film's ties to previous Antonioni films, despite all of the above. The film never develops the deep interest previous Antonioni films have in their characters and plot situations. The plot here seems superficial, and little more than an excuse to hang the visuals, which are the film's chief interest.
Some scenes here anticipate Beyond the Clouds. The African hotel in the beginning anticipates the hotel interiors in the later film. The church wedding, in a baroque traditional church, also anticipates the church services in the later film.
The long-take finale recalls Antonioni's love of interior shots that include exteriors seen through windows.
Antonioni's camera relentlessly explores the architecture of these old towns. The film consists of four separate stories: the first in Ferrara (Antonioni's home town), the second in Portofino, the third in Paris, and the fourth in Aix-en-Provence. The third episode is the weakest; it is also the only one that does not focus on ancient architecture and public places. Like L'Avventura, there is a documentary quality to the film, as Antonioni shows us some celebrated locale in detail.
The first episode opens with a perspective shot down a long arched gallery. The gallery is outdoors, parallel to a road. Antonioni gradually shifts his camera to the left, showing us the road, and the gallery from the outside. This is similar to a small lateral track in L'Avventura, which also shifted perspectives slightly on an alley between two ancient buildings in Sicily. That perspective shot was first focused on one side of the alley, then on the other. It is a striking demonstration of the mathematical effect of perspective.
Once Antonioni is shooting down the long road, we see a shot similar to the images of Milan streets in La Notte. The episode closes with a similar perspective shot, straight down a Ferrara street. Both here and in La Notte, these shots are haunting. They suggest all sorts of things. The final street has small white pillars regularly spaced down its side, just as the opening street had the gallery arches. These underscore the perspective effect.
This first episode echoes the last in the film. Both deal with relationships that never really start up between two people. Both take place in historic towns. Both wind up in the woman's home. Both homes include spectacular staircase shots, in which Antonioni makes fabulous compositions out of the stairways. Both stairway sequences recall the complex staircase shots in film noir, such as Anthony Mann's Desperate (1947) and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Somehow, Antonioni's compositions seem gentler than those of his noir predecessors, which is appropriate for a romantic drama such as Beyond the Clouds. Also, Antonioni is shooting in color, whereas those noir films are in black and white. The rich colors of the staircases seep into the composition.