The highlight of the Barbican’s Michelangelo Antonioni Directorspective have arguably been the screenings of L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961), the first two films of what has been described by critic Philip French as the “The Antonioni Walk,” an unofficial, loose trilogy of modernist films that explore the existential crisis of rich, beautiful characters who are bored with their lives.
On the 20 February at 4.00pm the Barbican will screen the final chapter in the trilogy, L’eclisse (1964). These three films, although often termed as a trilogy, are not linked by plot but rather by the theme of the banality and pointlessness of human existence. This is typical of Antonioni, who described his films as follows:
“I never discuss the plots of my films. I never release a synopsis before I begin shooting. How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all. I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.”
Michelangelo Antonioni was born in 1912 within the beautiful – if somewhat sober – surroundings of Italian province Ferrara to a middle class family. His hometown would remain important to him throughout his life, often reflected in his films by the use of sparse landscapes. He later studied economics at the University of Bologna by commuting from Ferrara, where he lived until he was 27.
After leaving University, Antonioni started to write for important film journals such as Cinema and Bianco e Nero (the former was a magazine run by Vittorio Mussolini, son of Benito). However, it wasn’t until 1941 that Antonioni began his formal training as a film maker. He attended the prestigious Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, making his first film – a short – on a 35mm camera in a single shot.
After a series of semi successful – now critically acclaimed – films and documentaries, he erupted onto the international scene with L’avventura. The film divided audiences at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and despite mixed reviews Antonioni walked away with the year’s ‘Special Jury Prize’. L’avventura has remained an important film for many film makers, including Martin Scorsese who wrote many articles and essays praising Antonioni’s skill. Scorsese has stated:
“Antonioni made us aware of something quite strange and uncomfortable, something that had never been seen in movies…the visual rhythms of light and dark, of architectural forms, of people positioned as figures in a landscape that always seemed terrifyingly vast.”
The second part of his “trilogy”, La notte, was released a year after L’avventura in 1961 starring Jeanne Moreau, Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroianni, and tells the story of Giovanna Pontano (Mastroianni), a writer who is invited to a party celebrating the release of his latest book.
The whole plot is one of anti-suspense, whereby questions are raised but not answered, with the viewer continually being misled by the character’s dialogue. Speech in Antonioni’s oeuvre often only leads to confusion, as it is the antithesis to the emotions and actual thoughts of the characters.
His film’s iconic environments and settings, such as bleak urban landscapes, enhance Antonioni’s critique of modern life, presenting us with the negative impact that the character’s surroundings have upon them. All of this is captured through beautiful lingering shots with infrequent cuts, adding to the melancholic tone so familiar in all of his films.
The trilogy’s final instalment, L’eclisse, was released just a year later in 1962. Once again staring Monica Vita, it tells the tale of Vittoria (Vita), a disillusioned woman facing up to the prospect of marriage, who decides to break off her engagement to Ricardo (Francisco Rabal) and subsequently meets the materialistic Piero (Alain Delon). The central protagonists (as always) are not the main point of the film (indeed Antonioni has argued that he is not sure that his films have a point as such); their stories are irrelevant in many respects. Rather, his pieces are more about the exploration of how we engage with the world and how we repress our emotions.
All three of the films that make up Antonioni’s unofficial trilogy are must-sees for any true lover of cinema, and the bonus of seeing them on the big screen is an opportunity not to be missed.