Michelangelo Antonioni Essay - Critical Essays

Antonioni, Michelangelo (Vol. 144)

Introduction

Michelangelo Antonioni 1913-

Italian film director, screenwriter, short story writer, and painter.

The following entry presents an overview of Antonioni's career through 1999. For further information about his life and works, see CLC, Volume 20.

Ranked among the world's great film directors, Antonioni is noted for the meticulous artistry with which he composes his films. Reviewers commend the visual grace of his camera work, his painterly use of color to express meaning, and his slow and thorough probing of the psychology of interpersonal relationships. He achieved the peak of his fame during the 1960s with films exploring issues such as the travels of the Italian Jet Set; the alienation and anomie caused by industrial capitalism; the unreliability of perception; and the loss of identity.

Biographical Information

Antonioni was born in Ferrara, Italy, the son of a landowner. He attended the University of Bologna from 1931 through 1935, studying architecture and economics. Between 1935 and 1939, he worked as a journalist and a bank teller. He moved to Rome in 1939, where he reviewed films for Cinema and studied filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografica. He worked with Roberto Rosselini and Marcel Carne in the early 1940s, but was drafted into mandatory service in the Italian army in 1942, which prevented him from continuing to work in film. After the war, he joined with the neo-realists, writing the script for Federico Fellini's The White Shiek, and directing short documentaries and feature films. As early as 1950, with Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1975), he began to move away from neo-realism and its nearly exclusive social focus, to concentrate on his characters' psychology. With L'avventura (The Adventure, 1960), he abandoned neo-realism entirely for introspective meditations on the interpersonal effects of the economic boom in Italy during the 1960s. After the 1960s, Antonioni continued to make movies but remained out of the public eye. In the late 1980s, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him unable to speak. Nevertheless, with assistance from German director Wim Wenders, Antonioni directed Beyond the Clouds in 1996, and continued to make movies, directing Destinazione Verna and Just to Be Together in 1999. In 1995, Antonioni was awarded an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. Among his other awards are the Grand Prize from the Punta del este Festival in 1951 for direction of Cronaca di un amore; the Silver Lion award in 1955, at Venice for Le amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955); the Golden Bear from the Berlin International Festival for La notte (The Night, 1961); prizes at the Cannes and Venice film festivals for L'avventura, Il deserto rosso, (1964), and Blow-Up (1966) and the Settembrini-Mestre Award for the best book of short stories, for his 1982 collection That Bowling Alley on the Tiber.

Major Works

Although he had been working in film since the early 1940s, serving as an assistant to directors such as Marcel Carne, Roberto Rosselini, and Luchino Visconti, Antonioni came to prominence in the 1960s with his own films such as The Adventure, The Night, and L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). These features explore many of the typical themes Antonioni favors, such as the vacuous life of people who betray themselves and the lives of those who have been betrayed. Red Desert depicts the torments of a neurotic woman trying to maintain balance in her life despite feeling choked by the industrial landscape that dominates her surroundings. This was Antonioni's first color film and it highlights (to an even greater degree than his black and white films) his dedication to the aesthetic qualities and purposes of his work. Blow-Up, a meditation on creating and interpreting images, was Antonioni's first film in English, and was set in the swinging London of the 1960s. The film achieved immense popularity, even outside the art filmhouses to which Antonioni's works were usually restricted. His popularity declined considerably with the critical failure of Zabriskie Point (1969), a Hollywood film addressing the emptiness of American culture, and the pain many Americans experienced during the era of the Vietnam War. Professione: Reporter (The Passenger, 1975), a melodrama of third world violence as seen by an Englishman who has subverted his own identity, was the last of Antonioni's films to be given commercial theatrical distribution.

Critical Reception

When it was premiered at Cannes in May 1960, L'avventura was booed. Penelope Gilliat, a film critic for the London Observer, wrote that she slept through the film. Two years later L'avventura had achieved considerable notoriety and was widely considered a classic by fans and critics alike. Antonioni's next three films, La notte, L'eclisse, and Il deserto rosso, were fashionable successes in the art-theatres catering to the new European intellectual film buffs. After the success of Blow-Up, Antonioni decided to direct a film in Hollywood, but Zabriskie Point was riddled with difficulties during production. The American crew on the film disliked the way Antonioni worked and regarded the film as “anti-American.” The feature was a critical failure, neither appealing to the popular nor to the art-house audience. Reaction to Antonioni's films has always been divided, but it has never been indifferent. To some viewers, the films are excruciatingly boring and pretentiously empty, lacking in plot or coherence, and luxuriating in neurotic anxiety and amateur profundity. However, others see Antonioni's work as profoundly beautiful and serious, exploring essential questions of identity, morality, and ethics.

Principal Works

Gente del Po [People of the Po Valley] (documentary short) 1947

Nettezza urbana [N. U.; Sanitation Department] (documentary short) 1948

L'amorosa menzogna [Lies of Love] (fictional short) 1949

Cronaca di un amore [Story of a Love Affair] (film) 1950

La signora senza camelie [The Lady without Camelias] (film) 1953

Le amiche [The Girlfriends] (film) 1955

Il grido [The Cry] (film) 1957

L'avventura [The Adventure, 1960] (film) 1960

La notte [The...

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Criticism

William Kelly (essay date Spring 1984)

SOURCE: “Identification of a Woman,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 3, Spring, 1984, pp. 37–43.

[In the following essay, Kelly analyzes the moral decadence of Antonioni’s characters in Identification of a Woman.]

Speaking of Red Desert, Antonioni once said that it was not a result but research, an apt description which could apply just as accurately to all his subsequent narrative films, until now. In Identification of a Woman, his first Italian film in nearly two decades,1 Antonioni consolidates and refines the formal and thematic explorations made earlier, blending effortlessly the abstractions of the English-language films with the...

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Seymour Chatman (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Great Tetralogy: Plots and Themes,” in Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 51–83.

[In the following essay, Chatman analyzes how Antonioni explores “the modern condition” in L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso, using plots “liberated” from conventional narrative techniques.]

If the films of Antonioni’s apprenticeship show diverse and sometimes wayward strands of originality, the four mature films—L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso—constitute a solid core of achievement. Even early on, critics...

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Douglas Cole (essay date April 1989)

SOURCE: “Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Pirandello’s Shoot!,” in Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 129–33.

[In the following essay, Cole argues that Pirandello’s 1916 novel Shoot! provided more inspiration for Blow-Up than the Julio Cortazar story which is its credited source.]

Although the credits for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) indicate that the screenplay was “inspired by a short story by Julio Cortázar,” essays treating both film and story inevitably conclude that the differences between the two are far greater than their similarities. Cortázar’s amateur photographer takes one...

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Peter Lev (essay date April 1989)

SOURCE: “Blow-Up, Swinging London, and the Film Generation,” in Literature-Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 134–37.

[In the following essay, Lev examines Blow-Up in the context of its “social-cultural moment.”]

Blow-Up must be approached from the dual perspectives of art and commerce. It is certainly a key film in the distinguished artistic career of Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the world’s great film directors. Blow-Up has excellent credentials as an art film: script and direction by Antonioni, based on a story by the Argentine modernist Julio Cortazar, and with an emphasis on theme and visual imagery rather...

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Karen Jaehne (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Homevideo,” in Cineaste, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1990, p. 60.

[In the following excerpt, Jaehne complains that the home video release of L’avventura strips the film of the aesthetic virtues which made it important when it first appeared in theaters.]

Italian cinema is making a come-back, say popular pundits. Some recent Italian video releases allow us to measure how far they’ve come to get back. Perhaps nothing evokes Italian influence more than Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1960, the same year La dolce vita was presented there. These films heralded an Italian avant-garde that soon became...

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Chris Wagstaff (essay date May 1992)

SOURCE: “Sexual Noise,” in Sight and Sound, Vol 2, No. 1, May, 1992, pp. 32–4.

[In the following essay, Wagstaff argues that in Blow-Up Antonioni confronts the theme of ethical perception and the process involved in separating the “signal,” which ought to be paid attention to, from the noise, which distracts from it.]

From 1960 onwards, Antonioni’s films analysed characters whose world had been put in crisis by some event: the disappearance of a lover, the death of a friend, the end of a love affair, a nervous breakdown—these were the starting points of the tetralogy of The Adventure (L’avventura, 1959–60), The Night (La...

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Charles W. Johnson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up,” in Philosophy in Literature: Volume II, San Francisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992, pp. 415–420.

[In the following essay, Johnson considers the theme of uncertainty of knowledge in Blow-Up.]

Several friends with whom I recently watched Blow-Up felt the film was dated. I think they were paying too much attention to the clothing worn by the characters (especially the models), the hairstyles, the automobiles and the lifestyles of the central characters; these aspects of the movie made it obvious that it was produced in the Sixties. Still, the philosophical questions posed by Blow-Up are...

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Georgia Brown (review date 20 July 1993)

SOURCE: “The Searchers,” in Village Voice, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 29, July 20, 1993, p. 49.

[In the following review, eleven years after Identification of a Woman premiered, Brown calls the film “beautifully made … bewitching and exhilarating.”]

Antonioni’s last feature, Identification of a Woman, played in the 1982 New York Film Festival but got hostile reviews and never, as far as I know, opened for a theatrical run. I remember the totally dismissive tenor of the notices—they made the movie sound impenetrable and interminable. I assumed I hadn’t missed much. Now a warped and beat-up print arrives for just one weekend of the Public’s summer...

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Mark Rudman (essay date Fall 1994)

SOURCE: “The Night: On Michelangelo Antonioni,” in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 83–108.

[In the following essay, Rudman meditates on the world of Antonioni’s films and themes such as creation, obsession, isolation, time, and perception which recur in the works.]

Summer, 1993. The worst heat wave in living memory. I lie awake all night, night after night, in Windham, Vermont, thinking about the floodwaters of biblical proportions sweeping across Kansas and Missouri; the Mississippi swollen, bursting the levees, the farmers eyeing their drowned fields from National Guard helicopters.

I go downstairs and pace the two-hundred-year-old...

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Ron Peck (essay date December 1994)

SOURCE: “Chance Encounters,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 12, December, 1994, p. 61.

[In the following essay in praise of L’eclisse, Peck selects several sequences which show Antonioni’s ability to convey the subtleties of alienation, uncertainty, and dread which characterize “The Atomic Age.”]

I was 15 when I first saw Antonioni’s L’eclisse. It was screened for only one afternoon at the Tooting Classic. I skipped school games to go and see it and as a result got slapped into a two hour detention. The impact the film had on me in 1963 was devastating. It was unlike anything else I had seen, and it seemed to describe the kind of world...

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Kevin Z. Moore (essay date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: “Eclipsing the Commonplace: The Logic of Alienation in Antonioni’s Cinema,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, p. 22–34.

[In the following essay, Moore discusses Antonioni’s exploration of alienation in his films.]

Talk of alienation in Antonioni’s cinema is more often than not negative. Despite Peter Bondanella’s observation that characterization in Antonioni’s films might not be all that negative, typically Weberian interpretations of disenchantment dominate readings of Antonioni’s cinema.1 I would like to elaborate upon Bondanella’s observation by supplying a theoretical framework, and then, noting some instances...

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Chris Darke (essay date December 1995)

SOURCE: “L’avventura,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 5, No. 12, December, 1995, p. 54.

[In the following essay, Darke examines L’avventura, and stresses the artistic and cultural innovations in Antonioni’s cinema.]

Sandro, a jaded architect who has settled for easy success rather than professional fulfilment, joins a small cruising party along the northeast coast of Sicily given by Princess Patrizia on her yacht.

Sandro accompanies his fiancée Anna, daughter of an ex-ambassador, who brings her friend Claudia, a young woman not of the same privileged class. The group swim and then go ashore to investigate a volcanic island. Anna is...

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Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (essay date December 1995)

SOURCE: “Antonioni: Before and After,” in Sight and Sound, Vol. 5, No. 12, December, 1995, pp. 18–20.

[In the following essay, Nowell-Smith argues that Antonioni not only created a new cinema, but that his films, even as they age, stay fresh.]

The early 1960s was a great time for cinephiles. There was the old cinema, and there was the new. The old was Hollywood: not the Hollywood of new releases (good new American films were few and far between) but the Hollywood of the recent past—the great backlog of film noir, Mann and Boetticher Westerns, Tashlin/Lewis comedies, all still circulating around inner-city fleapits and in gaunt suburban Odeons on Sunday...

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Anthony Lane (review date 30 September 1996)

SOURCE: “Still Hazy after All These Years,” in New Yorker, Vol. 72, No. 29, September 30, 1996, pp. 88–90.

[In the following review of Beyond the Clouds, Lane offers a melancholy tribute to Antonioni’s films, and to art films in general.]

In the fog of an Italian town, a handsome young man falls in love with a beautiful young woman. He tries to kiss her. When this fails, he tells her, “I’m a drainagepump technician.” Amazingly, this approach, too, is unsuccessful. They spend the night in the same hotel, but in separate rooms. She undresses and waits for him, in vain. In the morning, she is gone. A voice informs us, “They never met again.” Two...

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Stanley Kauffmann (essay date 28 October 1996)

SOURCE: “Beyond the Clouds,” in New Republic, Vol. 215, No. 18, October 28, 1996, p. 30.

[In the following review, Kauffmann laments the fact that Beyond the Clouds had trouble finding a distributor, even though he does not regard the film as “first rank Antonioni.”]

The latest work by Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the premier artists in the world history of film, is Beyond the Clouds. I put no distributor after the title because, as yet, it has none for this country, although one is said to been route. The picture was shown at the recent New York Film Festival. As one who has severely questioned that festival, I must note that it has shown all...

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Thomas Harrison (review date Winter 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, in Film Criticism, Vol. 32, No. 2, Winter, 1997, p. 66.

[In the following review, Harrison argues that this collection of Antonioni's writing illuminates the filmmaker's objectives and emphasizes the limitations of theory.]

It is difficult to overestimate the pleasures of having access, in one splendid volume, to Michelangelo Antonioni’s collected writings on film. So much remains unsaid in the work of Italy’s most intellectual director that the desire to be privy to his thoughts tends to be greater than with, say, Fellini, Pasolini, or Bertolucci. Antonioni has remained more...

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Lilian Pizzichini (review date 17 January 1997)

SOURCE: “Fulfilled by the Folly of the City,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,894, January 17, 1997, p. 15.

[In the following review, Pizzichini links Beyond the Clouds thematically, narratively, and stylistically to Antonioni’s earlier films.]

It is fourteen years since Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film, Identification of a Woman; now, at the age of eighty-four, he has completed Beyond the Clouds, a kind of final reckoning, in which the veteran director, though wheelchair-bound and unable to speak since his stroke in 1985, addresses the chilling ennui of his earlier work—and moves beyond it. Based on autobiographical pieces...

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Peter Hogue (review date May–June 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Beyond the Clouds, in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 3, May-June, 1997, p. 59.

[In the following review, Hogue praises Beyond the Clouds for its unity and “combination of present-tense immediacy and timeless detachment.”]

Beyond the Clouds is the work of a great director. It is one of the major films of the decade. But as of this writing, it has no announced American distribution. That this is a late work of the man who made L’avventura,Red Desert, Blow-Up, The Passenger, and many more is enough by itself to make the film worthy of serious and widespread interest, but it more than stands on its own...

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Seymour Chatman (review date Summer 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema, in Film Quarterly, Summer, 1997, pp. 38–40.

[In the following review, Chatman draws on Antonioni’s writing to describe how the filmmaker worked as a director.]

Antonioni was an active cinema critic in the 30s and 40s, but stopped writing about other directors’ work after making his own first film, Story of a Love Affair (1950). From then until his debilitating stroke in 1985, he wrote a number of short pieces and gave many interviews; two particularly, at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia; are of such importance and influence that the editors call them...

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Seymour Chatman with Michelangelo Antonioni (interview date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: “Antonioni in 1980: An Interview,” in Film Quarterly, Vol. 51, No. 1, Fall, 1997, pp. 2–10.

[In the following interview, conducted in 1980, Chatman discusses with Antonioni the filmmaker's body of work.]

I recently unearthed the tape of an interview I had with Michelangelo Antonioni in November 1980, recorded as I was preparing my book, Antonioni, or the Surface of the World. Antonioni invited me to his beautiful apartment on the Tiber. He was warm, friendly, open, and always candid. The interview was partly in English and partly in Italian.1 For this publication, Antonioni graciously allowed me to reproduce some of his own drawings and...

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Peter Brunette (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Introduction,” in The Films of Michelangelo Antonioni, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 1–27.

[In the following essay, Brunette surveys Antonioni’s career and various critical responses to his work.]

Michelangelo Antonioni, who first gained prominence on the international cinema scene in the 1960s, has become the very symbol of that increasingly rare form, the art film, and of all that the cinema has ever sought to achieve beyond mere entertainment. Along with the films of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, the directors of the French New Wave, and a few others, Antonioni’s films were, during the 1960s, absolutely essential to the...

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John Schliesser (essay date October 1998)

SOURCE: “Antonioni’s Heideggerian Swerve,” in Literature and Film Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4, October, 1998, pp. 278–87.

[In the following essay, Schliesser argues that Blow-Up represents a cinematic dramatization of Heidegger’s writing on ways of seeing.]

In 1995 Michaelangelo Antonioni was presented with an academy award for his “lifetime achievement” as a filmmaker. In a parallel universe, such recognition would seem cruelly ironic. In our own, however, it is simply, depressingly suggestive of how Hollywood has typically treated its most gifted artists (for lack of financial backing, Antonioni has not made a film since 1981). I will not dwell on...

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Mitchell Schwarzer (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: “The Consuming Landscape: Architecture in the Films of Michelangelo Antonioni,” in Architecture and Film, edited by Mark Lamster, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, pp. 197–215.

[In the following essay, Schwarzer analyzes the metaphorical use of architecture in Antonioni’s films.]

In day-to-day experience, the sight and feel of buildings is subject to extreme shifts of attention, duration, and familiarity. We experience buildings on pragmatic excursions, in the rounds of routine, and via flashes of discovery. In the representation of architecture (through drawing, model, or rendering), by contrast, the approach to buildings is abstract and...

(The entire section is 6701 words.)