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.
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.
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.
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.