Antonioni and incommunicability are words the audience is used to connecting as synonyms. Discovering or rewatching titles by the Italian director during the retrospective of his work offered by the 47th Mostra allows us to understand just how comprehensive the relation between these two terms is.
Still, the mutations in subjectivity and society that Michelangelo Antonioni (1912- 2007) probed over seven decades of activity would not fit into a single formula. “The Adventure” (1960), “The Night” (1961) and “The Eclipse” (1962), which are usually called the “trilogy of incommunicability”, synthesize the main authorial characteristics, that is, the predominant style and themes in Antonioni’s cinema. These films, fully inserted at the peak of modernist cinema during the 1960s, result from a process of maturation of ideas and forms that the director had begun exploring more than a decade prior. This impression of peak form at this stage does not prevent the quantum leap that would be observed with the advent of color in the director’s universe, with “The Red Desert” (1964).
The Michelangelo Antonioni retrospective that Mostra’s audience will have the opportunity to enjoy in 2023 doesn’t solely stimulate the understanding of a coherent oeuvre and the progression of its complexity. It also emphasizes how Antonioni’s work, in addition to its historical relevance, consolidates aspects that define a more authorial contemporary cinema, such as increasingly loose narratives, sensorial expressionism, motiveless and uncertain situations.
The chronology begins with shorts Antonioni directed before his first feature, in 1950. The first two, “People of the Po Valley” (1947) and “N.U.” (1948), much like studies and sketches made by visual artists, are essays in which a recurring characteristic of the director’s cinema is outlined. Human figures almost always appear integrated with the spaces, either fishing, sailing or cleaning the streets, lines of work in which the environment holds as much importance as the movements and actions performed.
What matters here is not so much the recording of praxis, but the way in which the filmmaker connects elements through predominantly plastic and rhythmic compositions.
Antonioni’s first features in the 1950s can be described as melodramas starring bourgeois characters who do not have work as a main concern. The filmmaker isn’t interested in situations of material comfort, but rather in the impossibility of avoiding spiritual discomfort, emptiness or boredom, a theme that brings his work closer to the existentialist literature of Italian authors such as Cesare Pavese and Alberto Moravia.
In “Story of a Love Affair” (1950), “The Lady Without Camelias” (1953) and “The Girlfriends” (1955), the filmmaker explores the possibilities of cinematic language by avoiding psychological naturalism, explanatory dialogues and expository scenes, expanding the duration and deviating from narrative formulas.
The convergence of themes and forms is consolidated from “The Outcry” (1957) on, in which one realizes Aldo’s desolation gets projected onto the landscape where horizons are blurred by mist, followed by the emotional isolation of Claudia and Sandro amid the harshness of the island in “The Adventure”, and Lidia’s alienation in Jeanne Moreau’s wanderings through the architecture of Milan in “The Night”. This expressionist tendency is radicalized with the dehumanization of the world, observed in the enigmatic final sequence of “The Eclipse”, in the use of color to reveal Giuliana’s states of mind in “The Red Desert” and in the chromatic alterations made on video in “The Oberwald Mystery” (1981).
The idea of incommunicability, which some authors prefer to call “erosion of Eros” or “desertification of desire”, is a constant throughout this phase. Here, Antonioni’s cinema moves, like the visual arts, from figurative to abstract.
With “Blow Up” (1966), the director detaches himself from the Italian universe and bourgeois neuroses and plunges into what is both a police and metaphysical investigation, following the adventures of a photographer who unknowingly captures a murder on film.
What is it that the eyes don’t see, but an image can reveal? The question is projected onto cinema itself, with its ability to produce fresh perceptions, to provide other ways of seeing a world in which the human element no longer occupies the center.
In “Zabriskie Point” (1970), Antonioni advances his aesthetics of disappearance, moving from a deserted island in “The Adventure” to a wide desert, this time in California. Both “Zabriskie Point” and “The Passenger” (1975) share the desert as setting and symbol, a space for escape and erasure.
The stroke suffered by Antonioni in 1985 left him with restrictions in movement and speech, but it did not condemn him to incommunicability. His splendid path as a director still led him to “Beyond the Clouds” (1995) and “Michelangelo Eye to Eye” (2004), his swansong, bidding adieu with a dialogue between himself and another Michelangelo, the Renaissance painter, in a film too great for words.