Antonioni: A Filmmaker for Our Time
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
This year marks sixty years since the release of a film that, when it premiered at Cannes, met with boos from the audience. L’Avventura is about a young woman who, while on a yachting trip with her fiancé and bourgeois friends, mysteriously disappears. For a brief moment, everyone is determined to find her, but their determination soon wanes. Only two people – the woman’s fiancé and her friend, Claudia – remain on the case. But their course is quickly diverted by a whirlwind of desire.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura is a story and a non-story, a mystery that refuses to give itself up. To my mind, it is one of the greatest films ever made.
And yet in Sight and Sound’s 2012 greatest films list, L’Avventura dropped out of the top ten, clocking in at number twenty-one. Yes, being ranked the twenty-first greatest film ever made is no trifle and is certainly adequate recognition of Antonioni’s talent. But there are many directors who are not just recognised, they are revered: Fellini, Bergman, Godard, Scorsese, Hitchcock. It’s hard to imagine these directors ever fading into history. But Antonioni seems to hang on the edge. We can imagine him getting lost in the folds of time and space, much like the characters in his films have a tendency to get lost in the landscapes of the newly industrialised Italy. He is recognised with so little passion and excitement. He reminds me of the South African writer J.M. Coetzee: recognised for his literary prowess with two Bookers and a Nobel Prize, but you’ll never see his books on a ‘must read’ list, however literary that list might be.
Why? Why isn’t Antonioni talked about with the same passion that other filmmakers are? As someone who is in the habit of asking people who their favourite director is, I have often felt Antonioni’s absence in popular film culture. The answers are varied. Everyone from Tarantino to Tarkovsky. Even more obscure directors, such as Andrzej Żuławski, occasionally get a mention. But no Antonioni.
Perhaps it has something to do with the content of his films. How does one describe an Antonioni movie? Disinterested couples wandering from place to place, architecture that is at once present and absent, conversations that seem to touch on every primal emotion without allowing it to bloom. And all this depicted in a style that lacks the spectacle of Fellini or the indulgent poetry of Tarkovsky. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe the characters’ actions – they either appear absurd, pretentious, or both. Even the famous film critic Pauline Kael, who had championed L’Avventura, couldn’t bring herself to embrace the director’s next effort, La Notte. She was frustrated that his ‘highly individualistic’ and ‘peculiar’ filmic syntax had allowed for no elaboration on what the couple at the heart of the film wanted to communicate to each other. And Kael is onto something here. Antonioni’s films often lack not just resolution, but explanation. The murder in Blow Up originally had an explanation, until Antonioni took it out. Anna’s disappearance in L’Avventura doesn’t just remain a mystery, it is forgotten. It’s one thing to end on an ambiguous note, quite another to end on no note at all.
But it is this lack of explanation that makes Antonioni’s approach relevant today. Modern culture cannot be easily explained. Not exactly religious, but not quite atheist, either. One hand grasping a future of artificial intelligence and bespoke medicine while the other reaches for a lost golden age. Life has never been more comfortable than it is now, and yet mental health problems are rising and the streets of supposedly advanced cities showcase the homeless and dispossessed. There are too many contradictions, too many ironies. How can one explain modern life in a way that takes in these contrasting states? There is no easy answer. What we can do, though, is observe them, draw attention to them, reveal them. Just as Antonioni drew attention to the contradictions inherent in 1960s Italy – showing material prosperity side-by-side with spiritual and moral emptiness – today’s filmmakers must also attempt to depict the contradictions in society.
Some contemporary filmmakers have already moved in this direction. In Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), the title character bears witness to a post-war Polish society in which a burgeoning optimistic consumerism exists alongside the dark legacy of genocide. And in Nocturnal Animals (2016), Tom Ford dispassionately observes a woman’s life, revealing an obsession with materialism that has the ironic effect of facilitating material loss. In both these examples, contradictions are presented though not necessarily reconciled and characters are assessed without being diagnosed. In fact, it’s a type of cinema that predates Antonioni, with Rossellini’s Journey to Italy providing the formula of detached analysis and observation without commentary. But it reached a new standard with Antonioni that has yet to be matched, eschewing narrative in favour of mood and taking the viewer on a conceptual journey.
Fortunately, it’s a standard that is now enjoying renewed interest. In 2019, BFI Southbank hosted an Antonioni season that saw films such as L’Avventura and La Notte return to the big screen. If only this style of cinema can ignite the same level of excitement as Tarkovsky’s visual poetry and Fellini’s psychedelic circus, we might see the rise of a cinematic language capable of articulating the contradictions and complexities of modern life. ▲
Robert Montero is a filmmaker and writer, currently based in London.