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Michelangelo Antonioni and Women in Film

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Published: Thu, 03 May 2018

Michelangelo Antonioni was an Italian film director, he was born In Ferrara, northern Italy, 1929.

With Fellini he belongs to a so called provincial wave of Italian neorealist filmmakers, not so distant from the metropolitan colleagues De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti. (Chatman 1985, Tinazzi 1994)

While not initially fully appreciated by the tradition audience for his excessive intellectualism and pessimism. ( Crowther 1960, Hawkins 1960, Barthes 1994)

Today, Antonioni is regarded one of the most influential personalities in Cinema. (Grenier 1960, Manceaux 1960, Fink 1935, Chatman 1989, Koehler 2015)

His most remarkable works concern the sense of anguish and fragility of the modern society. (Di Carlo 1964, Lucantonio 2011)

The characters belong to the idle rich society of the Italian post war, their boredom and sense of ennui robbed them of their ability to express their feelings and reduced them to speak in a feeble manner in attempt to conceal their sense of futility.(Chatman 1985, Pomerance 2011)

Women, play leading roles

Antonioni emphases women’s ability to be more honest with human relations.

A capacity virtually lost by intellectual men who are unable to supply any sort of sensitiveness. Not given by their inability to provide an alternative to boredom, but by their complete unresponsiveness.(Pomerance 2011)

Alberto Moravia in his Boredom (1960) wrote:

Boredom is not the opposite of amusement…boredom to me consists in a kind of insufficiency, or inadequacy, or lack of reality…. it originates in a sense of the absurdity of a reality which is unable, to convince me of its own effective existence

To modern man, the means to restore a link with reality is given by sexuality, however, if sexuality provides only a physical relief

Eros is sick

Antonioni (1962) says

It is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time […] man is unease, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy.

Embodying many of the philosophical concerns associated with European existentialists Antonioni exposed the existential dilemma of modern man.
(Barthes 1994, Darke 1995, Giannetti 1999, Holden 2006, Tomasulo 2008, Bortolini 2011)

Antonioni dehumanized his characters of their personality and used them as devices to show the high psychological complexity of the unstable neurotic personalities of our time. (Lunn 1982, Melzer 2010)

Melancholia, incommunicability, emptiness, alienation.

All elements that characterize a life lacking in purpose and a general sense of spiritual vacuity

Themes that are well represented in L’Avventura (1959) and Il Deserto Rosso (1960). (Hoberman 2006)

L’avventura, set amongst the remote Sicilian seashore, sees the search for a missing person Anna, disappeared during a boat trip. Sandro, her fiancée, and Claudia, her best friend, start a search in a vain attempt to find her during which become attracted to each other and the search for Anna turns into a desire to not finding her anymore.

Il Deserto Rosso, set in the overly industrialized outskirt of Ravenna, sees Giuliana, a neurotic woman, in the desperate attempt to keep a link with reality. Her troubled personality is split between a worried mother for her son Valerio, who fakes to be paralyzed at one point and adulterousness with a Corrado, a business associate of his neglectful husband, Ugo.

Claudia and Giuliana seek for utopian ideals into dystopian worlds.

From a side the sentimental ideal of Claudia: morally discomforted by choosing between finding her lost companion or keeping the shallow affair with Sandro.

And on the other the existential ideal of Giuliana: in the desperate attempt to survive her depression in a sort of Darwinist mechanism of natural selection (Melzer 2010)

To the neurotic personality everything appears absurd in life: family, work or even driving a car. Giuliana is a paradigmatic example of it.

Jean Paul Sartre (1989) would say she lives in bad faith

Living in bad faith means living not authentically, convincing oneself that there are no alternatives and pretending that something out there has meaning.

Indeed, she bought a shop in Via Dante Alighieri, but she does not know what to do with it or she escapes by fantasizing about azure lagoons and warm beaches. (Salinari 1960)

Giuliana is not frightened by modernity, she is not in tune with the industrialized world that oppresses her stimulus.

Giuliana adjusted to this world, and learnt how to circulate in it and even though everyone around her accepted it, she refuses to respond to it

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity

Freud stated (1977)

The agonizing malaise of Giuliana, is given by her inability to tolerate a world that does not support her ideals and obliged her to accept her faith

In contrast Ugo and Corrado have embraced the spirit of the XIX Century

The industrial progress proceeds by neglecting the family bond or slowly crumbling it.

Corrado has the spirit of the traveller and sees objects through the landscape in motion.

For Corrado it means where to go, what to buy, who to hire, it is all about progress.

For Giuliana it means where to stay, who to make boundaries with

She needs to see things for their presence and perspective

In L’Avventura Claudia’s desire to find Anna is sincere.

In spite of Sandro that has no real desire to find her.

He would rather leave the mystery unsolved and move on.

The characters’ vagabondage plays as an ephemeral mechanism of self relief to avoid further anxiety or sense of guilt by not even try (Chatman 1989)

Both couples communicate through a sense of mutual pity.

They try to explain their problems in virtually psychotic terms, though they fail to communicate to each other as they struggle to communicate with themselves first.

They suffer from existential anxiety they are in desperate need to fulfil their sterile lives but, they don’t know how.

As much as Sandro and Corrado try to be supportive they at the end surrender to sexual temptation.

Their emotive instinct degraded in consequence of repression and has been endlessly replaced by substitute-objects. (Chatman 1985)

Corrado and Sandro are emblematic examples of the Freudian dyad of the modern man
where the only two concerns of life are work and sex.

Their sexual fulfilment is unsatisfactory and guilt ridden, eroticism is used as an anodyne to their moral dilemma and an outlet for frustration. (O’Lesser 1964)

For modernists, sex is a contest and they would swap their beloved to the same extent they would accept or decline a work offer

The room where they just spent hours talking about eroticism has no less meaning for them than for us, it can be taken apart to feed the fire as effortlessly as they can meet in there for a party. (Pomerance 2011)

The dystopian realities depicted by Antonioni are environments that prevent emotions to flourish and the characters seem almost affected by a shapeless pain that withers their response to emotions. (Chatman1985)

Anomie

As called by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim(Slattery 2003)

He described it as a malaise of the individual which absence of values and associated feelings of alienation lead him to a general sense of purposelessness in life.

A concept that Albert Camus perfectly summed in the opening of his The Stranger (1942)

Anomie is common in those societies that have gone through a period of significant economic changes and no exception is the post war Italy of the miracolo italiano

Industrialization led men to bring together all their knowledge and strength into a sort of Nietzschean superhuman creation where the efficient modern man now, extension of the machine, seems to be at one with life but not less alienated, just unaware of his own condition.

Modernity promoted an ideological discrepancy

“The ever-increasing split between moral man and scientific man [leads to the prevalence of eroticism as] a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time”

Antonioni (1962) said

Modern man does not have the moral tools to match his technological skills and he is incapable to set authentic relationships with either his surrounding or fellows.

It is true that Antonioni translated through abstract images the Marxist theory of alienation in order to explain the sense of frustration and rejection of today’s society.

Nevertheless, it is too simplistic to say that Antonioni is condemning modernity to have created such an unhuman world where the individual is led to neurosis

Antonioni (Brunette 1998) intended

“to translate the poetry of the world where even factories can be beautiful”

The complexity of lines, shapes and colours merge into a steampunk dichotomy of functional beauty

The sublime beauty of such brutalistic architectures matches what George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps […] you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders, frozen mud […]and pools of stagnant water […]It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished[…].  But even Wigan is beautiful […].
I do not believe that there is anything inherently and unavoidably ugly about industrialism. A factory or even a gasworks is not obliged of its own nature to be ugly, any more than a palace or a dog-kennel or a cathedral.

Of all the contributions Antonioni gave to cinema the most important relies in his ability to correlate character to environment. (Tassone 2002, Antonioni 2007)

Antonioni was a long-time student of architecture and all his filmssince his early documentaries of Gente del Po (1947) and Nettezza Urbana (1948) show a keen interest in public and private spaces. (Di Carlo 2002)

The social and economic changes of post war Italy led to his attention
the relation existing between place and individual.

Movies like L’Avventura would be unconceivable without its images of ordinary Sicilian life.

Antonioni shows the complex transformation of modernity through modernist aesthetics

and uses the socio political situation of Italy as device to show the self awareness of the film. (Reyner 2013)

Explanatory dialogues are minimized and architecture, whether natural or artificial,
gains its own narrative autonomy.

The use of pre diegetic and post diegetic shots also known as temps mort enhances the simulacral quality of the topographics that through their contemplation reveal their implicit meaning. (Chatman 1978, Lefebvre 2006, Bruno 1997, Reyner 2013)

The sublime, merciless and bare beauty of inimical Lisca Bianca.

The omnipotence and cosmic indifference of cold and distant industrialized Ravenna.

The haptical influence of such places on the plight of the characters resonates with strong expressive analogy. (Cuccu 1973, Antonioni 2007)

Dialogue and architecture play as co-metonyms, they not only symbolize modernity but they are crude examples of it.

The buildings reflect the character’s psyche by association.

At the beginning of L’avventura Anna speaks to her dad, she is identified through the noisy new building, and similarly her father is matched with the magnificent dome in the distance.

The uncanny battlefield of industrial wastage and the jet of steam and flames act as Giuliana’s repressed inner force which neurosis synthesized in self destructive attitude. (Bruno 1997)

The inhospitable rock of the Aeolian Islands stresses the strangeness of the characters to this environment.

The haunting silence of Noto resonates with an existential sense of non-belonging.

The Euclidean geometry and surface of modern materials dwarfs our characters.

Modernity is reflected by the solid appearance of these facilities.

And if the sense of security should be provided by their appearance

What security does modernity provide if it only causes unease?

A place built by man that rejects man.

The space lost its true very own essence to be dwelled.

This place has become absurd: stripped out of its functionality there is nothing left but a mere cluster of stones and concrete.

The camera movement is perversely spectral and fascinating.

The city has become a rational entity.

A hostile alien force that seems to reject the characters.

A composition that evokes De Chirico’s metaphysical period. (Antonioni 1961)

Even though De Chirico’s paintings suggest that this now inhabited town, once occupied, will be dwelled again, in L’avventura the town seems as it has never been lived.

As if a premonition warned the Sicilians to have nothing to do with it. (Costa 2002, Tassone 2002)

Finally the epilogue of L’avventura reaches the climax in the evolution of the couple in crisis.

The composition is emblematic, split in between a void and a fill.

The far sight of a volcano island and an empty wall.

The will to forgive and the inability to reason own existence.

This frame shows all the uncertainty and suspension upon which the movie ends.

Antonioni does not reveal in these places cataclysmic sceneries.

He rather makes a commentary on the personal problems that bad building and misused spaces created and are afflicting modern man.

The macabre visions of environmental exploitation and building speculation revealed the collapse of safety of our surrounding and have become concrete manifestation of the emotional sickness of our time

When L’avventura was published it was said of giallo alla rovescia, or “noir in reverse”. (Cuccu 1973)

While De Sica would have uncovered the drama of these individuals
Antonioni instead uses his exceptional dispassionate photography to dedrammatize the events. (Cuccu 1973)

This is why it no longer seems to me important to make a film about a man who has had his bicycle stolen…it is important to see what there is in the mind and in the heart of this man …how he has adapted himself, what remains in him of his past experiences.(Bondanella 1943)

This does not mean his movies are not dramatic, but on the counterpart the events do not follow a conventional chain of causalities.

The common cinematic technique of resolution suggests that Anna will eventually be found and Giuliana will recover.

Antonioni does not offer any solution to act on the present. (Nowell-Smith 1995)

Using ellipses the temporality of the events is preserved and their reality enhanced however, the events are not strictly related by a cause-effect succession but rather linked by contingency.

As matter of fact we are not given any further information when Giuliana’s depression started or when Anna decided to leave to never come back again.

Each event is no less accidental and casual than the others.

As casual as the disappearing of Anna and the complete abandon by Claudia and Sandro that revealed at the end a cold and unforgiving disappearing of a disappearance.

We are not given to know what has been of Anna or whether Claudia’s hand resting on Sandro’s head in the most delicate of all acceptances means she forgave Sandro or if she was consenting him.

We can’t be sure about Giuliana either, whether she recovered from her depression or if she adapted to the modern world as explains to Valerio how birds adapted to that poisonous environment. (Chatman 1985)

The events we expect to happen never happen.

The title shows its ambiguity as it works symbolically and not visually.

The Red Desert, the desert of the alienated things, the aridity of the human emotions.

The adventure, the journey Anna undertakes swimming overboard, the sentimental adventure of Sandro and Claudia.

And even the intentions behind the films are ambiguous:

We can’t really tell if L’avventura and Il Deserto Rosso are about moral decay or an outcry about the effects of technology on the human’s sensitiveness.

Whether the inhabited rock of a Sicilian island or the outskirt of an industrialized city,

Antonioni was capable to film modernity through the bare appearance of things. (Gilman 1962)

Although, it is difficult to tell what Antonioni’s movies are about,

Antonioni himself after a visit to Mark Rothkosaid:

“Your paintings are like my films-they’re about nothing…with precision.” (Gilman 1962)

Antonioni was a poet of the form and the meaning of his works comes from the interaction between suggestive architectures and the ambiguity of the human emotions.

He depicted a utopian desire to regain a sense of human connection with the environment.

His shots offer nothing more and nothing less than the sheer wonder of existence.

BIBLIOGRAPHY AND FURTHER READINGS

Antonioni, M., 1961. Fare un film per me è vivere. Scritti sul cinema. Ed. 2009. Venice: Marsilio Editore, 43.

Antonioni, M., 1962.A talk with Michelangelo Antonioni. Film Culture, 24 (1962): 51.

Antonioni, M., 2007. The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interview on Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago

Barthes, R., 1994. Caro Antonioni. In: Barthes, R. Ed. 1997. Sul cinema. Genoa: Il Nuovo Melangolo, 172-173.

Bondanella, P., 1943. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. Ed. 1984. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co, 108.

Bortolini, F., 2011. Forme dell’esperienza e del linguaggio. Camus, Sartre, Bergman, Antonioni. Milan: Unicopli.

Bruno, G., 1997. Site-seeing: architecture and the moving image. Wide Angle, 19 (4), 8-24.

Brunette, P., 1998. The films of Michelangelo Antonioni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 96.

Camus, A., 1942. The Stranger. New York: Vintage Books.

Chatman, S. 1989. L’Avventura. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Chatman, S., 1985. Antonioni, or the surface of the world. London: University of California Press.

Costa, A., 2002. Il cinema e le arti visive. Torino: Einaudi.

Crowther, B., 1961. Italian Film Wins Cannes Top Prize. The New York Times [online], 5 April 1961. Avilable from:
http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9400e0db133de733a25756c0a9629c946091d6cf [Accessed 21 October 2016].

Cuccu, L., 1973. La visione come problema: Forme e svolgimento del cinema di Antonioni. Rome: Bulzoni.

Darke, C., 1995. L’avventura. Sight and Sound, 5 (12), 55.

Di Carlo, C., 1964. Michelangelo Antonioni. In: Fink, G., ed. 1983. Michelangelo Antonioni, identificazione di un autore: gli anni della formazione e la critica su Antonioni. Parma: Pratiche Editrice, 74-75.

Di Carlo, C., 2002. Il cinema di Michelangelo Antonioni. Milan: Il Castoro.

Fink, G., 1983. Michelangelo Antonioni, identificazione di un autore: gli anni della formazione e la critica su Antonioni. Parma: Pratiche Editrice, 103.

Freud, S., 1977. Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety. New York: Norton & Company.

Gente del Po, 1947. [film, DVD]. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Italy: Artisti Associati – ICET.

Giannetti, D., 1999. Invito al cinema di Antonioni. Milan: Ugo Mursia Editore.

Gilman, R., 1962. On Antonioni. Theatre Arts, 46 (1962), 7.

Grenier, C., 1960. Reflections on the Parisian Screen Scene. New York Times, 20 November 1960.

Hawkins, R. F., Focus on an Unimpressive Cannes Film Fete. The New York Times, 29 May 1960.

Hoberman J., 2006. Seeing and Nothingness: A Must-see Retrospective Celebrates the Works of a Modernist Master. Village Voice [online], 30 May 2006.
Available from:
http://www.villagevoice.com/film/seeing-and-nothingness-6418576
[Accessed 30 October 2016].

Holden, S., 2006. Antonioni’s Nothingness and beauty. The New York Times [online], 04 June 2006, Available from:
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/04/movies/04hold.html
[Accessed 28 October 2016].

Il deserto rosso, 1964. [film, DVD]. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Italy, France: Film Duemila.

Koehler, R., 2015. Great wide open: L’Avventura. Sight and Sound [online], 20 April 2015,
Available from:
http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/greatest-films-all-time/great-wide-open-l-avventura
[Accessed 3 November 2016].

L’avventura, 1959. [film, DVD].Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Italy, France: Cino del Duca.

Lefebvre, M., 2006. Landscape and Film. London: Routledge.

Lucantonio, G., 2011. L’avventura > Michelangelo Antonioni. Rapporto Confidenziale [online], 07 January 2011, Available from:
http://www.rapportoconfidenziale.org/?p=11578
[Accessed 5 November 2016].

Manceaux, M., 1960. An Interview with Antonioni.  Sight and Sound 30 (1) 5-8.

Melzer, Z., 2010. Michelangelo Antonioni and the “Reality” of the Modern. Offscreen. [online], 14 (4).

Moravia, A., 1960. Boredom. Milan: Valentino Bompiani & Co, 5.

N.U -Nettezza urbana, 1948. [film, DVD]. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Italy: Artisti Associati – ICET.

Nowell-Smith, G., 1995. Antonioni: Before and After. Sight and Sound, 12 (December 1995) 16-21.

O’Lesser, S., 1964. L’avventura: a closer look.Yale review,54 (1964) 45.

Orwell, G., 1937. The Road to Wigan Pier. Ed. 2011. London: Penguin Books.

Pasolini, P. P., 1976. The Cinema of Poetry. In: Nichols, B., ed. 1976. Movie and Methods.Vol.1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 542-558.

Pomerance, M., 2011. Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema. London: University of California Press.

Reyner, J., 2013. Film Landscapes : Cinema, Environment and Visual Culture. New Castle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Salinari, C., 1980. Miti E Coscienza del Decadentismo Italiano. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Sartre, J. P., 1989. Being and Nothingness: an essay on phenomenological ontology. London: Routledge.

Slattery, M., 2003. Key ideas in Sociology. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes Ltd.

Tassone, A., 2002. I film di Michelangelo Antonioni: un poeta della visione. Ed. 2007. Rome: Gremese Editore.

Tinazzi, G., 1994. Michelangelo Antonioni. Edition: 2002. Milan: Il Castoro.

Tomasulo, F., 2008. Life is inconclusive: a conversation with Michelangelo Antonioni. In: Cardullo, B., ed. 2008. Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews. Jackson: university Press of Mississippi, 162-168.


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