The Mater of the Gaze

Written by  Paolo Micalizzi

Michelangelo Antonioni’s great lessons in cinema.

Little more than a month after his death, the 64th International Film Festival in Venice paid homage to Michelangelo Antonioni, with a pre-scheduled tribute. In fact the decision to award him the Award for Creativity had already been taken some months before, with the following citation: “for a great artist who brought Italian cinema to the world with originality and extreme elegance.” An award which underlines a fundamental aspect of all the works by the Ferrarese director, an acknowledged master around the world: creativity, the expression of his profound gaze upon humanity and the world. This quality can be seen from his cinema debut “Gente del Po”, in 1943. With this journey along the River Po began that exploration of the landscape in harmony with humanity which was the basis for all Antonioni’s work.

He was an artist who believed in his ability to bring out the truth in things and people, as his other documentaries also showed: “N. U.” (Nettezza Urbana, 1948) on the dustmen of Rome; “L’amorosa menzogna” (1949) on the popular appeal of the heroines of photo-stories; “Superstizione” (1949) on the popular beliefs about witchcraft in a village in the Marche; “Sette canne un vestito” (1949) on the manufacture of rayon; “La villa dei Mostri” (1950); “La funivia del Faloria” (1950); “Chung Kuo (Cina)”; “Kumbha Mela” (1989); “Noto Mandorli Vulcano Stromboli Carnevale” (1992); “Lo sguardo di Michelangelo”. This experience with documentaries led Antonioni in 1950 to express his capacity for profound emotional analysis in his first feature film: “Cronaca di un amore”, set among the Milanese upper middle classes whose interior emptiness is displayed. The restlessness of existence is narrated in his other films: I vinti” (1952); “La signora senza camelie” (1953); “Le amiche” (1955); “Il grido” (1957), in which he returned to the Po landscape to tell a story in which a failed love affair leads the hero to suicide.

His analysis of emotions was expressed through four films: “L’avventura” (1960), “La notte” (1961), “L’eclisse” (1962), “Il deserto rosso” (1964). In this set of four pictures, great importance is attributed to the environment in which the characters live, determining the crises which affect them. If in “Il grido” this setting is the Po plains, in “L’avventura” it is the Sicilian countryside, while in “La Notte” once more there is the sterile atmosphere of the Milanese bourgeosie; in “L’eclisse” it is the chaos and alienation of neocapitalism. And in “Il deserto rosso” the alienation of a world dominated by factories.

At the heart of all his films is the relationship between men and women, investigated in “Identifcazione di una donna” (1982), in “Al di là delle nuvole” (1995) and in the episode “Il filo pericoloso delle cose” of the film “Eros.” With “Blow up” (1966), Antonioni took his recurrent themes, above all alienation, abroad. In “Professione: Reporter” (1975), the central character has an illusory relationship with reality to the point where he decides to cancel his identity and to try to live the life of another. Antonioni’s creativity was also expressed through cinema’s formal aspects, with a visual language that was always innovative. His attention to experimentation with the language of cinematography is of particular importance in “Il deserto rosso” (1964) in which he uses colour in an expressionist form, and in “Il mistero di Oberwald” (1980) in which, for the first time, he directed a film which was made with TV cameras and then transferred onto film: an experiment derived from his conviction that electronics were the future of cinema, as in fact has proved to be the case. The final sequence of “Zabriskie point” (1970) is also particularly memorable, with the explosion of a villa and the fragmentation of modern consumer goods. Filmed with 17 special cameras, the sequence is impressive for its great imaginative and visual strength as well as the social message it conveys.