When I heard of the consecutive deaths of Bergman and Antonioni, I felt a sudden jolt. Even though it had been a few years since I last saw a film by either of them, their deaths were a reminder that the masters of cinema are all but gone (Godard and Alain Resnais remain and are amazingly still making films). Driven by a guilt at having not seen some of his masterpieces and in way of a tribute, I decided to visit some of Antonioni's critically acclaimed films.
Mystery, Loneliness, Beauty and disappearances:
L' Avventura (1960): Rating 9/10
A beautiful woman. A picturesque Italian countryside. But all is not right beneath the surface. Anna (Lea Massari) is unsure about her affair with her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). She undertakes a trip with him, her good friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and few others. An isolated island. 30 minutes into the film, Anna disappears. Just like that.
Everyone looks for her but to no avail. Claudia is distraught because because she cared for Anna the most.
Sandro tries to look for her but eventually runs out of ideas.
Claudia has lost feelings for everything. A beautiful sun-rise only means that an entire night has gone by without Anna having been found. Hope is fading but her anger with Sandro is increasing as she believes it is his fault that Anna has gone.
Shortly after the characters leave the island, the film makes us forget about Anna. Sandro chases after Claudia and the two of them temporarily find comfort in each others arms. But Sandro is not an easy man to love and Claudia finds herself with the same misery and doubts that Anna had faced.
There is an easy flow to this film. The camera moves effortlessly from scene to scene and at all times Antonioni is aware of what he wants to show us. The visual beauty of the landscapes only heightens the fact that each character is miserable and lonely. Each person is an island in themselves and occasionally, they let the others come near them.
There are two sequences in the film which highlight man's lust for beauty. In the following sequences, the men in a small town freely gawk at Claudia's beauty.
But all the town men are reflections of Sandro -- they chase after an object of desire and after having their way with them, look for the next beauty.
Beauty, Chaos & Time:
L'Eclisse (1962): Rating 10/10
Although Antonioni directed La Notte in between L' Avventura and L'Eclisse, the start of L'Eclisse feels like a scene which could take place a few days after the ending of L' Avventura. Monica Vitti appears in a similar black dress to one from the final scene of L' Avventura. Her character Vittoria is discussing her relationship with Riccardo. The words they exchange are something one would have expected Claudia to have shouted at Sandro in L' Avventura.
Vittoria and Riccardo go their separate ways and the camera freely drifts to the stock exchange where Vittoria's mother is a regular buyer and seller. The chaos and madness of the trading floor is beautifully captured. For a long while, we forget about Vittoria as the film focuses on the stock market's meltdown which results in a lot of people losing money, including Vittoria's mother. This segment of the story focuses on Piero, a sharp floor trader who is ambitious and knows the market's pulse.
When Vittoria returns to the screen, she and Piero engage in a little romantic tussle. Piero is clearly in love with Vittoria but she keeps him at a distance.
The next few shots show the distance between the two despite their bodies being close together.
This is one the most beautiful shots in the film. This hug speaks volumes -- two faces which touch but are miles apart. Piero knows that this is the last time he will ever touch Vittoria and Vittoria knows that she will leave him never to return.
The final sequence in the film is series of landscape shots which we have visited earlier in the film. The only difference is that the scenes are devoid of Vittoria and Piero. We see some new characters and in one case, Antonioni toys with us in trying to show a character that is similar to Vittoria.
I believe these scenes represent the passage of time. Vittoria and Piero have gone but time moves on. Earlier in the film, Vittoria had placed an object in a barrel of water and by the film's end, we see the water slowly drip out of the barrel. Eventually, the barrel is empty but we see no sign of her.
All the film's main characters are gone by the ending. They have moved onto other loves. Yet movements in the street go on. Beautiful and haunting.
Blowup (1966): Rating 10/10
The choice of London and use of English language gives this film a very different feel from Antonioni's previous films.
Thomas (David Hemmings) plays a fashion photographer with an attitude. He wants to shoot the girls the way he wants. But he also gets bored easily (something he shares in common with other Antonioni film characters) with the stick beauties in front of him. When we first meet him, we see a carefree and reckless person -- his driving is rash and impulsive, just like his instincts for buying beautiful objects.
Eventually, we see a different side of him. He loves to photograph nature and is making a collection of photographing everyday shots of harsh reality. On a visit to a park, he comes across a couple enjoying a day out. He obsessively follows them, sort of like a modern day paparazzi (or what Paparazzo would have done in Fellini's La Dolce vita). The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) sees him taking the pictures and gets angry at him for invading her privacy. She demands the pictures but he refuses.
Later on, when he blows up the pictures, he finds a real mystery unfolding before his eyes. A murder, an affair? We see what he sees in one of the film's intense and engaging sequences. Our curiosity is pricked and we can't wait to find the answers. But we never do get the answers we want. And that is how life goes. An adventure (L' Avventura) that hides a mystery?
The Camera that knows it all:
Blowup is a visual treat like Antonioni's other films. In all three films, the camera moves freely from one locale to locale. Even though at times, we may feel that the camera is giving us the freedom to see everything, we have to be aware that we are only seeing what Antonioni wants us to see. So sometimes we are offered a close-up, a long shot or even a 360' degree view of the sky. At all times, the freedom of the camera is exactly the kind of freedom that Antonioni wanted the camera to have. This controlled freedom is a real pleasure because his camera freely follows one character and has no hesitation about leaving one character mid-stream to chase another. Each character is only followed until there is something worth noticing about them. Once they go off-screen, we really don't miss them because we have now moved onto more interesting characters.
In L' Avventura & L'Eclisse characters disappear off-screen -- a character walks out of a scene and out of the movie. But in Blowup's final scene, a character disappears in front of our very eyes. Time has moved on. The camera has shown everything that needs to be shown. Lights out. Nothing more to see here. We can leave.
But the images stay in our head. We replay them when we close our eyes. The camera may be turned off but the audience can use their neurons to fire those visuals up. The artist may be gone but his work lives on..........................