Oscar Directors: Antonioni, Michelangelo (Blow Up)–Centenary of Italian Master

It’s the centenary of maestro Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose depiction of alienation made him a symbol of art-house cinema with movies such as “L’Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Blow Up” and others.

Like Hitchcock, Antonioni’s goal was to express himself in a purely visual manner.

“Blow Up,” just like Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece, “Rear Window,”  dealt with the very essence and complexities of the filmmaking and viewing processes.

Unlike Hitchcock, though, Antonioni placed emphasis on metaphysical issues, probing both surrealism and symbolism, often at the expense of abiding by the more conventional rules of constructing clear and logical narratives.

Antonioni depicted alienation in the modern world through sparse dialogue and long takes. Along with Fellini, he helped turn post-war Italian film away from the Neorealism movement and toward a more personal cinema.

In 1995, Hollywood honored his career work–about 25 films and several screenplays–with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. By then Antonioni was a physically frail but mentally sharp 82, unable to speak but a few words because of a stroke but still translating his vision into film. The Oscar was stolen from Antonioni’s home in 1996, together with several other film prizes.

His viusal style never became synonymous with box-office success, but some of his movies such “Blow-Up,” “Red Desert” and “The Passenger” have achieved enduring fame.

His exploration of such intellectual themes as alienation and existential malaise led Halliwell’s Film Guide to say that “L’Avventura,” Antonioni’s first critical success, made him “a hero of the highbrows.”

L’Avventura Hissed in Cannes Fest

The critics loved that film, but the audience hissed when “L’Avventura” was presented at the 1960 Cannes Film Fest. The barest of plots, which wanders through a love affair of a couple, frustrated many viewers for its lack of action and dialogue, characteristically Antonioni. In one point in the black-and-white film, the camera lingers on Monica Vitti, one of Antonioni’s favorite actresses, as she plays a restless jet-setter.

“In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting,” Jack Nicholson said in presenting Antonioni with the career achievement Oscar. Nicholson starred in the director’s 1975 film “The Passenger.”

Antonioni was born on September 29, 1912, in the affluent northern city of Ferrara. He received a university degree in economics and soon began writing critiques for cinema magazines.

Antonioni’s first feature film, “Story of a Love Affair” (1950) was a tale of two lovers unable to cope with the ties binding them to their private lives.

But Antonioni grew more interested in depicting his characters’ internal turmoil rather than their daily, down-to-earth troubles. The shift induced critics to call his cinema “internal Neorealism.”

Trilogy

After the international critical acclaim of “L’Avventura,” which became part of a trilogy with “The Night” (1961) and “Eclipse” (1962), Antonioni’s unique style was firmly established and recognized by critics.  He steadily co-wrote his films and directed them with the recognizable touch of a painter.

His signature was a unique look into people’s frustrating inability to communicate and assert themselves in society.

On Oscar award night, his wife, Enrica Fico, 41 years his junior, and his “translator” since his 1985 stroke, said: “Michelangelo always went beyond words, to meet silence, the mystery and power of silence.”

The first big international success at the box-office came in 1966 with “Blow Up,” about London in the swinging 1960s and a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film.

But Antonioni generally found it hard to convince Italian producers to back his movies.  By the end of the 1960s, he was looking abroad for funds. American backing helped produce Zabriskie Point (1970), shot in the bleakly carved landscape of Death Valley, California.

Asked by an Italian magazine in 1980, “For whom do you make films” Antonioni replied: “I do it for it for an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public. Frankly, I can’t do it, even if so many directors do so. And then, what public Italian American Japanese French British Australian They’re all different from each other.”

Antonioni again astonished the film world in 1994 with the making of Beyond the Clouds,” when ailing and hampered by the effects of a stroke. With an international cast headed by John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Irene Jacob, and Fanny Ardant, the movie weaves together three episodes based on Antonioni’s book of short stories “Quel Bowling sul Tevere” (“Bowling on the Tiber”), exploring some of the usual Antonioni themes.

Worried that Antonioni would be too frail to finish the movie, investors had German director Wim Wenders follow the work, ready to step in if the Italian maestro couldn’t go on.  But Wenders wound up watching in awe and letting Antonioni put his singular vision on film.

Antonioni died in 2007, at the age of 94.

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