The Vitality of Vitti

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Correction: as mentioned in the following paragraph, Monica Vitti made five (not four) films with Michelangelo Antonioni

It’s not entirely surprising that Francois Truffaut found the films of Michelangelo Antonioni to be ‘humorless,’ and that Ingmar Bergman’s impression of his Italian contemporary was that he could have been a cinematic great in the ranks of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky had he not been ‘suffocated by his own tediousness.’ Personally, I would contend that Antonioni’s impact on cinematic expression remains singular enough to warrant his being mentioned in the same breath as such esteemed company. But to be fair and frank, encountering – for the first time – the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni proved revelatory precisely because it seemed so shamelessly ‘humourless’ and ‘tedious’.

These were the most most melancholic films I had ever seen, ‘these’ being Antonioni’s 1960s quintet of sorts: L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Whether or not the director pitied or lionized his sad sack characters, his approach to composition, pacing and performance exhibited a refreshing patience (bordering on fondness) for the state of being lost, of not knowing what it is you feel you should know; for the act of brooding. The films almost seemed to give one the license to be miserable without having to feel guilty for lacking psychic resolve. And it so happened that four of the five featured the sultrily despondent pout of a theater actress/silver screen novice named Monica Vitti as she and various other sharply-attired semi-socialites wandered the desolate landscapes of post-war Italy and of their own souls; ambling through spaces that were expressions of existentially fraught interiors by way of being austerely stylized exteriors.

More than any other performer in Antonioni’s films from this period (and not simply due the frequency of her being cast), Vitti – with her open face and her weighted gait – seemed to embody and exemplify Andrew Sarris’s fairly self-explanatory neologism ‘Antoniennui’. Yet, on revisiting four of the five total Vitti/Antonioni collaborations (the final being The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), I gradually came to notice and appreciate the spectrum of humanity and emotion on display, even if said spectrum ultimately skews towards the negative. For all the sullen gazes and silent sighs, there are notable moments of levity, even joy, and many if not most (if not all) featuring Monica Vitti in some capacity. But rather than undercutting Antonioni’s exploration of modern psychic illness, such instances of positivity and playfulness establish his characters as being more than mere personifications of theme. And if this is not entirely true for all Antonioni’s characters, Vitti’s are, at the very least, roundedly human, and this lends their psychological plights a measure of relatability.

As much as this video is a tribute to the beauty and on-screen magnetism of Vitti, my secret intention is that it should function as a fleeting reminder not only of Vitti’s range and ease as a performer, but that it will be an invitation to reconsider Antonioni’s image as a peddler of misery.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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