Justin Camilleri gives us a personal view on the life and work of director Michelangelo Antonioni, who died this week.
When I visited Ferrara three years ago, it would have never occurred to me as soon as I landed that this was the birthplace of one of Italy's most prolific directors. Looking back upon my visit, I can see that there are plenty of similarities between Michelangelo Antonioni and this gorgeous old Romanesque city. Like the street artists that illuminate his birthplace, in life Antonioni was not afraid to express his fervent style of filmmaking. Antonioni was a quiet rebel in an age of loud radicals who simply went his own way, even when he was pressured by studio executives to follow their so-called dogma on what makes a film work.
It is ironic that, in spite of Ingmar Bergman and Antonioni never having crossed paths, they passed away on the same day, as both directors examined on film the inherent duality of good versus evil.
Antonioni started his career as a film critic writing for the local Ferrara newspaper Il Corriere Padano. Antonioni then moved to Rome in 1940, where he worked for Cinema, the official Fascist film magazine edited by Benito Mussolini's son Vittorio. However, Antonioni was fired a few months afterward. Later that year, he enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Italy's national film school, before working as a screenwriter for Roberto Rossellini, who married another Bergman – Ingrid.
He began his directing career with Cronaca di un Amore (1950), but his biggest successes came in the 1960s, with the trilogy L' Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L'Eclisse (1962). Antonioni's first English language film was the murder mystery Blow-Up (1966) starring Vanessa Redgrave and the late David Hemmings. Hailed as his biggest success, Antonioni garnered two Oscar nominations and sealed his appeal with an international audience. Set against the backdrop of “swinging '60s” London the film is a monumental time capsule as it captured all that was fascinating about London's thriving fashion scene.
In contrast to Blow-up his second English language film, Zabriskie Point (1970) depicted the counterculture hippy movement and would be set in the US. It failed to attract an audience mainly because of its lead stars (Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin) who had no experience of acting on screen. Largely panned by critics not even its rock pounding soundtrack that featured the likes of Pink Floyd, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones could save it from ruin.
Between Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, Antonioni was invited by the government of the People's Republic of China to make a documentary entitled Chung Kuo/Cina, but it was severely denounced by the Chinese authorities as "anti-Chinese" and "anti-communist". Ironically, in November 2004 in honour of Michelangelo Antonioni's contribution to cinema this documentary had its first showing in China at the Beijing film festival.
Critical praise came for The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, was set across Europe and North Africa. The captivating story of a journalist who assumes the identity of an arms dealer was not an audience favourite at the time. In spite of failing abysmally at the box office, The Passenger has over the years garnered a cult audience due to Luciano Tovoli's camerawork and Nicholson's and Schneider's dramatic acting chemistry on screen.
Antonioni developed a particular style of camerawork. Unlike other film directors, instead of the camera focusing solely on his characters, it conveyed the characters' internal dilemmas through 10-minute shots of locations, such as in the scenes of L'Eclisse when Monica Vitti's character stares vociferously at the electrical posts accompanied by ambient sounds of wires clanking.
Come the 1980s, Antonioni directed Il mistero di oberwald and Identificazione di una donna (1982). Tragedy struck in 1985, when Antonioni suffered a stroke, which left him partially paralysed and unable to speak. However, he continued his love of cinematography, making films with the assistance of younger filmmakers like Wim Wenders who collaborated with Antonioni in Beyond the Clouds (1995).
In 1996, he was awarded the lifetime achievement Academy Award presented by the star of The Passenger Jack Nicholson. Unfortunately, several months later, the statuette was stolen by burglars.
Antonioni's final film, made when he was in his 90s, was a segment of the anthology film Eros (2004), entitled Il filo pericoloso delle cose ("The Dangerous Thread of Things").
With tributes from all over the world I'd like to think that even now Antonioni is taking everything with a pinch of salt as do the quiet, gentle Ferrara townfolk, who stroll the city centre in the early hours of the morning. Over the years he lived his life humbly and quietly, never one to make a loud stir. As the Italians say: “Arrividerci buon amico” - you made us proud!