Film Director Antonioni Dies at 94
Tuesday, July 31, 2007
By ALESSANDRA RIZZO, Associated Press Writer
ROME — In Michelangelo Antonioni's movies, dialogue was sparse, shots lengthy and action minimal. This abstract style and a ruthless exploration of the malaise of modern man made the Italian director a darling of avant-garde cinema and a celebrated filmmaker across the world.
Antonioni died at 94 in his home, officials said Tuesday, after a career that spanned six decades, an Oscar for lifetime achievement and movies that have become classics such as "L'Avventura," "Blow-Up" and "Zabriskie Point."
His death Monday evening shortly after that of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman leaves European cinema without two of its most significant personalities.
"With Antonioni, cinema loses an author without whom it would not have been the same," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said.
Along with Federico Fellini, Antonioni helped turn postwar Italian film away from neorealism and toward a cinema more interested in exploring the alienation and fragile relationships of modern society than the down-to-earth troubles of life.
In the words of Jack Nicholson, one of his actors, Antonioni's movies mourned people's "failures to connect" in a cold, technological world.
Antonioni became a symbol of art-house cinema, if not a crowd pleaser. His critics found his films pretentious and aimless exercises with only vague significance.
A stroke in the mid-1980s significantly slowed down Antonioni's activity, leaving him largely unable to speak.
"If I hadn't become a director," Antonioni once said, "I would have been an architect, or maybe a painter. In other words, I think I'm someone who has things to show rather than things to say."
Antonioni's breakthrough came in 1960 with "L'Avventura," which explores existential malaise through a story based on a woman's disappearance during a boating trip.
Halliwell's Film Guide said the movie made the director "a hero of the highbrows." If critics loved it, the audience hissed when the film was presented at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Many filmgoers were frustrated by the lack of action and the camera's endless lingering on Monica Vitti, one of Antonioni's favorite actresses.
"L'Avventura" opened a trilogy that continued with "La Notte" (1961) and "L'Eclisse" (1962).
The films flesh out Antonioni's most distinctive themes: lovers who drift and fail to connect; unresolved stories played out in comfortable middle-class settings; an attempt to match cinematic visuals to the characters' feelings.
Film historian Peter Bondanella wrote in "Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present" that Antonioni's originality was in his break with conventional plots and "his ability to portray modern neurotic, alienated, and guilt-ridden characters whose emotional lives are sterile _ or at least poorly developed _ and who seem to be out of place in their environments."
The oppressiveness of environment was never more evident than in Antonioni's first color film, "The Red Desert" (1964), an expressionistic portrayal of a housewife's miserable existence amid smoky factories in an industrial wasteland around Ravenna. It won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion for best picture.
Antonioni's greatest popular success was probably his 1966 English-language film "Blow-Up," about a hip London photographer who suspects he has caught a murder on film. Despite the murder-mystery theme, the plot defies expectations and remains unresolved.
The film won top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Academy Award nominations for best director and best screenplay.
"Blow-Up" may be best remembered for its racy depiction of free love and rock 'n' roll in '60s London _ elements that may seem dated but continue to earn the picture cult status.
Antonioni's next venture was to the United States. "Zabriskie Point" (1970) was shot in the bleakly carved landscape of California's Death Valley and largely seen as an off-target critique of the United States.
Antonioni's last major picture was "The Passenger" (1975), starring Nicholson as a TV reporter who switches identities with a gun runner.
Nicholson presented Antonioni with the career Oscar in 1995. By then Antonioni was a physically frail but mentally sharp 82-year-old, unable to speak more than a few words because of the stroke but still translating his vision into film. The Oscar (and several other film prizes) was stolen from Antonioni's home in 1996.
Condolences from across Europe poured in Tuesday after news of Antonioni's death.
From French President Nicolas Sarkozy to EU chief Jose Manuel Barroso and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, officials praised Antonioni as one of the most significant European intellectuals.
"The death of Michelangelo Antonioni, after that of Ingmar Bergman, deepens the mourning of European cinema," French Culture Minister Christine Albanel said.
Antonioni was born on Sept. 29, 1912, in the affluent northern city of Ferrara. He graduated in economics but soon began writing critiques for cinema magazines.
His first feature film, "Cronaca di un Amore" ("Story of a Love Affair"), in 1950 reflected the influence of neorealism, by then a vigorous artistic movement. But the movie also had hints of Antonioni's future style.
In a 1980 interview with an Italian magazine, Antonioni said he was the "ideal spectator" of his own work.
"I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public," he said. "And then, what public? Italian? American? Japanese? French? British? Austrialian? They're all different to each other."
In 1994, an ailing Antonioni made "Beyond the Clouds," offsetting the effects of the stroke by using a notepad, communicating through his wife or just using his expressive blue eyes. Worried that he would be too frail to finish the movie, investors had German director Wim Wenders follow the work in case he needed to step in. But Wenders wound up watching in awe and letting Antonioni put his vision on film.
His last work was the 2004 collaborative film "Eros," to which he contributed a segment.
Antonioni is survived by wife Enrica. He had no children.
The city of Rome said his body would lie in state at City Hall on Wednesday before a funeral scheduled Thursday in Ferrara.