It must have irked Ingmar Bergman no end that in death he had to share the limelight with one of his least favourite fellow filmmakers – Italian Michelangelo Antonioni, who happened to die on the exact same day, at the age of 94. Antonioni’s cinematic preoccupations and explorations were often close thematically to his Swedish counterpart’s, but his style was a completely different animal. Where Bergman allowed his emotional palettes to be laid bare in his work, Antonioni’s canvas was spare, stark and frigid. His characters, as distanced from themselves and each other as they were from the audience, often seemed to merely exist rather than to live, drifting against their non-descript, melancholic backdrops, their lives purposeless and filled with nothing but ennui. The director said that his screenplays reflected his view of the modern age of reason and science, where mankind still lives by “a rigid and stereotyped morality which all of us recognize as such and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness.”
Antonioni would let his camera linger endlessly on his characters’ state of emptiness. By choosing to stay with a certain image far longer than others would have, he forced his audience to focus their attention on the implications of this technical and artistic choice. In L’Eclisse (1962), for example, the camera stays on Monica Vitti as she stares curiously at electrical posts. And again, in Red Desert (1964), Antonioni expressed the lack of forward momentum in his characters’ lives by employing a series of long takes with little movement and little to no dialogue. Needless to say, he didn’t connect with a universal audience, but did find staunch champions among art-house aficionados and critics.
Unlike most of his European contemporaries, Antonioni did at one point venture into making English language films. The first of these, Blowup (1966) was a commercial and critical success and provided the blueprint for Brain De Palma’s 1980 John Travolta vehicle Blow-out. Though the film’s theme was a challenging one – looking at the subjective nature of truth and memory – in other ways, it was far more accessible than his other more esoteric work. He was rewarded with his sole Oscar nomination for Best Director, and the film is still considered a key text of the 60s. The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson, was a commercial failure, but had much going for it artistically, not least of which was a seven-minute take, that, for its darkness and beauty, remains one of the most remarkable shots in film history.
Unlike his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, Antonioni never became Hollywood’s exotic flavour of the month, but his work did permeate the sensibilities of many a future filmmaker, many of whom count his work as a major influence. Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai’s sparse emotional landscapes surely owe a debt to Antonioni.
Felled by a stroke in the 80s, Antonioni nevertheless returned to glory again, collaborating with German filmmaker Wim Wenders on the wondrous Beyond the Clouds in 1995. A work of stunning visual beauty, the film was based on Antonioni’s own short stories and brought him great acclaim anew. The director himself was characteristically philosophical about his work and his ‘comeback’: “A director is a man, therefore he has ideas; he is also an artist, therefore he has imagination. Whether they are good or bad, it seems to me that I have an abundance of stories to tell. And the things I see, the things that happen to me, continually renew the supply… I am not a theoretician of the cinema. If you ask me what directing is, the first answer that comes into my head is: I don’t know. The second: All my opinions on the subject are in my films.”
The following year, Michelangelo Antonioni was awarded an Honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was introduced by his one-time star Jack Nicholson with these words:
“In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places of our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”