30 July 2018

Michelangelo Antonioni - film director

Enigmatic artist often remembered for 1966 movie Blowup

Michelangelo Antonioni was described as one of Italian cinema's 'last greats'
Michelangelo Antonioni was described
as one of Italian cinema's 'last greats'
The movie director Michelangelo Antonioni, sometimes described as “the last great” of Italian cinema’s post-war golden era, died on this day in 2007 at his home in Rome.

Antonioni, who was 94 years old when he passed away, was a contemporary of Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti.

Remarkably, three of that trio’s most acclaimed works - Fellini’s La dolce vita, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Antonioni’s L’avventura - appeared within a few months of one another.

Antonioni’s genius lay in the way he challenged traditional approaches to storytelling and drama and the way people viewed the world in general.

His characters were often intentionally vague, his most favoured themes being social alienation and bourgeois ennui, reflecting his view that life left many people emotionally adrift and unable to find their bearings.  His movies often had no strong plot in a conventional sense, were dotted with unfinished conversations and seemingly disconnected incidents. His style was seen as a rejection of neorealism, his films more a metaphor for human experience, rather than a record of it.

He divided opinions. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, when L’avventura was shown, half the audience booed and jeered. But Antonioni’s fellow director Roberto Rossellini sprang to his defence, hailing the movie, about a young woman's disappearance during a boating trip and how her lover and her best friend join forces to search for her but eventually begin having an affair, as a work of genius.

The actress Monica Vitti in a scene from L'eclisse (1962)
The actress Monica Vitti in a scene from L'eclisse (1962)
L’avventura (1960) was the first of three films, with Le notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), that were described as his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents”. All starred a young Roman actress called Monica Vitti, who was at the time Antonioni’s lover.  Some critics argue that the exquisite, mysterious qualities that Vitti brought to her acting were the key to the trilogy’s success and Antonioni’s breakthrough with large international audiences. His first film in colour, The Red Desert (1964) explored similar themes.

He and Vitti stayed together for 10 years, their relationship falling between his two marriages. His third wife, Enrica Fico, was also a director.

Antonioni made a number of films in English, the most famous of which were Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975) and, above all, Blowup (1966), a movie starring David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave that was shocking at the time for its sex scenes, which was loosely based on the life of David Bailey, the photographer who captured the Swinging Sixties with more style and impact than any of his contemporaries.

Antonioni was honoured with numerous awards for his films
Antonioni was honoured with numerous
awards for his films
Born in Ferrara, in the Po valley, Antonioni came from a family that enjoyed largely self-made prosperity thanks to his father’s efforts, though taking evening classes alongside his day job, to establish a career that was paid well enough for him to rise above his working-class roots.

Growing up, Antonioni loved music and drawing, with a fascination for architecture, and had he not fallen in love with the cinema he might have been an accomplished violinist. He went to university in Bologna, where he obtained a degree in economics, before beginning work for Il Corriere Padano, a newspaper based in Ferrara, where he wrote film reviews.

In his 20s he played tennis, winning amateur championships in northern Italy, and moved to Rome. During the Second World War he fought against the Fascists as a member of the Italian Resistance.

In 1942, Antonioni ventured into film-making for the first time, co-writing A Pilot Returns with Roberto Rossellini. He made his own debut with Gente del Po (1943), a short film about poor fishermen in the Po valley. His earliest feature films, many of which were lost after Rome was liberated by the Allies, were neorealist in style, before he broke away from that genre in the 1950s to make films with the theme of social alienation that would become common in his work.

Antonioni received numerous film festival awards and nominations throughout his career. He is one of only three directors to have won the Palme d'Or (Cannes), the Golden Lion (Venice) and the Golden Bear (Berlin), and the only director to have won these three and the Golden Leopard (Locarno). He received an honorary Academy Award in 1995.

The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
The Este Castle dominates the centre of Ferrara
Travel tip:

The city of Ferrara in Emilia-Romagna is about 50km (31 miles) northeast of Bologna. It was ruled by the Este family between 1240 and 1598. Building work on the magnificent Este Castle in the centre of the city began in 1385 and it was added to and improved by successive rulers of Ferrara until the end of the Este line. Apart from the castle, the city has other architectural gems, including many the striking Renaissance building Palazzo dei Diamanti, so-called because the stone blocks of its facade are cut into the shape of diamonds.

The Archiginnasio is the oldest part of Bologna University
The Archiginnasio is the oldest part of Bologna University
Travel tip:

Bologna University, where Antonioni studied, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest university in the world. The oldest surviving building, the Archiginnasio, is now a library and is open Monday to Friday from 9 am to 7 pm, and on Saturdays from 9 am to 2 pm. It is a short walk away from Piazza Maggiore and the Basilica di San Petronio in the centre of the city.

More reading:

Fellini's legacy to Italian cinema

Luchino Visconti - the aristocrat of Italian cinema

Why Roberto Rossellini is known as the 'father of neorealism'

Also on this day:

1626: The Naples earthquake that killed 70,000 people

1909: The birth of chemist Vittorio Erspamer, the scientist who discovered serotonin


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