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Monica Vitti: An Actress of Many Contradictions

The two faces of Italy

Like genuine artists, Monica Vitti was a woman of many contradictions. She was a unique beauty, but she never considered herself one. During the 60s, Ms Vitti embodied the neurosis of Italian society, only to cure them with laughs and comedy during the 70s. At the beginning of her career, she became famous for alienating roles, but she consolidated her notoriety with more than forty comedies. She played ground-breaking dramatic parts, but she also changed the history of Italian cinema with her comedy roles, breaking into Commedia All’Italiana. Not only a genuine artist, but Ms Vitti was also a genuine Italian, given that constant dichotomy between comedy and drama that her characters embodied so brilliantly. Monica Vitti represented the two souls of Italy, the perpetual shifting between drama and farce, comedy and tragedy, tristesse and happiness. 

Born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome on November 3rd, 1931, she was the third child of Angelo and Adele (Vittilia) Ceciarelli, whose surname she adopted and shortened for her acting career. After graduating from the National Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1953, Vitti played some classic pièces de theatre, namely Shakespeare and Molière, whilst she performed in a handful of small roles in movies during the decade. Besides her excellent theatrical skills, Ms Vitti was also a successful voice actress, dubbing for famous Italian directors such as Federico Fellini (Le Notti di Cabiria), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone), Mario Monicelli (I Soliti Ignoti) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Il Grido), who became her partner in life and career. Though Ms Vitti played in more than fifty movies, abroad she is mostly remembered for her movies with Antonioni, made during the 60s, often referred to as the “tetralogy of incommunicability”. In the movies, she plays anxious women, struggling to cope with the sudden and extreme changes that occurred in post-WWII Italy. The modernist heroines played by Monica Vitti in L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and Deserto Rosso (1964), in fact, fight between solitude, concerned love, and most of all, uneasiness, resulting in an impossibility to communicate with the external world. 

L’Avventura is a film about the disappearance of a young woman on a volcanic island, and how Monica Vitti’s character, Claudia, fills her own grief with passion and material objects. When released at Cannes in 1960, the move split the critics, the audience booed the movie, while the critics awarded it the Jury Prize. 

In La Notte, she plays the role of 22 year old Valentina, a seductive girl who meets a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. In L’Eclisse, she plays Vittoria, a translator who wanders around the Roman architecture of the EUR area, reflecting internal torments due to a profound inadequacy to love. Lastly, in Deserto Rosso, Vitti delicately plays an alienated woman who is a victim of her neurosis in an uncanny industrial scenario. 

In 1967, her love and artistic relationship with Antonioni ended, and, at the top of her career, Ms Vitti decided to reinvent herself, acting in comedy movies – the very popular Commedia all’Italiana. During the second half of the 60s and through the 70s, then she acted in light-hearted comedies with directors like Roger Vadim (Il Castello in Svezia, 1963), Luciano Salce (Alta infedeltà, 1964, Le Fate, 1966, Ti Ho Sposato per Allegria, 1967), Tinto Brass (Il disco volante, 1964), reshaping the male-dominated environment of the Commedia All’Italiana. Thanks to her acting skills, Ms Vitti managed to create unforgivable comedy characters in the Italian Cinema, such as the great Adelaide in  Dramma Della Gelosia (Tutti I Particolari in Cronaca) by Ettore Scola or Ninì Tirabusciò in La donna che Inventò la Mossa (1970), and Teresa in Teresa la Ladra (1973). She also performed alongside Alberto Sordi i (Amore mio aiutami, 1969, Polvere di stelle, 1973, Io so che tu sai che io so, 1982), and Ugo Tognazzi (L’anatra all’arancia, 1975), two of the most famous comedians of the time.

Equally important, the two natures of Ms Vitti, the drama and the comedy, helped shape the history of Italian Cinema in two different ways. With her roles in Antonioni’s movies, Monica Vitti explored the inner torments of the female soul, whilst with her comedy acts, Ms Vitti impersonated emancipating characters, able to criticise the establishment and the Italian society. La Ragazza con la Pistola (The Girl with the Gun, 1968) tells the story of Assunta Patanè, a young woman who moves to the UK, seeking revenge after her runaway fiancè. 1970s Ettore Scola Dramma della Gelosia (tutti I particolari in cronaca) shows a menage a trois between Monica Vitti, Marcello Mastroianni and Giancarlo Giannini – one of the wittiest critics to the Italian defects of the time. 

During the first half of the 90s, Ms Vitti published two books (Sette Sottane, 1993, Il Letto è una Rosa, 1995) and directed a movie, Scandalo Segreto (Secret Scandal, 1990), a dramatic story of adultery. In 1995, Monica Vitti received the honorary prize Leone D’oro at the Venice Film Festival, and then she slowly disappeared from the public eye, sadly living with a horrible disease which eventually took her life on Feb 2, 2022.