Antonioni’s films are not easy, they require patience and maybe a good bottle of wine. And like any good bottle, the more time passes, the more they open up.
Trained originally as an artist and painter, and later film critic, he was a member of the Italian Neorealism movement. As Italy boomed after the war in the 1950’s, neorealist films centered on everyday life of real people, often using non-actors and focused on the poor, with underlying political themes. By the early 1960’s there was an economic boom in Italy leading Antonioni to shift attention to the upper middle class of Italian society. His work focused on the financial and material gain and the accompanying existential malaise and spiritual crises that came with Italy’s rapid growth.
His three most famous films, L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse, are an unofficial trilogy dealing with themes of isolation, alienation, and existential angst. They also reflected on a rapidly changing Italy. All three films are centered on a female protagonist and her point of view, which was an especially bold choice for the time. It is through their perspective that Antonioni chooses to explore the complexity of human life and our relationship to the world. His sensitivity to life and empathy is felt in every frame.
While his films are normally talked about in regards to his focus on alienation, isolation and existential angst, at their core, all his films are about relationships between men and women.
Antonioni was a modernist artist visually working with abstraction. He was a master of composition and using the entire frame of the film to tell the story and elicit emotion. The locations he chose were every bit as important as the actors. He used architecture and urban landscapes prominently in his films often as a juxtaposition between newer housing developments and industrial buildings against ancient ones, particularly in Rome. He frequently uses frames within frames: windows, doors, fences, and open spaces to separate characters from each other or the world.
While all the characters experienced some sort of tortured existential malaise, they did it in style. The chic wardrobes of all the characters were deeply considered by the director and underlined the new status of the Italian upper class at the time. Antonioni never missed an opportunity to reveal character.
Antonioni had a distinct way he played with time, drawing out reality and bringing attention to the small details that might otherwise be overlooked. He used long takes and camera movements shifting to different framing and angles while never cutting away. While most Hollywood directors at the time would punch in for a close up at the most emotional moment of a scene, he would pull out to a wide angle shot to expose the harsh reality of his characters.
And to experience Antonioni, start with L’eclisse, the end of one trilogy and the launching pad for another. L’eclisse was the film that opened my eyes to his truly distinct visual style and the possibilities of using cinematic language. For the first ten minutes of the film there are just two characters, alone in a room of a sterile, modern apartment. There is no dialogue, no music — reality is stretched out. And through this, his characters and their relationship are revealed purely through the visuals. I can confidently say I am not giving away the plot here, because there essentially is no plot. His films are about the pure experience of cinema and human emotion. His films thrive on ambiguity; he invites the viewer into the conversation, a conversation that is still relevant to us all today.