Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura — the first film in what would be later known as his ‘alienation trilogy’ — is perhaps the most groundbreaking example of the modernist filmmaker’s avant-garde technique. The film also marks his introduction into the international film scene, establishing him well among the pantheon of vanguard auteurs of the early 60s. It is only with the third film, L’Eclisse, however, that Antonioni’s aesthetic is fully realized to its most challenging and difficult extremes. Antonioni separated himself from the Italian neorealism tradition that preceded him, and by taking similar social themes and applying them to an experimental aesthetic, Antonioni was able to explore issues concerning modern love, identity, morality, social determinism, and the will of the individual struggling to make sense of traditional societal bindings of old and new. Thus, the philosophical content of his text lies heavily within his aesthetic.
The first thing one may notice of L’Eclisse is that it plays out much like a science fiction film. The anxiety and ambience that is created by the music, long takes, and discordant narrative paints a reality that seems to be an exaggeration of our own. Where Bergman’s visual expressionism emphasized the internal psychology of his characters, Antonioni makes use of the austere distancing of his motionless camera to alienate his. In this light, the theme of alienation takes on its homonymic word meanings as reality seems to surface as a foreign planet that is merely being explored by human visitors, or as Vittoria pleads, “I feel like a foreigner.” The stillness of the camera emphasizes the still lifelessness of the buildings, terrain and image — illustrating a static preexisting city where characters are merely allowed to visit and observe. This is exemplified by Antonioni’s pictorial interest in unique corporate architecture. The buildings are towering monoliths standing as their own character entities, and through Antonioni’s wide-angle lens camera, we see amplified scenery of pervasive architecture as tiny beings marginally move in the low foreground. This imagery is not used for mere formal purposes, but his aesthetic, no doubt, is primarily a visual one. The imagistic contrasts, background, and environment — or the visual — defines essentially all we need to know about these characters. The lack of any true dramatic movement by the camera in particular represents the lack of emotional connection between them. Therefore, the motion of the camera, that is, the technique, defines the character as much as the content or even what is actually framed within the image itself. Dialogue is important to the character development insofar as it represents what they are capable of speaking, but as Antonioni’s cinema is more about lack of spoken communication between individuals, it is left to up the visual to show what they are incapable of expressing themselves. Thus, a dialectic here is important, but less important is a cogent story, exposition, storytelling, or conventional narrative. Antonioni is not concerned with these things. Instead, he exemplifies the dynamics of spatiality and temporality in a pure pictorialism as dispossessed characters are separated from others against an exacting and dominating backdrop. Yet, the city is not only a cinematic expression of their symbolic alienation, but is a literal creation of their moral desperation and material fetishism.
Antonioni employs a Marxist critique similar to his predecessors and contemporary socialist realists such as Ken Loach, but at the same time, Antonioni critiques this position by exploring the individual’s place in society with sympathy to inevitabilities and reluctance to engage in traditional neorealist idealism. The stock market crash displayed in one of the film’s most spectacular scenes showcases Antonioni’s critique of post-war capitalistic material society — yet, interdependent individuals are still largely at the center of the cinematic stage, despite their surface greed and immoral connection with each other.
In Antonioni’s world, sex is not intimate, special, or romantic — but everything that is the opposite. The only human connection is one of a mutually amoral nature, but even in a world of despair, isolation, and emotional alienation from others, the common human experience is shared. Riccardo’s lack of compassion, much like Sandro’s infidelity in L’Avventura, does not represent a mere moral misgiving, but a reaction to the fabric of abject duplicity interwoven in a mechanized, post-industrial world. Similarly, Piero wants genuine love, but he is unable to break his obsession with the demands of his dehumanizing vocation. Consequently, Vitti finds herself separated from human understanding as she discountenances indigenous Africans and African culture in a demoralizing game of reprehensible parody, leading to a startlingly poignant moment of bourgeois shame and representing a post-war former Italian Empire still plagued by corporate giants and elitist class perceptions.
After the release of L’Avventura, the bold aesthetic risks Antonioni took with the film received so much criticism the filmmakers were booed at the initial Cannes Film Festival premiere (where, after much controversy, the film also subsequently won the critics’ top prize and would top the AFI poll of the greatest films two years later). The massive failure of the initial Cannes showing ultimately left Monica Vitti walking out in tears. The New York Times wrote a frustrated review debunking the film, with critic Bosley Crowther writing, “L’Avventura… is like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost.” (1) The critic is surely referring to Antonioni’s innovative risks in ignoring conventional Hollywood match-cutting by cutting a scene sparsely after extended takes, leaving many images inconclusively disconnected from one another, and ultimately breaking down significant narrative understanding between the previous image and the next. In L’Eclisse, Antonioni raises the bar and dares to frustrate audiences once again in his almost complete disregard for the central story. L’Eclisse‘s central protagonist, Vittoria, as played by the luminous Monica Vitti, walks vapid industrial streets as a member of the vacuous bourgeois class doomed to ennui, malaise, and alienation from her society. Antonioni’s camera conveys this alone through intense use of still wide shots, back-dropped by dissonant music, silence, and modern architecture — leaving only Vitti’s character on the screen as a single moving entity, effectively showcasing an ephemeral world that engulfs individuals in a kind of inescapable transient intermittence that prevents them from truly inhabiting the city, and instead, only allows them to pass by, disconnected from reality and meaning. It is through this sort of imagery that Antonioni’s metaphor is revealed: as the city eclipses the life of humanity, the materialist consumer eclipses the heart. Likewise, just as the 60’s pop music is abruptly interrupted by sinister Stravinsky-esque atonal music in the opening titles, so to is the narrative journey of our two protagonists completely abandoned as it dissipates from the screen in the midst of their search for romance. This sort of aimless despair of non-story narrative demise culminates in the film’s breathtaking final 8 minute sequence, in which, none of the lead characters are present on the screen, and the city becomes its own singular and authoritarian oppressive entity.
1. Bowsley Crowther, “Screen: ‘L’Avventura’: Film by Michelangelo Antonioni Opens”, New York Times, 1961. Here.