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Italian movie director Michelangelo Antonioni
Italian movie director Michelangelo Antonioni (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Italian director Antonioni dies at 94

By Jay Carr
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2007
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Michelangelo Antonioni, cinema’s poet of postwar alienation, died yesterday at his home in Rome. He was 94. Mr. Antonioni had been in declining health since suffering a stroke in 1985.

In a remarkable generational passing, another giant of film history as well as Mr. Antonioni’s near-contemporary, the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, also died yesterday.

In 1995, Mr. Antonioni received an honorary Oscar, presented by Jack Nicholson, who starred in his film “The Passenger” (1975), about one man voyaging through another’s identity. The award cited Mr. Antonioni as ‘‘one of the cinema’s master visual stylists.’’

The Italian films that made him an international figure — “Il Grido” (“The Outcry,” 1958), “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), “L’Eclisse” (“The Eclipse,” 1964) and “Red Desert” (1965) — became synonymous with emotional alienation, people left empty by material success, irredeemably isolated. Increasingly, Mr. Antonioni’s films became glacial in their detachment, self-consuming in their evocations of entropy.

He was surprised to find that his film depicting la dolce vita in Swinging London, “Blow-Up” (1966), was an English-language hit. The emotional desolation was no less, but glints of humor surfaced. A disquieting park where a murder took place — recorded, to a photographer’s horror, by his camera — caught the public fancy and made a star of David Hemmings.

Mr. Antonioni, who was nominated for both directing and writing Oscars for the film, was summoned to Hollywood to become part of the studio rush to capture the youth market. The result, “Zabriskie Point” (1972), was a misfire, but that film’s silent explosions in Death Valley and its placing of figures in a landscape whose barrenness was utter, worked as a contemplation of emptiness, if not in dramatic terms.

At the heart of Mr. Antonioni’s films lay a paradox. He concluded ruefully — although never sentimentally — that life was meaningless, social interaction futile, communication a bad joke. Repeatedly using images of actual and metaphorical deserts in film after film, he contradicted the despair at the heart of his world view by photographing them beautifully. His characters may have been hollowed out, lethargic, dispirited. But the pessimism they embodied was contradicted by the effort that went into committing to an aesthetic ideal, even though Mr. Antonioni may have believed humanist society extinct.

Such directors as Federico Fellini enjoyed popularity because they almost always maintained warm ties to humankind, but Mr. Antonioni’s coolness and distancing guaranteed him a limited public.

Born in Ferrara, Italy, on September 29, 1912, Mr. Antonioni grew up in comfortable circumstances (his family were local landowners). He majored in business and economics at the University of Bologna _ subjects he chose because his then-girlfriend was studying them also. After graduating, he wrote fiction and film criticism and painted. He was fired from editing a film magazine in Rome for lack of loyalty to the Fascist cause.

Mr. Antonioni worked on several scripts and documentary projects during the war. One of those projects turned into his first film, ‘‘Gente del Po’’ (1943-47), about the Po River.

From the start, Mr. Antonioni focused on social disintegration, and began rendering it in existential — as opposed to political — terms. He once said he wanted to recreate reality in abstract forms, and as a child used to erect model buildings, placing people inside them, making up stories, aware always of the relationship among people, space, and architecture.

In “The Passenger,” after Nicholson’s journalist travels farther into a desert (and further away from control of his life) in search of a guerrilla leader, he returns frustrated to his hotel and decides to take a journey through the life of a dead gun-runner he’s mistaken for. In Barcelona, he and Maria Schneider are attracted by Gaudi’s architecture, but are kept apart by an isolating network of fences, exits, barriers.

Mr. Antonioni’s second film, “Netteza Urbana” (1949), about the lives of garbagemen, would have invited overtly political treatment from most directors of the era. Not from Mr. Antonioni. He made the draining of their spirits metaphysical by the way he photographed the gravitational pull of the lethargy enveloping the gray streets they worked.

‘‘Il Grido’’ (1957) established Mr. Antonioni’s international reputation. Returning to the Po River valley, he depicted the numb melancholy of a sugar refinery worker (Steve Cochran) dumped by the woman he loves. In the films that followed, Mr. Antonioni was to relocate the angst to the richer, tonier, trendier types who began to emerge in the rebuilt Italy.

No less important, he discovered in one of the voice dubbers of “Il Grido” the actress who was to become his dispirited icon — Monica Vitti. Their four films together rank as one of the great collaborations between director and actress in screen history, rivaling those of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich and Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina.

To alienation, Mr. Antonioni added the absence of communication and morality in “L‘Avventura,” which scandalized people with its affectless depiction of the disposability of a woman (Lea Massari) lost during an island holiday. Vitti plays a friend who helps the vanished woman’s architect lover in the search. But they’re so shallow that the missing woman is forgotten as Vitti and the architect (Gabriele Ferzetti) drift into a passionless affair.

In “La Notte,” Vitti plays a bored socialite, married to celebrity novelist Marcello Mastroianni. “The Eclipse” freezes over as Alain Delon sadistically toys with Vitti. In “The Red Desert,” she disintegrates in a polluted landscape.

It may have seemed that Antonioni’s films became victims of their own catatonia. But the tactile tenderness in his dolly shots of Vitti disclose subtle sparks of life, and Mr. Antonioni’s asceticism has outlasted the films of many a hand-wringing contemporary.

When ‘‘L’Avventura’’ was shown at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, it was greeted with jeers from the audience. Yet the director Roberto Rossellini led a group of filmmakers and critics in publishing a declaration of support for the film. The film was given a Special Jury Prize _ and a year later the an international poll of critics sponsored by the British film publication Sight & Sound named it runner-up to ‘‘Citizen Kane’’ as the greatest work in film history. Although ‘‘L’Avventura’’ would be ranked much lower in later decades, that initial response is a mark of what an extraordinary impact the film had.

Dogged by ill health, Mr. Antonioni made only a handful of films during the final three decades of his life. He codirected ‘‘Beyond the Clouds’’ (1995) with Wim Wenders. ‘‘Eros’’ (1994) had segments directed by Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai. He also directed several short documentaries.

‘‘I am not a theoretician of the cinema,’’ Mr. Antonioni once said. ‘‘If you ask me what directing is, the first answer that comes to my head is: I don’t know. The second: All my opinions on the subject are in my films.’’

Mr. Antonioni leaves his wife, Enrica Fico.

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