Michelangelo Antonioni – Neorealist of the Soul

One of the most important filmmakers of all time, whose 100th birth anniversary is being celebrated, is the great Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Of all his contemporaries, he still seems to be the most topical, even though his films were made quite some time ago, in the first half of the 1960’s

The impression of Antonioni’s modernity is partly due to the fact that he passed away only recently, and also because he stayed active until old age and directed films which, even when they were not up to the same artistic level of his masterpieces, still had a higher than usual standard of quality (see, for example, his last work The Dangerous Thread of Things (Il filo pericoloso delle cose), one of the three stories in the omnibus Eros, 2004, the other segments of which were directed by much younger but equally famous directors Steven Soderbergh and Kar Wai Wong).

He began working in the film industry during the Fascist period, when he wrote film reviews in the most important Italian film magazine Cinema. This magazine played a vital role in the development of Italian cinema, since at that time it set the standards for the esthetics of WWII era neorealism films that became dominant throughout the world in the second half of the 1940s and 1950s. At the beginning of his career, Antonioni’s work began to lean toward these sensibilities in that he portrayed the misery of Italian people after the war, which is especially evident in his documentaries about the destinies of ordinary people. However, unlike most neorealists, in his films he showed a greater interest in the personal experiences and emotions of his protagonists, which he emphasized by using landscapes and atmosphere as symbols of psychological conditions.

In the 1950s, he made feature films that were far different from the neorealist movement. At that point, he dealt less with social situations and instead emphasized emotions, with a greater emphasis on aspects of the protagonists’ psyche that determined their actions and movement as well as their relationship to other characters and the world around them. Long shots of landscapes created a suggestive image of the psychological conditions dominated by an inability to love, so the critics started to call him a “neorealist of the soul”, especially praising his films The Girlfriends (1955) and The Cry (1957).

He reached full maturity as a director, as well as achieving international fame, in the first half of the 1960s when he completely moved away from his neorealist heritage in films such as The Adventure (1960), The Night (1961), The Eclipse (1963) and The Red Desert (1964). In them he radically explored the potential of the language of film and used original techniques appropriate to the medium of film, which corresponded with what James Joyce, Marcel Proust and William Faulkner did in literature – to suggestively show the thoughts and feelings of his characters. By doing so, he placed the story and external events in the second plane. His impressive film portrayal of psychological conditions is often based on long sequences (most often in silence) during which the camera prowls the protagonist’s face for those short moments in which all masks fall off and when maybe a seemingly uncontrollable microexpression of the face reveals one’s ordinarily carefully hidden true state of mind. The ambiance in which these characters live is also important and becomes an equal protagonist of the film. The labyrinth in which Antonioni’s characters move is no longer only inside them, but rather in all the objects that surround them. They represent important developments of modern of civilization that rob people of their feelings and gradually dehumanize them.

Having exhausted this topic, Antonioni looked for a way out of the emotional desert in his first film made outside of his home country – the British Blow-up (1966) in which a fashion photographer, after having uncovered a murder, finds his own conscience and a new level of self awareness that gives rise to his personal rebellion against violence. Unfortunately although he needs help from others, he does not receive it. In the only later film of his, from 1975, Profession: reporter, that can be compared to his earlier successes, these issues bring him to the question of both the hero’s and a man’s identity in general. In both of these films an important role is given to the media that the heroes work with, which offers the author opportunities to experiment with working in new ways.

Even though Antonioni directed many good and interesting films in six decades of working with the medium, the above mentioned films are important for his notable role in the history of world film. (Tomislav Kurelec)