Last week I was briefly Dutch Girl in the Netherlands (not that an exciting name, I know). Before I jetted off back to the UK again, I made a stopover at EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam. I’m such a fan of this museum: the building itself looks like an alien spaceship freshly landed from an extrasolar planet and their exhibitions are always top-grade. Their current exhibition is on the innovative and ground-breaking Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912 – 2007). I wasn’t familiar with his work beforehand, but I certainly feel inspired now to watch his entire oeuvre. If I do a good job here, you will feel inspired as well after reading this post!
In this retrospective you can get a taster of Antonioni’s films as there are thirteen big screens in the exhibition that show clips of his films. The wall texts reveal why Antonioni was indeed a maestro of not only Italian, but of modern cinema indeed. He broke with traditional cinema rules and invented a new cinema language in which the image was superior to the story. A good example is his renowned film L’Avventura (The Adventure) (1960) when his main protagonist disappears after just 20 mins, not to return again. The rest of the film is about her friend and boyfriend and their blossoming romance rather than their search for the woman.
Antonioni also felt comfortable with playing around with unusual, certainly at the time, editing techniques. His film Il grido (The Cry) (1957) defined his signature style. There is only little dialogue in the film, instead there is plenty of space for silence and deliberate continuity mistakes.
In the exhibition you can also see film posters, photographs, paintings, original screenplays, letters and more interesting documentation related to Antonioni and his work. Unfortunately most of the correspondence and notes are in Italian so I couldn’t read them, but at least it meant that I could for once make my way through an exhibition a bit faster than usual. All in all, I still spent about 1.5 hours in there and it would have been even longer if I had watched all clips in their entirety.
The representation of fog and the desert in Antonioni’s films
The three photos below show a great juxtaposition between the sense of limited and limitless space created by fog and the desert. On the screen on the left you see stills from Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) (1964). The screen on the right shows stills from Professione: Reporter (The Passenger) (1975) (first two photos) and Zabriskie Point (1970).
The fog is a reference to Antonioni’s birth place of Ferrara in the north of Italy, creating a melancholic and oppressive atmosphere. Fog plays a prominent role in Il deserto rosso and Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman) (1982). While fog on the one hand limits the sense of space, the desert in Antonioni’s films represents limitless space and is a metaphorical representation of ‘poetic emptiness’. Antonioni was fascinated with the vastness of desert horizons. The desert is the striking setting for his masterpieces Zabriskie Point and Professione: Reporter (featuring Jack Nicholson).
Antonioni’s first film was the short neorealistic black and white film Gente del Po (People of the Po Valley) (1943) about fishermen from Porto Tolle and their daily hard labour on the river Po. You can watch the full film in the exhibition. Some of my favourite films in the exhibition were his short documentaries Nettezza urbana (Dustmen) (1948) and Superstizione (Superstition) (1949). The first film focuses on the street sweepers of Rome, who daily clean the rubbish the upper class leave behind thoughtlessly and are entirely invisible in the busy streets. The second documentary shows different curious superstitious traditions in rural southern Italy, including a senior woman drinking fresh urine from a boy to cure her arthritis or washing a baby in a tub with a pair of scissors on the bottom of the bath tub to ensure a happy and safe future for the child (if it survives the bath that is!).
Antonioni had many prominent admirers and in the exhibition you can see letters from novelist Umberto Eco and film directors Martin Scorsese, Frederico Fellini, just to name a few. Below is a letter from Fellini to Michelangelo Antonioni (1953).
Translation: ‘I wanted to tell you that I saw The Vanquished the other day and, as always, I was moved. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t mean that the film was moving; it is you who moves me, your profound seriousness, your strength, your sad vision of mankind…’
Blow-Up (1966), starring Vanessa Redgrave, was Antonioni’s first non-italian spoken film and it was his biggest commercial success. The film won several prizes, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for the Oscars and BAFTA Awards. The film’s success took Antonioni to America.
The film is loosely based on the short story ‘Las babas del diablo’ by Julio Cortazár and is set in London during the ‘Swinging Sixties’. Photographer Thomas discovers a murder scene in his photos. The film plays with the relationship between the image and its subject and also with the notion of human perception versus the power of the camera.
In Brian de Palma’s 1981 re-make, Blow Out (with John Travolta), the main protagonist discovers a murder through a sound recording instead of an image.
For ten years actress Monica Vitti was Antonioni’s muse and lover. She is regarded as the most talented and successful Italian actress. They made four films together: L’Avventura, La notte, L’Eclisse and Il deserto rosso. Near the end of the exhibition you can see the screen tests for Il deserto rosso and witness how Vitti gradually transforms into her character under the skilful guidance of Antonioni.
Il deserto rosso is Antonioni’s first film in colour. Unlike in the stills of this film at the beginning of this post, colour actually plays a key role in the film. The film crew even painted trees and fields of grass to intensify their colours.
The concept of nature
Since childhood Antonioni made drawings and paintings. He had been painting mountains since the early 1960s. The paintings in the photo above are of his series Enchanted Mountains.
In the above still from Zabriskie Point (just before the famous scene with the Pink Floyd soundtrack) we don’t only see mountains, but also the desert. There’s a really good text about this in the exhibition that I want to quote here: ‘The desert to Antonioni’s characters, is a place of paradoxes, of extreme detachment, which is both untouched and untouchable, suggesting weightlessness as the amorous bodies of the young hippies in Zabriskie Point are consumed by the grey-ochre dust. It is also the scene of schizophrenia, the loss of self, of never-ending exile as seen in the reporter permanently on the run in The Passenger, played by Jack Nicholson alongside Maria Schneider.’
The exhibition ends with one of the last (short) films he made, Lo sguardo di Michelangelo (Michelangelo Eye to Eye) (2004), before he died in 2007. In this documentary we see Antonioni ‘meet’ the famous painter, sculptor and namesake Michelangelo. It’s a beautiful and moving film, especially because we see a frail Antonioni (he lost his ability to speak and was partially paralysed after suffering a stroke in 1985). It’s slow and delicate, a perfect ending to this impressive retrospective.
The exhibition Michelangelo Antonioni – Il Maestro del Cinema Moderno is on at EYE Film Museum till 17 January 2016. Over the next months you can also watch his films in the museum’s cinema. Visit the museum’s website for opening times, prices and the film programme.
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