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Six Definitive Films: A beginner's guide to Michelangelo Antonioni

Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s influence on the evolution of cinema is irrefutable. Through his enigmatic emphasis on visual storytelling and the stylisation of cinematic techniques, Antonioni conducted poetic explorations of the landscapes and the people that make up the world around us. He is the only filmmaker to have received the Palme d’Or, the Golden Bear, the Golden Lion as well as the Golden Leopard.

In an interview, Antonioni oncesaid: “When a scene is being shot, it is very difficult to know what one wants it to say, and even if one does know, there is always a difference between what one has in mind and the result on film. I never think ahead of the shot I’m going to make the following day because if I did, I’d only produce a bad imitation of the original image in my mind. So what you see on the screen doesn’t represent my exact meaning, but only my possibilities of expression, with all the limitations implied in that phrase. Perhaps the scene reveals my incapacity to do better; perhaps I felt subconsciously ironic toward it. But it is on film; the rest is up to you.”

Adding, “When we say a character in my films doesn’t function, we mean he doesn’t function as a person, but he does function as a character-that is, until you take him as a symbol. At that point it is you who are not functioning. Why not simply accept him as a character, without judging him? Accept him for what he is. Accept him as a character in a story, without claiming that he derives or acquires meaning from that story. There may be meanings, but they are different for all of us.”

On the 14th anniversary of his death, we revisit the illustrious filmography of Michelangelo Antonioni as a celebration of the indelible mark he left on the world of cinema.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s six definitive films:

L’Avventura (1960)

This critically acclaimed 1960 drama can best be described as visual poetry, L’Avventura revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a woman in the middle of a boating trip. The narrative itself takes a backseat as Antonioni explores the potential of the visual medium, experimenting with stylised storytelling and unconventional techniques.

Now considered to be one of his finest works, L’Avventura received the prestigious Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, among several other accolades. Its legacy and impact on the history of cinema is undeniable, shaping the visual styles of other filmmakers for years to come.

La Notte (1961)

Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as a married couple, La Notte is the deconstruction of the performative nature of marriage. As the two grow further apart from each other, Antonioni presents us with a haunting and honest portrait of the reality of love.

The recipient of the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, La Notte is counted amongst the greatest achievements of European cinema. It is a seminal masterpiece that has influenced countless filmmakers, including Stanley Kubrick who named it as one of his top 10 favourite films.

L’Eclisse (1962)

The final instalment of Antonioni’s trilogy (along with L’Avventura and La Notte), L’Eclisse stars Alain Delon and Monica Vitti in a riveting encounter between a stockbroker and a translator. In its cinematic examination of existentialism, L’Eclisse constructs an atmosphere of despair.

Antonioni’s 1962 masterpiece ended up winning the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Martin Scorsese has listed L’Eclisse as one of the films that had a profound impact on him, stating that it was a “step forward in storytelling… felt less like a story and more like a poem.”

Red Desert (1964)

Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into colour cinematography and it was certainly an iconic one. Starring Monica Vitti as a deeply distressed wife who cannot come to terms with the reality of her existence, Red Desert paints a compelling picture of the wastelands of modernity.

The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and received widespread critical acclaim. Antonioni said: “I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the colour relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colours.”

Blow-Up (1966)

Probably Antonioni’s most well-known work, Blow-Up features David Hemmings as a photographer in London who gets caught up in sinister events. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, prompting even Ingmar Bergman who disliked Antonioni’s work to call the film a masterpiece.

The filmmaker said: “Blow-up is my most unorthodox film, but it is unorthodox in montage, as well as photography. At the Centro Sperimentale they teach you never to cut a shot during its action. Yet I continually do that in Blow-up. Hemmings starts walking to a phone booth-snip go a few frames-in a flash, he is there. Or take the scene in which he photographs Verushka; I cut many frames during that action, doing what the teachers at the Centro regard as utterly scandalous.”

The Passenger (1975)

Starring Jack Nicholson as a disillusioned journalist, The Passenger presents an engaging investigation of the question of identity contextualised within a framework of international intrigue. Much like Antonioni’s other works, The Passenger is a memorable meditation on the illusory nature of existence.

Antonioni reflected, “When I see The Passenger now, I ask myself why I did a particular scene in that particular way. Only after the completion of the film could I explain why I chose that solution to a given sequence. However, while I am shooting, it is instinct that I follow. The only need that I had was to be free with my camera.”

Adding: “Usually we follow one person, or the camera moves between two people in dialogue. In this film, I did not want to maintain one style. I wanted the technical solution to each problem to come to me intuitively without any preconceptions. There isn’t any unity of style. The unity of the film comes from inside the film, itself, from the relationship between me and the world and between me and my characters.”

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