Michelangelo and the yearning for tragedy

‘We lived in silence… He has only one way of expressing himself: his work.” So said Michelangelo Antonioni’s first wife, Letizia Balboni. It’s true, the Italian director was notorious for taking existential inquiry — and his own artistic purity — to another level. But what a legacy of film he left behind…

Michelangelo Antonioni in Rome during the shooting of the film L'Eclisse. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

On a balmy evening in spring 1960, an audience of cinephiles at the Cannes film festival were getting hot under their dress collars. Boos, exaggerated yawns, loud jeers, and even derisive laughter attended the screening of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Described by its director as “a type of film noir in reverse”, the picture told the story of a socialite on a boat trip with haute-bourgeois friends who vanishes on a remote island. Or, to be more exact, it didn’t. Not only was the central ‘mystery’ never resolved, the character simply evaporated from proceedings while her erstwhile boyfriend and best friend embarked on their own listless love affair. For the restive audience, this wasn’t so much delayed gratification as indefinitely postponed gratification. However, later that night, Roberto Rossellini and a group of influential filmmakers and critics drafted a statement announcing that they were “appalled” by the hostility, and expressing their admiration for Antonioni. Thus were two traditions born: the noisome Cannes cause célèbre and a certain kind of ruminative, opaque, usually European movie that felt to some like art-house homework and to others visionary modernism — but that provoked long nights of smoky argument in raffish cafes either way.

Contributor

Stuart Husband

Published

March 2020

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