What happened to arthouse films with a meaning? With a sense of criticism and real, raw courage in telling stories no one wants to see? You see, there was a time when directors had extraordinary visions; they could look into the past, the could look into the future, they could even look inside the soul of a human being. Directors like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman breathed cinema and lived through it with the help of their own ideas, their own little worlds. They were recognized as leaders of a new cinematic wave. Fellini was the head of neo-realism, while Bergman led the Swedish new wave. These were two giants that up to this day remain glorified as two of the best filmmakers to have ever walked the planet. So why is it, that their fellow filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, didn’t get as much recognition? For one, Antonioni painted mature, depressing and honest portraits of our society, of the relationships between humans in an age of machines and robots. He explored what others weren’t capable of exploring. What others weren’t capable of understanding. Scorsese praised Antonioni’s L’Avventura as the greatest film ever made and yet I’m not here to talk about L’Avventura, but its sequel, a very key part to his “trilogy on modernity and its discontents” – La Notte (1961).
La Notte is one of those movies that you probably never heard of and yet you have no idea how important it was for the evolution of the present day cinema. It was a new take on alienation and fading relationships. It was a testament to our powerlessness in the face of haunting feelings and emotions, usually crushed by our surroundings and the omnipresent role of technology played in our daily lives. The performances of the great Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and the one and only, Monica Vitti, all add up to a story about a married couple that’s oblivious to its crumbling relationship. The couple consists of Giovanni Pontano, a rookie writer and intellectual, and his wife, Lidia. Once they’re bored with their own lives, they’ll go and meet the mysterious Valentina Gherardini at a very special party.
Antonioni’s films were always about something more than just what’s on screen. Sometimes even the director himself wouldn’t know what his movie was about until he entered the editing room to put the whole thing together. And yet, once you see the title card that reads “FINE” (The End), you will immediately know that you’ve witnessed something spectacular, something deep and meaningful that can only be the work of a bravado filmmaker and a master at his craft. With Antonioni it doesn’t matter if it’s his early works or his latter ones, you will feel honored to have watched a movie made by one of the greats.
La Notte is all about spaces. It’s about crumbling spaces. Everything you see doesn’t mean a thing when love is absent. Antonioni’s camera is always moving, switching to various angles and compositions. It is like an opera, small on the outside, but once you hear it, once you see the whole thing being rehearsed and played in front of an audience your jaw will drop. That’s how Antonioni directs his movies. The actors in all of his films must keep moving. Their movements can be fast, slow, it doesn’t matter. The actors will keep moving until the climax when usually everything is still, or silent (like in Antonioni’s later Zabriskie Point, seconds before one of the loudest explosions in cinema history). In fact, Antonioni directs La Notte in a very specific fashion: he starts off from inserting the characters into a busy, vast, humongous location, in this case the city of Milan. We witness as our characters try to find themselves and resolve their problems in the city where there is not enough space for truth and self discovery. That’s when they is a transition location-wise. The characters are invited to a party in a villa situated right outside of Milan. It is a place of lust, excess and wealth. Everything that haunts us and disturbs us about the two protagonists will be exposed at this very party.
I will not go into detail as to what exactly happens. That is not my objective. That is for you to discover. However, I want to point out a few things that stand out to me. Giovanni and his wife are presented in the beginning of the movie as two people who are driven by something. They seem to share similar views and values. They visit a sick friend at the hospital. A friend that is slowly dying of cancer. A friend that used to be madly in love with Lidia and yet she chose Giovanni over him. As soon as the couple exits the hospital room, they go different ways. Antonioni isn’t interested in pointing out their differences together. They are always separated, in order to make their personalities and the problems they carry with them stand out in the viewer’s eye. Giovanni is tormented by the sudden burst of fame he achieved after having published his first book. Meanwhile, Lidia wanders around the empty streets of Milan on a hot summer afternoon. Giovanni looks for isolation in his spacious apartment. Lidia looks for isolation in the deserted outskirts of the industrial city. Giovanni is being watched by his neighbor from a distant window. Lidia is being watched by a group of boys looking for a fight around the block. Antonioni presents his characters in contrast with a white washed wall, a car, a lamp post or even a set of fireworks exploding in the sky. He translates feelings and distorted memories into objects, landscapes, street geometry. His characters are never free, they always feel trapped in a maze created by the director on purpose. His purpose is to expose their weakness and show their true colors.
Monica Vitti, an actress who’s worked on four different Antonioni projects, adds a feeling of the supernatural with her appearance as the mysterious Valentina. She is the woman, or better yet, the creature that changes everything for the married couple. Her presence is felt as the presence of a surreal character in a material world. She is a troubled woman that looks for salvation in Giovanni’s arms. She causes trouble and at the same time backs off when it’s time for her to go. She appears from nowhere and at the end fades into black. Is she really there? Antonioni doesn’t give us a straight answer. He is more interested in exploring the change in the relationship between Giovanni and Lidia after that one magical night. Magical or nightmarish? We will never know. Antonioni’s characters usually rise from the ashes and end in flames, in order to be born again.
La Notte is no exception. It is a study of society, of modern love and our distorted understanding of memories. It is an interesting take on the reasons why people decide to live together, to love each other. Giovanni and Lidia have nothing to live for and yet they feel compelled to force themselves on one another just so they don’t have to face the scary sense of loneliness. Antonioni’s movies were meant to be that way. Powerful. Towering. Small. That is his magical trick. That’s why he’s a master. He could build an adventure with just a bunch of sticks and stones.