The Passenger: Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni have an identity crisis

Throughout the 70s and 80s, several Hollywood stars collaborated on projects with some of cinema’s biggest auteurs. Most notably, the likes of Robert De Niro – who, fresh off an Oscar win for Raging Bull, decided to fly out to Rome and work with Sergio Leone (who at that point hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years!) on what would be his last picture, Once Upon a Time in America – Donald Sutherland with his unpredictable turn in Fellini’s Casanova, and Oscar-nominated Elliot Gould taking center-stage in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch showed that Hollywood was just not enough for those that dared to be personal and creative in their work. Hollywood could only go as far in terms of artistic vision.
One of the most accomplished pairings proved to be The Passenger, where the paths of iconoclast Michelangelo Antonioni and Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson met, creating a perfect tandem of beliefs and ideas about the central question in Antonioni’s body of work: what does it mean to have an identity?

Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson on set of The Passenger.

As part of a three-movie deal with MGM Studios that saw Antonioni direct Blowup (1966) – a critical and commercial success – Zabriskie Point (1970) – a critical and commercial failure – The Passenger was the nail in the coffin for Antonioni’s career in America. The movie was shelved following its initial release and only re-released decades later when Jack Nicholson got his hands on the movie’s rights. The Hollywood actor considered The Passenger the highlight of his career; an intimate piece of work that had been taken away from audiences and kept in the dark like a precious painting in times of war.
If there is a parable for how Hollywood operates it can be found in The Passenger, as the studio was desperate to turn things around and use Jack Nicholson’s name and star power to save this picture from sinking. What the studio failed to predict was that Antonioni would always, no matter what, go out of his way and avoid the clichés and tropes of typical studio movies. Moreover, the studio failed to predict that Jack Nicholson, the man who had just finished making Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and a longtime studio-system actor) would buy into Antonioni’s cinematic ideology and embrace the Italian’s way of making pictures. For Nicholson, The Passenger was the opportunity to get away from the glamour, noise and billboards of Sunset Boulevard. It was his shot at making something pure, something that did not taste of salted popcorn and soft drinks.

The moment Nicholson’s reporter gives up. He wants out.

In The Passenger, the story revolves around a war correspondent who, for some reason, cannot seem to find the war he’s looking for in Northern Africa. He has a sudden change of heart, and upon discovering the dead body of a man he had just met in a remote hotel, he decides to assume the dead man’s identity. Like a passenger, he hops on a ride, not knowing where this ride will take him.
This seemingly simple premise could have turned the movie into a run-off-the-mill thriller as Nicholson’s new identity corresponds to that of an arms dealer pursued by several enemy factions. Instead, Antonioni opts for something much deeper and closer in style to his ”alienation trilogy” of the 60s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
For Antonioni, the crux of the story is Nicholson’s crisis of identity and the decision to leave behind an entire life and replace it with a new one. How can a man simply wipe the slate clean, forget the people he’s met, the work he’s done? How can he pretend to walk in another man’s shoes without realizing the complexities that went into that man’s life?
The process of assuming the dead man’s identity is very basic in practical terms: Nicholson simply takes the photo of his passport and attaches it onto the dead man’s document. It is as simple as that, thinks our protagonist. But the truth is that one cannot possibly wish for another man’s life without taking on the other man’s burdens. Antonioni sets out to explore this dilemma.

Nicholson assumes the identity of an arms dealer.

What we find out is that Nicholson’s character is a man who has probably seen too much, but it’s also possible that he’s never fully understood the things he’s seen. As a war correspondent he’s ventured to far-away places and put his life at risk in order to interview war chiefs, presidents, generals, rebels and soldiers. The interviews he’s carried out were all meant to bring to light a community’s struggle and fight for ideals. But we soon find out that the reporter had by this point learned to distance himself too convincingly from the events he witnessed. He was a passenger there, too. He just didn’t know it. This is most evident in a scene where a man who Nicholson is interviewing, turns the camera around to face him and asks to repeat the same questions but with the camera rolling in Nicholson’s direction. Only by not hiding behind the camera will he be able to fully absorb the realities of the world he’s so busy documenting.
In a way, this scene effectively predicts today’s obsession of documenting everything around us without ever taking the time to live through these moments; these moments that we’re so determined to capture, record and store.
The movie continues to highlight Nicholson’s constant illusion of being someone else. At the start it’s an adventure as he meets the people the dead man was supposed to meet, goes to places the dead man was supposed to go to, and is free of whatever kept driving him into the ground in his previous life.
Soon he realizes that life at its core holds something we cannot get rid of: things like habits, codes of conduct, responsibility are omnipresent and will eventually find a way into anybody’s life.
At one point he says, “I’ve run out of everything; my wife — the house — an adopted child — a successful job — everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of.”

Maria Schneider’s character becomes his companion for the journey.

The inevitable realization that we’re all somehow connected by the same problems, the same desires and obsessions in Antonioni’s world is a terrifying realization of doom. After all, Nicholson’s character wanted to escape. And yet, there is no escape for him. He cannot live a life without being part of the world.
The woman he meets in Barcelona, played by a wonderfully soulful Maria Schneider, tries to comfort him and play along like a partner in crime. Their conversations, however, constantly revolve around the inevitability of life. She is also, in a way, trying to escape, but her escape seems to be of temporary nature. She is young, bright and has the whole future ahead of her.
The two travel together across deserted parts of Spanish Almeria. At a certain point in their journey, she asks him a simple question: ”What are you running away from?” to which he replies, “Turn the other way so that your back faces the front seat.” As she does so in his open convertible, we are presented with her view of an endless row of trees and the road they’re leaving behind. It is at this point that we realize, there is no salvation for Nicholson’s character. Just the illusion of an escape.

She is also running away from something. Anything.

After making the film, Nicholson recalled that Antonioni saw his actors as nothing more than ”moving space.” This is most evident in Nicholson’s haunting performance. In The Passenger he’s at his most vulnerable as he plays a man who wants to blend in at all costs; a man who wants to be accepted and left alone. In other words, we watch one of the most bombastic, A-list dramatic actors turn in a performance that is both restrained and powerfully evocative.
Paired with Antonioni’s eye for architecture and landscapes, Jack’s performance fills the frame not with his usual, larger-than-life personality, but with a ghost-like desire. A desire to start from scratch. To be part of something.
The end result is essentially a quiet meditation on what it means to live a life. And despite featuring in large part themes of alienation and loneliness, I see The Passenger as a comforting film, where Nicholson’s character and Maria Schneider’s try to make sense of the world by supporting each other. It may be a lost fight, but the journey is ultimately fulfilling.
What the reporter forgets, is that a passenger must eventually know when to get off.

He wants to be accepted and left alone.


The Father

There’s a new movie coming out this year, which I’m particularly eager to see, entitled First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke in the role of a morally broken priest. As I sat watching the movie’s trailer I noticed a critics’ praise for it: ”A fierce film from Paul Schrader. One of the crucial creators of the modern cinema.” This positive remark left me quite surprised. Sure, I knew who Paul Schrader was; longtime friend of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, director of one of the most important movies of the 90s, Affliction, director of the cult classic, American Gigolo, and screenwriter of Raging Bull and the Last Temptation of Christ. But as I read through his artistic credits I realized how little I had seen from him. The man’s body of work spans across four decades of fundamental shifts and changes. And that’s why I decided to dive into the man’s early body of work; to finally be able to comprehend the genius that stands behind modern cinema: Paul Schrader.

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Paul Schrader.

First of all, Schrader is in no way, shape, or form a remarkable director. Yes, that may sound odd since this post is dedicated to the artist himself. However, what I aim to focus on is the man’s voice, which comes through the attitude of his movies, rather than the form of the movies itself. Schrader has produced numerous films, especially in the last decade or so, but it is his early work that speaks volumes not only of Schrader as a man and artist, but about the society Schrader made these movies in, the chaos, confusion and turmoil that created the atmosphere that was needed for the screenwriter turned director to convey his vision to movie goers. It is this eternal state of confusion, madness and anger that makes Schrader such a crucial figure in the founding of modern cinema, because what is modern cinema? It is a hard question to answer. We all see different movies. We see what we like and it does not necessarily have to be considered modern cinema. At the time of Schrader’s rise in the mid 70s, American cinema was starting to acquire a certain power. Unlike the 60s, where experimenting with the technicalities of filmmaking such as improvisation, shooting on location or the use of handheld cameras was the main focus, the 70s focused on the attitude that was felt on the streets of American cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles, two metropolitan areas that differed enormously both in their landscape as well as their attitude. Around those years a new wave of young film directors emerged, all of them willing to change the course of cinema, willing to introduce a sort of spirit that cinema hadn’t been able to capture before. There was Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and De Palma. The five amigoes who grabbed cinema by the throat and produced some of the most revolutionary pictures. Schrader, on the other hand, did not make the cut. Perhaps because he came from a different part of the United States (Grand Rapids, MI), or perhaps because he simply wasn’t as talented and as well-liked by the studios of the time. But one thing is certain: Schrader had the same thirst to talk about the issues that troubled him and his generation, the issues that rocked his world.

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The openness of violence in Taxi Driver.

Schrader’s thirst and need to be heard might have probably been the result of years spent working as a cab driver in Los Angeles, where he faced off with his demons on a nightly basis. His own depression, loneliness and anger translated into what we now know as Scorsese’s masterpiece – Taxi Driver.  Indeed, one of Schrader’s earliest credits is writing the tale of a lonely cab driver in New York named Travis Bickle who decides to kill the favored presidential candidate. In this case, Schrader’s credit might only be that of a writer but the overall frustration with society comes through like in no other of his own feature films. PS creates one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on screen using every single characteristic that would have been considered vulgar and X-rated ten years prior to the release of this film; a lonely, dirty, mentally disturbed war vet in search of nothing, wanting nothing, enraged with the state of things, with tendencies of self-harm and sociopathic behavior. Travis’ world is the world we now know from numerous recent crime films such as Good TimeCollateral, American Gangster and Training Day. The idea of using an anti-hero as the protagonist and placing him in the middle of a sewer such as the filthy streets of East Village, populated by pimps, murderers and prostitutes, is a clear outcry for society to wake up, for cinema to start showing the real problems, the human issues that can trouble and be relevant even among the lowest members of our social hierarchy. The concept of having the anti-hero try to save a young, underage hooker, played by Jodi Foster, was at the time an idea that made countless heads shake in disgust. Taxi Driver showed everyone how low cinema can reach in search of an important story, a vital element of today’s cinema: a unique, unsettling atmosphere of threat and discomfort that can be found in some of the most popular movies of recent years including Nightcrawler, a prime example of today’s openness toward extravagant, borderline uncomfortable storytelling.

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Travis Bickle. A character for the ages.

Finally, in 1978 and 1979 Schrader managed to get the required budget for two excellent directorial efforts, which aside from his later Mishima and Affliction, are his best work to date. The two films are Blue Collar and Hardcore. Both features come at the viewer in waves, like rapid machine gun fire, grabbing the viewer by the throat without letting go until the final second. Blue Collar, unlike Hardcore, focuses on the unit of a group, and more accurately: a group of three autoworkers and the union looming over them. It is about the force and at the same time, the powerlessness of a group that faces a clear rejection from the rest of society. The three protagonists, all behind their dues, wanted by the tax-man, committed to their families, are a representation of the underbelly of America, the common man struggling to make ends meet. Schrader tortures his characters with confrontations and challenges that can either make them or break them. There is no middle line for Schrader, it is all about the determination to succeed mixed with the awareness of the fact that the American Dream is nothing but a fairy tale for kids. The three men, played by Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are trapped from all sides; these are men whose lives have lost meaning, and yet they have to push forward, which leads us to interpret this film as a social commentary sparked by a heartbreaking character study of three imperfect individuals who belong to an imperfect society.

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Three men unable to escape their reality.

Hardcore, on the other hand, is a film solely focused on one character, Jake VanDorn, (played to perfection by George C. Scott), and this character’s individual quest to find his missing daughter. Sounds familiar, huh? Indeed, Schrader’s violent, psychologically disturbing film about a desperate midwestern businessman looking for his daughter in sex shops and titty bars can be described as an accurate precursor to the Taken series, as well as other modern-day depictions of an individual standing up to a system, even in blockbusters like John Wick. Again, it is Schrader’s ability and fierce determination to dive into the most disturbing social environments that set him apart from his contemporaries. The contrast between VanDorn’s religious background and the pornographic underbelly of LA and San Diego that he has to go through make of him the quintessential modern character; strong yet weak, stable yet capable of losing his mind very easily, innocent yet incredibly violent, religious yet lacking in true faith. This was a character that at the time was not wished to be seen or even acknowledged since it clearly pointed in the wrong direction; a direction Hollywood was not willing to take considering its strong and permanent will to remain a conventional medium, a medium of traditional, conservative characters. Schrader, known for being a blunt artist, said to hell with it! and rolled the dice, and what mattered was not the final outcome of the dice, but the sheer act of rolling it.

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The state of confusion of Jake VanDorn and his descent into madness.

The act itself, rolling the dice in a dark alley, made of Schrader a voice worth listening to, similar to the raspy voice of a disturbed individual on the street, talking to himself, preaching to the crowd of passers-by. The voice, distinct, angry, loud, made of Schrader an under-appreciated and often forgotten figure of modern cinema. He wasn’t the one setting the rules like Spielberg and Scorsese; he was simply someone who taught viewers and aspiring filmmakers to always speak in their own language, articulate their own thoughts, profess what they feel is important and be personal. Because at the end of the day, that is what modern cinema is all about; having different voices be heard, as loud, or as shy or even as vulgar as they may be. Let them be heard.

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It may be worth looking out for the next cab driver.

Greyhounds and Priests

Holy. What is holy? Is it the opposite of sinful? Is there a difference? Can you see the line that divides these two words? That sets them apart? Those are questions brought up in a movie that hit me hard last night. I was expecting a punch in the gut but not such a powerful one. To tell the truth, I had no idea what to expect; i knew just the title – The Club (2015), a Chilean masterwork directed by the up and coming Pablo Larraín (director of No (2012)). You might wonder, did I come up with any answers after having watched the movie? No, instead I came up with more questions. You see, the movie is all about Greyhounds and priests.

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Welcome to the club.

There is an isolated house on top of a hill of an isolated town by the sea in Chile. It’s yellow, pleasant to look at, it even has a garden and a beautiful view of the coast. However, don’t let the appearances fool you. Inside this lovely house you’ll find four priests with four dark pasts. Taking care of them is a retired middle aged nun. She also hides something. You think you’re entering the house of God, instead you’re entering the house of Satan. Father Garcia is our key to this terrifying place. He’s sent there to shut the whole place down after having gathered all the necessary evidence to send these priests to jail. The secrets that are about to torment Garcia, are also there to torment us. Father Lazcano was sent there to find peace within himself. Soon enough he falls dead with a gunshot wound to the head. Suicide. How about that? Garcia, however, is there to hunt down these four disgraced priests and the nun that is responsible for them. As he unravels the priests’ stories we begin to learn not only about them, but also about the bigger picture. Religion. Faith. Sin. Forgiveness.

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Larrain’s direction is ruthless. Filthy characters looking directly at the camera, opening themselves to us, the audience. Are they judging us? Pauses. Silences. Vivid descriptions of child molestation, anal sex, intimate confessions and pure hatred for the human kind. These priests all represent a unity. They carry their own stories and their own sins with them. Each one of them is different and Larrain highlights this fact by isolating them. The director’s framing of the images feel a lot like Antonioni’s in L’Avventura. Hell, the setting is not so different. Rocks. Sand. Fog. Rain. The camera pans across an extremely dimly lit landscape. There ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone, right? Yes, there is no faith to be found here. You can only contemplate the scary absence of it, because believe me; a world with no faith, no hope for a better tomorrow, no certainty for anything, is extremely scary. In fact, the priests’ only satisfaction, only remaining joy in life is betting. Betting on Greyhounds in dog racing. Instead of faith, they make money. Money that for them is absolutely worthless. Money that can’t bring the dead back to life. Money that can’t make up for their mistakes. And once they lose the possibility of betting too? What happens then? Larrain pushes us and the priests to the extreme. It would be too easy to pin down one main theme for this movie. You’d think, “oh sure, he’s talking about how the past haunts you.” No. He’s not. He’s going for something much more complex than that. The past plays just a supporting role. It’s the present that has the spotlight on this grim, menacing stage. Is the present our only judge? The priests stumble at each step, the weight on their shoulders is getting heavier and heavier. These are not men, they aren’t human anymore. They’re beasts. They’re shadows, ghosts. Ghosts that go through every day life just like they go through a religious ritual. There is nothing holy about them. There is nothing holy about what they used to represent when they were young.

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Suffocating the dark past.

You might wonder, then, why am I bringing up this movie all of a sudden? There are countless movies that touch upon similar subjects, for instance Doubt, Changeling, Spotlight, Sleepers and many, many others. However, this movie might be still the most riveting one among them. Why? Because it’s extremely quiet. There is a subtle vibration in every frame of it. We hear the waves crash against the rocky coast. We hear the homeless dogs howl in the streets. We hear the wind blow over the hill. Aside from that, there are no fireworks. Each gesture is twice as relevant because of the all around quiet and peace. Each word and each scream, each manifestation of anger or desperation is ten times as powerful because of the setting. Because of this silent stage, where the actors have nothing but each other. Their fate is in their hands. And maybe that’s the scariest part about it; these sinners, these monsters are their own judges. What good might come out of it?

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Greyhounds and priests.

 

 

 

Double Date

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).

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The guilty protagonists.

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.

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Giovanni.

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Lidia.

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And the mysterious force that is Valentina.

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.

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A hypnotized society.

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.

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Giovanni’s vision.

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Lidia’s vision.

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.

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Giovanni’s strange encounters.

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Everybody’s looking for love.

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.

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Valentina slowly goes away.

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.

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Is there hope?

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Well, is there?