WHATEVER HAPPENED TO MY NARRATIVE RESOLUTION?
MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI, L'AVVENTURA, AND THE LEGACY OF ITALIAN NEOREALISM
by Mark Ryall
When Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life was screened in competition at Cannes 2011, there was a palpable sense of anticipation. It was only the fourth film that Malick had directed since Badlands almost 30 years earlier, and expectations for the premiere were high. However, when the screening ended the audience responded not with rapturus applause, but with booing, jeering and laughter. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, Gregg Kilday recalls, “With the film’s final, ambiguous image still lingering on the screen, a number of vociferous boos rained down from the balcony”. The notoriously captious Cannes crowd have a longstanding reputation for vociferous enthusiasm that would make the crowd at a premier league football match seem tame by comparison. Malick’s non-linear meditation on life, the universe and everything may have infuriated the Cannes audience, but he needn’t have worried. He was, after all, in very good company.
Other venerated filmmakers to feel the wrath of the Cannes audience include Federico Fellini (The Voice of the Moon) and David Lynch (twice, for Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). In 1976, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver met with a similar fate before going on to win the Palm d’Or. Malick was not present to receive his summary judgement (nor was he present to collect the prestigious Palm d’Or at the close of the festival), but Michelangelo Antonioni was not so fortunate. When L’Avventura premiered at the 1960 Cannes festival, it was met with sustained jeers and catcalls throughout. From the opening credits there was laughter and mocking jeers through emotional scenes. Antonioni and lead actress Monica Vitti sat through the whole sorry spectacle. And the relentless booing reduced the director to tears.
This unfair reception galvanized a group of critics and filmmakers to rally to Antonioni’s defence. The festival newspaper of 17 May carried a short declaration in which 26 signatories, including Roberto Rossellini, announced themselves “shocked by the display of hostility” and thoroughly in favour of a work of “exceptional importance”.
In the intervening period L’Avventura has deservedly come to be regarded as a masterpiece. It has been placed in Sight & Sound’s “greatest films of the decade” poll on three consecutive occasions. But what was it about L’Avventura that prompted such an improper response? The explicit meaning (or bare plot summary) would indicate a standard suspense narrative with the assumption of narrative resolution, but the implicit meaning and execution is exemplary of the ambiguous mode of art cinema. L’Avventura was simply too radical for Cannes, and it is in this disparity between professional and popular reaction where the enduring legacy of neorealism becomes apparent. But before we look at Antonioni’s legacy and influence on the classical narrative mode, we must first look at the basis of what the Cannes crowd were expecting.
At the risk of generalising, I would argue that classical narrative cinema tells the viewer what to think, whereas art cinema leaves the viewer with some difficult questions. As with life itself, the stock characters of Italian neorealism have little or no control over their destinies. For example, Vittorio De Sica’s protagonists are characters acted upon by society rather than forces with control over their environment. Simply put, they lack agency. Bicycle Thieves’ Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) has as much control over his environment as he does over the weather. The only agency available to the protagonist of Umberto D (Carlo Battisti) is the choice of ending his own life. In “Narrative in the Fiction Film”, David Bordwell contends that the fundamental difference between the two modes lies with characterization. “If the Hollywood protagonist speeds toward the target, the art-film protagonist is presented as sliding passively from one situation to another”. If, as Bordwell asserts, perception and thought are “active, goal-oriented processes” and perceptual judgement is based on “nonconscious inferences” then classical cinema is a cinema of perception whereas art cinema is one of interpretation.
One of the legacies of neorealism is a protagonist unburdened with cause-and-effect logic. These characters are often as lost and unsure as the viewer. The realism of the art film is no more real than that of the classical film, but is, instead, a different canon of realistic motivation.
The pre-war Italian film industry had been dominated by so-called “white telephone” films such as Max Ophüls’ La Signora di Tutti. These were bourgeois, pro-authority comedies and melodramas that emulated the cinema of Hollywood. However, the Italian movie-going public had little appetite for social conscience after World War II. The neorealist introspection and social realism of Rossellini and De Sica was infinitely more popular outside of Italy, where the appetite for escapist glamour was understandably high after 20 years of Fascist repression. In fact, of the total number of films produced in Italy between 1945 and 1953 in Italy, only around 10 percent could be classified as neorealist, and most of these were box-office failures.
By the beginning of the 1950s, classical neorealism was already on the wane. Italian neorealism may not have been financially lucrative, but its legacy to cinematic form cannot be understated.
The roots of Italian neorealism owe much to Benito Mussolini. Under the dictator’s rule, the Fascist regime had fostered a homegrown film industry. This included the founding of a national film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, and opening of the Cinecittà film studio. Many of neorealism’s leading lights cut their teeth making documentaries for the Fascist party, including Roberto Rossellini who cultivated his vérité aesthetic with films made under the regime. Before the outbreak of World War II, Michelangelo Antonioni had briefly been a journalist for the Italian film journal, Cinema, edited by Mussolini’s cousin. In 1940 Antonioni enrolled in the national film school but left after three months due to the emphasis placed on the rules of conventional filmmaking. In the years after the war ended, neorealism became a form of national cinema that was feted far beyond the borders of Italy. As a movement, it constituted a collection of exceptional filmmakers working contemporaneously to the same ideology and aesthetic criteria. But as every movement from German expressionism to Dogme ’95 has demonstrated, filmmakers working to a set of strict aesthetic criteria will exhaust their energies within a very short period of time. From Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943) to De Sica’s Umberto D (1952), Italian neorealism burned briefly but very brightly.
Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945)
The dominant ideology of neorealism is socialist, with a strong focus on themes such as the War, unemployment and the effects of poverty on a society. In terms of narrative, it marks a rejection of neat narrative resolution and other conventions associated with Hollywood. What we now know as classical neorealism would not truly emerge until the end of World War II. When we think of neorealism, we think of Rome Open City (1945). Rossellini began shooting his film in the weeks following the liberation of Rome in June 1944, and it was the first neorealist film released after the war. Rome, Open City is a bold year-zero manifesto that exhibits all the standard characteristics of the movement.
Great art is often borne under duress, and Rossellini’s film is a perfect example. His was an aesthetic produced by a combination of anger, rebellion and necessity. The damage inflicted on Cinecitta by the war had as much bearing on Rossellini’s choice of using real locations as a desire to eschew the artifice of the studio picture. The film’s grainy documentary style was a result of shooting on mismatched film stock cobbled together from whatever was available.
Other elements of the mise-en-scéne, such as natural lighting, absence of non-diegetic sound and the use of non-professional actors (or professional actors playing against type) were also the result of using whatever resources were at his disposal. Of the new realist aesthetic that he had created, Rossellini said, “I am not trying to show reality, I am attempting to recreate realism”. Rome, Open City is an attempt to engender a national cinema that addresses itself to the rest of the world. It symbolised a country looking at itself and taking stock after the war, and projecting its findings outward. Its ideology may embody a Marxist sensibility, but in hindsight, Rome, Open City still owes much to the melodrama of Hollywood.
Where Rome, Open City is an ensemble piece that follows multiple narrative arcs, the individual characters can be read as metonyms for societal classes. De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves still retains the neorealist emphasis on social themes, but focusses on fleshed-out real characters rather than types. The story is simplicity itself. A man’s bicycle is stolen leaving him unable to work, and he wanders the streets of Rome with his son looking for the thief. Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is a synecdoche of Italy’s working class. His son, the expressive, cherub-faced Bruno (Enzo Staiola) represents the future post-war generation. Like Rossellini before him, De Sica’s two main performers were chosen for their look and movements rather than for professional acting ability. This rejection of familiar patterns of performance disrupts the preconceptions of the audience and contributes greatly to the verisimilitude of the narrative.
De Sica had co-adapted the screenplay with the architect of Italian neorealism, Cesare Zavattini. It was Zavattini’s call for a type of new cinema – a cinema that addressed the social and political realities of contemporary Italy – that had planted the seeds of neorealism. The message at the heart of Bicycle Thieves is that the working class must steal from each other in order to survive. In contrast to Rossellini’s address to the world, De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves turns its gaze away from society as a whole and instead looks inwards, making a virtue of the intensely personal. The ambiguous resolution of Bicycle Thieves mirrors the uncertain future of modernism.
Michelangelo Antonioni would develop the open-text concept further to comment on the human condition in unpredictable times. In the process, he would do everything in his power to destroy the tenets of narrative cinema. Antonioni’s filmmaking career began with one reel documentaries such as Gente del Po (1947) and Netezza Urbana (1948) which displayed an empathetic preoccupation with the working class. If Rossellini and De Sica had shown the nation how to live with each other in the aftermath of the War, then Antonioni began looking at the psychological trauma left in its wake.
Classical neorealism was ebbing as Antonioni entered the middle period of his career at the start of the 1960s. L’Avventura – the film which had enraged the Cannes crowd – formed a loose trilogy with La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). These three films are variations on the theme of love in the shifting age of modernity.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse (1962)
In contrast with De Sica’s study of the downcast working class, Antonioni takes his characters from the opposite end of the social spectrum. L’Avventura is a story of the idle rich. Anna (Lea Massari) is a wealthy debutante and her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a rich quantity surveyor. Together with her friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti) Anna and her lover embark on a cruise off the coast of Sicily with a group of wealthy friends. The plot is simplicity itself and can be summarised in a single sentence (or, as a producer would say, the “elevator pitch”). A beautiful society girl goes missing from a deserted island, and her friend and lover begin a sexual relationship in the course of searching for her. Contrary to André Bazin’s opinion on the plot of Bicycle Thieves, there is now enough here for a news item. Indeed, Anna’s disappearance does eventually become newsworthy. Yet it is not what happens which is of importance to Antonioni, but how it happens.
The initial framing and characterisation sets Anna up as the central female protagonist in the eyes of the viewer. We are told just enough narrative information about Anna to become invested in her fate, before Antonioni literally takes her out of the picture completely. Not only does Anna vanish after 25 minutes of screen time – never to appear again – but the memory of her disappears. With this act, Antonioni not only denies the emotional and psychological investment of the audience, but he actively rejects it. Claudia and Sandro’s search for Anna gradually becomes less important as her memory dwindles into non-existence. The first act is set up to suggest a possible ensemble piece, but characters such as Patricia (Esmeralda Ruspoli) and Raimondo (Lelio Lutazzi) are given far more attention than their importance to the narrative requires. When the old fisherman appears, we assume that his sudden appearance is somehow relevant to Anna’s disappearance, but he is ultimately as inconsequential as the lengthy details of his antipodean roots and family history.
It is possible to speculate over a number of ambiguous images following Anna’s disappearance. The shot of a mysterious motor boat leaving the island, or the dissolve between Claudia calling out for Anna and a shot of waves crashing violently against rocks would suggest either escape or suicide. However, the “what and how” are of little importance. Those are questions in the realm of the murder/mystery (and may go some way in explaining the angry Cannes reception; It is entirely possible that they were expecting Hitchcock and got a Bergman instead). The question posed by L’Avventura is “why?” Why are these characters behaving this way? Why are we seeing what we are seeing? And why has Antonioni decided to tell the story in this way?
A classic Antonioni composition
Classical cinema’s emotionally-manipulative musical scoring, non-diegetic sound, editing techniques and elliptical cuts are all designed to divert attention from the artificiality of the process and to suture the viewer into the experience. But Antonioni’s reluctance to cut anything from the passage of time, or use of non-diegetic sound has the opposite effect. Ian Cameron and Robin Wood explain, “The length of each scene is dictated by the time it would take to happen. Antonioni avoids the sort of unreal screen time where crafty cutting is used to speed up the ’slow’ bits of the action”. Rather than employing the standard shot/reverse shot composition, Antonioni often frames his shots to include both characters and presents the viewer with dual perspectives. He explains this , “The reason I did this was because it seemed to me that cinema today should be tied to the truth rather than to logic”. L’Avventura demands a different viewing mind set in comparison with the approach suggested by the classical narrative form. The long takes, lingering shots and deliberate absence of dialogue stimulate a hypnotic rhythm in the viewer which more than compensate for the lack of narrative resolution. If the viewer derives nothing else from L’Avventura, then the beauty contained in each frame is inescapable.
Claudia’s position of a lower social status implies an upward mobility unattainable by Anna’s privileged class. Many scenes suggest the possibility of identity transferral. Anna’s introduction is set against modern apartments under construction beside the dome of Saint Peter’s basilica. A manual worker walks away from the camera towards the dome – towards the past. Antonioni’s gaze then turns away from St. Peters to the opposite direction and looks to the future to introduce Claudia. Anna is a product of Italy’s economic miracle. She occupies the middle space between past and present. But when Anna and Claudia change clothes after bathing, they are presented with their backs to the camera. This confuses the identity of the two characters and the swapping of Anna’s clothes to Claudia suggests a transition from one identity to another. A similar sequence occurs when the blonde Claudia and brunette Patrizia trade wigs at Corrado’s villa at Palermo . These repeated motifs suggest that Claudia is a malleable cipher, adaptable to her environment and company.
The ambiguous transferral of identity
L’Avventura’s male protagonist, Sandro is a man bored with existence. He builds and produces nothing but money. Wealth brings certain advantages but has not rid Sandro of his guilt over trading his creativity for security. He fills the void with the pursuit of erotic pleasure. Sandro is pure id unburdened by ego. When his lover disappears without a trace he wastes little time in turning his attentions to Claudia. When the rest of the party leave the Island, Sandro stays behind, not because it is the right course of action, but because he feels he should. In a press conference following L’Avventura’s disastrous reception at Cannes, Antonioni attributed the film’s narrative ambiguity to “the malaise of Eros” in modern society. That is, erotic impulses which lead to a miserable futility.
“What [Claudia and Sandro] finally arrive at is a sense of pity for each other. [Eroticism] is a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time […] But Eros is sick; man is uneasy, something is bothering him. And whenever something bothers him, man reacts, but he reacts badly, only on erotic impulse, and he is unhappy […] The tragedy in L’Avventura stems directly from an erotic impulse of this type” (Antonioni).
What are the prospects of Claudia’s future with Sandro? What will become of Bruno? Will Anna sort out her problems with Sandro? Will he change his frivolous ways to please her, or will she eventually reject him? These are the questions left to the viewer at the climax, and the answers are as unknowable as the future itself. The film ends as Claudia reluctantly strokes Sandro’s hair, leaving the viewer come to their own conclusions. But there can be little hope in their future relationship given Sandro’s eagerness for infidelity.
Shot in the winter of 1959, L’Avventura was a project fraught with difficulties, including a prolonged location shoot on Lisca Bianca in the Aeolian Islands in freezing conditions, an unpaid crew, a bankrupt production company and the hospitalisation of Lea Massari. In the same year that L’Avventura was released, Alfred Hitchcock also produced a movie in which his lead character is killed off after 45 minutes of screen time. However, the major difference between Antonioni’s existential meditation on lust and Hitchcock’s oedipal horror was that Psycho rewarded the viewer with unambiguous narrative closure. But instead of reigning in the aesthetic tendencies which had angered the Cannes audience, Antonioni would continue to push the boundaries of classical narrative form.
There is a common anecdote about George Lucas’ method of directing actors, which can be reduced to a single repeated phrase: “Do it again. Faster and more intense.” It could be said that Antonioni’s directorial style would be along the lines of “Do less. Slower and more enigmatic.” It is perhaps fitting then that the legacies of these two directors occupy polar extremes. If Lucas represents cinema as spectacle – as pure entertainment – then Antonioni represents cinema as art. When a reporter asked wunderkind of the French new wave Jean Luc Godard if he agreed that a story should have a beginning, middle and an end, he replied, “Of course, but not necessarily in that order”. Godard’s seminal À Bout de Souffle was released the same year as L’Avventura, and both films exhibit a similar rejection of the narrative codes and mode of classical narrative film. Neorealism’s defining legacy is the freeing of popular cinema from the boundaries of narrative resolution. To criticise L’Avventura for the absence of narrative resolution is akin to criticising Da Vinci for not being great at landscapes.