Antonioni and Bergman, or Night and Light

R. J. Cardullo

They might have smiled. Averse as they were to plot mechanics in their work, they might have been amused at the blatant coincidence of their deaths on the same day, like those of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Or they might have been amused at those who believe such a coincidence was planned by a cosmic trickster. In any case, July 30, 2007 is now a signal date in film history. Michelangelo Antonioni was ninety-four, Ingmar Bergman eighty-nine.

 

Their work now moves into a different light. To wit: almost all the art that is valuable to us is encased in history; it comes to us from the past, recent or remote. These two men, however, were contemporaries of ours. Still, now their art moves into history. In Godard’s Breathless (1960), the matter is well put. A novelist is asked his ambition. He says, “To become immortal and then to die.” Exactly so here, twice. The proximate deaths of Antonioni and Bergman prompt something that was rare during their lives: comparison with each other. (When prompted, they did occasionally comment on each other’s work in interviews.) What fundamentally links Antonioni and Bergman, despite their differences, is a common theme: the question of a divinity. Do we live in a godless universe? If this is so, how do we go about living? How do we make our choices? A generalization about these two artists is possible. For Bergman, the son of a clergyman who, in a sense, vexed him all his life, the question pressed constantly. For Antonioni, the question was answered early on, thoroughly, finally. Most of the latter’s films are about the result of this spiritual vacancy—the murkiness of compass points.

 

Bergman confronts the basic question intensely in his “faith” trilogy of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), and The Silence (1963), after introducing it in The Seventh Seal (1957) and The Virgin Spring (1960). We now assuredly live in a secular, narcissistic, even hedonistic age, unlike the age—over half a century past—during which Winter Light was made. That was the era of the Death-of-God movement, when Time magazine’s John T. Elson proclaimed (as Nietzsche did before him—first in The Gay Science [1882] and then, to a wider audience, in Thus Spake Zarathustra [1883-91]) that “the death of God is a historical event: God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence.”[1] This is not to say that something like Winter Light couldn’t be made now. We are dealing here with the rule and not the exception, the middle, not the extremities. Obviously, none of this is intended to denigrate Bergman’s film as a mediocrity, or a priori to privilege more contemporary films over it. Still, “men / Are as the time is,”[2] as Edmund declares in King Lear, and no artist in any medium—particularly one so popular, or so immediate, as the cinema—can claim exemption.

Gunnar Björnstrand as Pastor Tomas Ericsson in Winter Light: (image credit: https://www.filmbankmedia.com/)

The centerpiece of Bergman’s “faith” trilogy, Winter Light is a drama about a clergyman whose faith is shaken but who is, so to speak, trapped in his religious office and continues in it doggedly, yet almost gratefully. Winter Light takes place on what used to be a day of rest and devotion—the Sabbath—in this case during the rigorous time span of just a few hours on a wintry Sunday in a rural clergyman’s life between matins and vespers, or from morning Communion in one church to the start of an afternoon service at another church close by. The middle entry in the trilogy, Winter Light suffers far less from the defect of the other two parts, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence: such an excess of symbolism that each picture breaks down into a series of discernible metaphors for spiritual alienation rather than an aggregation of those metaphors into an organic, affecting work based on individual character.

 

Those who know Through a Glass Darkly, for example, will note the scornful dismissal by Winter Light’s organist—perhaps, implicitly, by Bergman himself—of the earlier work’s conclusion: “God is love; love is God.” In the last scene of Through a Glass Darkly, where the boy is left shattered and unmoored after having endured incest with his schizophrenic, married sister, he asks his novelist-father whether there is any reality in life. The father’s answer is “love”—either the giving or receiving of it, its loyalty or treachery, but love as the foundation of reality. This has a faintly inauthentic ring until we realize that, as the film’s title indicates, the answer derives from St. Paul’s trio of graces. The Bible renders the “greatest of these”[3] not as Charity but Love, and if we read love as more closely connected with caritas than amor, it may indeed be the foundation of reality. Yet we are still left wondering how the father, as character rather than symbol, as paterfamilial figure rather than metaphorical guide, arrived at that belief through the progress of the film; or, if it was always with him, what use it was to him if it otherwise had so little application in his egotistical life. (He is devoted more to his writing than his family, and regards even his daughter’s psychological illness as horribly promising material for his art.)

 

Aside from its literary-like piling up of symbols, however, Through a Glass Darkly relied on almost none of the arty legerdemain that marred Bergman’s The Magician (1958) and The Seventh Seal. Winter Light is even starker and more circumscribed. So much so that this film, somewhat more than the one that immediately followed it, The Silence, makes one feel that the (ir)religious vision Bergman had been formulating in all his major pictures up to then has finally shed its excrescences and become as simple and direct, as pure and honest, as it is possible to be.

 

In The Silence, for instance, we are constantly aware that there is a symbolic code to be read, and we spend our time reading it. Herewith some of the metaphors of alienation in The Silence: (1) three travelers (two sisters, Anna and Ester, and Anna’s eleven-year-old son) in a city where they do not understand the (fictitious) language; (2) the gulf between the sisters, who love-hate each other; (3) the dwarfs (who entertain they boy at one point in a hotel) who are cut off from the normal world and have to make their own community; (4) Anna and the young waiter, who make fierce love though they cannot converse; (5) the (fictitious) European country itself, presumably cut off from the world by a military rule of which we see plentiful signs; (6) Ester, a translator by profession, trying to plumb foreign words; (7) an old waiter who is unable to communicate the story of his life to the boy even with photos; (8) the gravely ill Ester’s parting letter for her nephew, containing some of this country’s words (especially “heart” and “hand”) as a hope for helpful communication in his later life; (9) Ester’s preference for onanism and lesbianism because she cannot stand the idea of being fertilized and thereby propagating life.

 

There are no such excrescences in Winter Light, as this film’s origins suggest. “In 1959,” Bergman told then-apprentice Vilgot Sjöman during the production of Winter Light, “my wife [the Estonian pianist Käbi Laretei] and I went to say hello to the pastor who had married us. On the way, in the village shop, we saw his wife talking very seriously to a schoolgirl. When we reached the vicarage, the pastor told us that this little girl’s father had just committed suicide. The pastor had had several conversations with him earlier, but to no avail.”[4] From such a small incident Bergman weaves the texture of his tale, in which one man’s suicide induces a spiritual crisis for the local pastor and his mistress.

 

While preparing Winter Light, Bergman visited several churches in Uppland (just north of Stockholm) and sat for an hour or two in each one, seeking inspiration for the close of the film. One Sunday, he asked his father to accompany him. As they waited for a Communion service to begin on a chilly spring morning in one particular small church, the pastor declared that he was ill and could not preside over a full service. Bergman’s father hurried out to the vestry, and soon afterwards the Communion began, with Pastor Erik Bergman assisting his sick colleague. “Thus,” recalls the director in his autobiography,

I was given the end of Winter Light and the codification of a rule I have always followed and was to follow from then on: Irrespective of everything, you will hold your Communion. It is important to the churchgoer, but even more important to
you. We will have to see if it is important to God. If there is no other god than your hope as such, it is important to that god
too.[5]

 

In the introduction to a volume of his published screenplays, Bergman (again, the son of a Lutheran minister) comments further on this subject: “Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts . . . it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship.”[6] Apropos of the rebuilding of Chartres cathedral and a figurative contemporary parallel, he then says, “Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.”[7] These quotations support a view of Bergman as a Protestant’s Protestant, rebelling so that he may submit, and hoping that he may find again the pure strength of Luther’s “justification by faith,”[8] or salvation by belief alone. In this sense the director is a kind of cinematic Kierkegaard, who sees everyone trying to make life easier, through good deeds—and has therefore set out to do what he can to make it harder.

 

The “hard” Winter Light is only eighty-one minutes in length compared to the ninety-one minutes of Through a Glass Darkly and the ninety-six minutes of The Silence, and it uses relatively few actors and settings, like those “chamber” works. But they at least have musical scores (in both cases by Bach), whereas the only music in Winter Light occurs during church services in accompaniment to Swedish psalms. Such economy of means, of course, is a matter of great artistry, of artistic refinement. And no filmmaker, not even Antonioni, was ever Bergman’s superior when it came to knowing what to leave out (one can almost divide true cinematic artists from mere moviemakers on the question of such exclusion).

 

In The Silence, for example, we know we are on a train at the beginning, not by the usual, tired, establishing long shot but because the boy’s head is seen against the unmistakable velour of a train seat and we hear the groan of the wheels. Irritated, in A Lesson in Love (1954), by the impossibility of simultaneously showing all the strands of life—past as well as present—Bergman uses abrupt cuts where others would use melting dissolves for their flashbacks. The effect is not jerky, however; it stings us visually to sharper awareness and also makes us conscious of the simultaneous existence of all of a person’s experience at every moment of his life. Bergman begins Hour of the Wolf (1968), moreover, with the Liv Ullmann character facing the camera and talking to us for at least three minutes. (In Shame [1968], there is a similar scene at a table with another Liv Ullmann character.) Such a scene certifies his oft-stated belief in the human face as the theater of life; the very fact of his self-confidence, that he doesn’t feel obliged to hop about to keep the shot from being static, keeps it from being static, makes it quietly daring. He thus shows us that masterly direction sometimes consists of not intruding, of allowing the right performer and the fact of film to come together.

 

If anything, the absences in Winter Light themselves are as significant as what is presented. They in fact contribute in the most central way to the picture’s theme, as well as to its visual architecture, since Bergman is dealing here with an image of spiritual darkness and desolation, with an “absence” in the soul. That absence is a crisis in—almost a loss of—faith, and it is a middle-aged Lutheran minister named Tomas Ericsson who is in its grip. As when, alone, Tomas starts to read a letter from a teacher and, instead of remaining on him, the camera cuts to a medium close-up of the teacher’s face, once again holding on her for several minutes, almost without a break, while she simply speaks the long letter aloud for us. He is absent, physically as well as spiritually, and we see his absence. To describe the minister’s condition in this way is entirely accurate, for his emotional, existential anguish is experienced like a violent seizure, the “silence of God,” of love if you will, being a palpable thing: it also is physical as well as spiritual, present as well as absent, understandable yet inexplicable.

 

Since the season is winter in this film, the days are short, the light is sparse and sterile—a counterpart to the weather, the climate as well as the illumination, in the pastor’s soul, in obedience to the pathetic fallacy in art and literature (as introduced by John Ruskin in his book Modern Painters). Similarly, the planes and angles of the camera’s investigations (black-and-white cinematography by Sven Nykvist) mark out this universe of gray emptiness within a framework that makes it even more austere and stringent. And the “gray area” here, the study in varying shades of gray, is entirely appropriate, because the clergyman’s crisis is a continuing one; nothing is resolved either for or against religious belief. In a different film, a different life, we would abide in the expectation of answers. In Winter Light, we can only take heart from a continuity of questions: How do you believe? What should you believe? Why should you believe? Is God a reality or a memory? An earthbound spider-god or a celestial superbeing? A malignity or a beneficence?

Ingrid Thulin as Schoolteacher Märta Lundberg & Gunnar Björnstrand as Pastor Tomas Ericsson in Winter Light: (image credit: https://www.filmbankmedia.com/)

The minister is accompanied, in his clerical vocation, by the schoolteacher, Märta Lundberg, who loves him and wants to marry, and whose presence he accepts—but whom he cannot love in return and whom he rejects as they sit together in her deserted schoolroom. For it develops that when Tomas’s wife died some years before, his capacity to love died with her, and it becomes clear that for him such a loss is itself a demonstration of God’s absence or indifference. Indeed, Tomas admits to a spiritually anguished member of his congregation that he has no faith, having lost it while serving in Lisbon during the Spanish Civil War, when he could not reconcile his loving God with the atrocities being committed. He says what faith he once had was an egotistical one—God loved humanity, but Tomas most of all. The pastor finally declares that things just make more sense if we deny the existence of God, because then man’s own cruelty needs no explanation. Tomas is a pitiful, cowardly figure, then, because he cannot choose between a worldly love (offered to him by the forlorn, ailing Märta) and the unattainable ideal implied in the religious dogma he intones before the altar. Bergman visually underlines these choices by systematically alternating scenes of agonized dialogue between the minister and the romantically frustrated schoolteacher, on the one hand, and between the minister and a soulfully troubled member of his flock.

 

Thus does Bergman, in the most delicate, unrhetorical, yet profoundly moving way, link the realms of natural and supernatural, diurnal and supernal love, keeping the tension between them at a high pitch and never resorting to cheap or arbitrary solutions. For this Swedish director, life’s special agony is just such a rending of the loving bond between God and man. Unlike Antonioni in his work on this subject, Bergman may not believe that man invented God but, if man is not then going to terminate God’s existence or refuse to believe in it, he must be concerned to find a way of living with—at the very least—the memory of God. And the only way to such divinity is through affinity: if not the loving marriage between two human beings, then fellow-feeling of the kind that is contained in the very idea of “ministration.”

 

Tomas’s spiritually distressed parishioner is a fisherman by the name of Jonas Persson—with three children and a pregnant wife—who has fallen into a state of depression deepened by the immanence of international nuclear-bomb threats. Brought by his wife, the anxious fisherman talks to the pastor in the vestry after morning service—and the pastor’s own spiritual bankruptcy is glaringly revealed in their talk. In baring his own misgivings, in lamenting his own situation rather than comprehending the fisherman’s, the doubting Tomas depresses the man further and propels him toward suicide. When his unfortunate parishioner has finally left the church, the Lutheran minister faces the crucifix and says to Märta, with shocking complacency, “Now I’m free.” Later comes word that the fisherman has committed suicide, which brings Tomas face to face with the truth that his own worst suffering—as well as that of his flock—is caused by his inability to fulfill his vocation. The pastor’s emptiness was the last barren place the fisherman touched, and the former knows it, yet he looks down calmly at the fisherman’s body when it is displayed to him by the authorities.

Max von Sydow (right) as Fisherman Jonas Persson & Gunnar Björnstrand as Pastor Tomas Ericsson in Winter Light (image credit: https://www.filmbankmedia.com/)

But through the instrumentality of another character, a hunchbacked sexton called Algot Frövik—who, for all his wryness and mordancy, possesses an exceptionally deep commitment to faith—Tomas is shown the glint of possibility, of light whose very promise or idea is contained in this picture’s title. That glinting possibility consists in going on, in living through the aridity and absence, in making continual acts of faith precisely when and where faith is most difficult or even repellent. The film ends at twilight with the pastor beginning the vespers service (even as Winter Light began with a Communion service) in nearby Frostnäs Church, with only one or two parishioners in attendance. On the one hand, this clergyman is slipping back almost desperately into clerical routine. (Indeed, before the service at Frostnäs Church, it becomes clear through a superb bit of dialogue with his sexton that Tomas resembles the disciples who understood nothing during their three years in the company of Jesus, and who deserted him in his hour of need.) On the other hand, he continues to minister to the faithful, and the darkness of winter night has not yet come.

 

This summary fails to do justice to the mastery Bergman reveals over his materials in Winter Light. For one thing, his actors—Max von Sydow as the fisherman, Ingrid Thulin as the teacher, Gunnar Björnstrand as the pastor—could not be bettered. They had by this time become the perfect instruments of Bergman’s directorial will, forming what was undoubtedly the finest cinematic acting company in the world, one that the stage (where Bergman began and, to some extent, remained) might still envy, or envy even more, today. Indeed, the reappearances of such actors in differing roles of differing importance in Bergman’s films provide more than a sense of theatrical ensemble; at a deeper level, the creation of so many characters by so few actors gives us a sense of the Promethean range of human nature itself.

 

Here are some examples of sterling performances from Bergman’s oeuvre, apart from Winter Light. In Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Björnstrand adds a malaise to the glacial element of the son (Dr. Evald Borg) he played in Wild Strawberries—a malaise that gives the novelist (David) in the later picture greater richness and makes the cold elements themselves more affecting. With no flashy trickery of makeup or accent, with no equipment except empathy and a talent for truth, Liv Ullmann goes farther and creates, in Hour of the Wolf, an utterly different character from the one she played in Persona: the aloof, enigmatic, virtually mute, yet elegant actress (Elisabet Vogler) of the earlier picture is transformed here into the fresh, vulnerable but wise girl (Alma Borg) in a burst of imaginative acting, as distinct from vaudevillian impersonation. Max von Sydow’s power to concentrate every atom of understanding and imagination and presence on every instant is what keeps his own character (Johan Borg) in Hour of the Wolf from becoming dreary, just as he manages to contribute to the delineation of his character (the patient husband, Martin) in Through a Glass Darkly simply by the way he runs—as unlike von Sydow’s knight (Antonius Block) in The Seventh Seal as are two centuries.

Ingrid Thulin as Schoolteacher Märta Lundberg in Winter Light 
(image credit: https://www.filmbankmedia.com/)

In Winter Light, as elsewhere in Bergman’s “faith” trilogy, the actors’ work was especially difficult, for they had to give human gravity to a stripped-down exercise in God-famished theology. To single out only one example from her performance, Ingrid Thulin succeeds in her reading of Märta’s letter to Tomas to an extraordinary degree; her deep, dark eyes (which do not blink once during the entire eight minutes of the scene), rather than her facial expressions themselves, seem to project every nuance of the words she is reciting and to express her inner emotions with a frankness beyond the reach of the evasive, shifty-eyed Tomas. Not for nothing, then, does the film’s title translate from the Swedish as The Communicants. For Bergman, here, as so often elsewhere, the irony of life is people’s failure to communicate with one another. When Tomas arrives at the riverside to attend to Jonas’s corpse, for instance, the incessant boom of the nearby rapids tellingly drowns out the conversation between the police and the pastor, as well as seeming to blur the latter’s emotional response. (This device is also used in Antonioni’s Red Desert [1964] and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris [1972].)

There are other subtleties, too, in Winter Light. Tomas and his churchwardens address each other in the third person, emphasizing the distance between them as well as the hierarchical structure of orthodox religion. And in the twelve-minute opening sequence—which, in a plain, stark church (made even more remote in place and time by shots of the slate-gray weather outside), presents us with a Holy Communion service in its entirety—the unmoving camera scrutinizes each churchgoer in close-up, then from afar as they shuffle up to the altar rail for Communion. The worshippers appear frail, almost disjointed, like puppets on a string, and in desperate need of comfort; as they kneel before the altar for Communion, they might as well be accepting patent medicine from a doctor as bread and wine from the pastor. (Later in the film, Märta offers Tomas aspirin and cough medicine in much the same way.)

 

The film’s effect ultimately depends on the penetration in us, of the churchgoers’ desperation and the minister’s doubt, as well as the teacher’s hopeless love and the fisherman’s boundless despair (which are all meant to reflect, in their way, on the central issue of religious belief). The spiritual problem is not merely stated here, as some commentators asserted at the time of the picture’s release (“Winter Light reduces, in essence, to listening for verbal revelations, for explorations of self in words”[9]); that problem is visualized or externalized, as described earlier. Still, to deal in physical film terms with the complex metaphysical question of the existence of God, and the equally difficult-to-sustain phenomenon of human isolation or alienation, requires performances of a freshening, almost frighteningly trenchant kind. And Bergman got them in Winter Light, to create a solemn, spare, severe artwork that is nonetheless full of strange, harsh beauty.

Another requirement of an authentic spiritual style is that it be grounded in naturalistic simplicity, even abstraction—like Winter Light—not in widescreen pyrotechnics of the kind found in such contemporaneous Christian sand-and-sandals epics as Quo Vadis? (1951), The Robe (1953), Ben Hur (1959), King of Kings (1961), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). The spirit resides within, in internal conviction, not in external trickery or grandiosity. Everything that is exterior, ornamental, liturgical, hagiographic, and miraculous in the universal doctrine and everyday practice of Catholicism (as opposed to Bergman’s unaccommodated Lutheranism) does indeed show affinities with the cinema—conceived, with its spectacular iconography, as a kind of miracle in itself akin to the miracle of the Sacrament or the saints. But these affinities, which have made for the commercial success of countless movies, are also the source of the religious insignificance of most of them.

 

Indeed, the history of religious themes on the screen sufficiently reveals the temptations one must resist, as Bergman does, in order to meet simultaneously the requirements of cinematic art and of truly religious experience. The Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles were the first bestsellers on the screen, and, in the early 1900s, the Passion of Christ was a hit in France as well as in America. At the same time, in Italy, the Rome of the first Christians provided filmmakers with subjects that required gigantic crowd scenes, later seized upon by Hollywood for visual exploitation in the sand-and-sandals epics mentioned above. This immense catechism-in-pictures was concerned above all with the most spectacular aspects of Christianity, as these movies were simply amplified variations on the Stations of the Cross.

 

The hagiographies—as different as possible from the trio of Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence—appeared a little later, and in them the cinema explored, above all, the popular belief in miracles in such films as Therese (Victor Sjöström, 1916) and The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943). There is also a third category of religious movie, built upon a principle that perhaps represents an advance on Stations-of-the-Cross movies and hagiographies: the priest’s or nun’s story, as initially represented in Hollywood by Angels with Dirty Faces (Michael Curtiz, 1938) and Going My Way (Leo McCarey, 1944). Thus, as we can see, the cinema has always been interested in God.

 

Yet, as Winter Light reveals, almost everything that is good in the domain of religious film was created not by capitalizing on the patent consanguinity of Christianity with the cinema, but rather by working against it: by the psychological and moral deepening of the spiritual factor as well as by the renunciation of the physical representation either of the supernatural or of God’s grace. In other words, although the austereness of the Protestant sensibility is not indispensable to the making of a good Catholic motion picture, it can nevertheless be a real advantage, as evidenced by films like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (otherwise Marxist) Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). As for the thing-in-itself, good Protestant cinema, you have Bergman’s “faith” trilogy and the picture of his that directly preceded it, The Virgin Spring, in addition to such films of his fellow Scandinavian Carl Dreyer as Day of Wrath (1943) and The Word (1955).

 

Michelangelo Antonioni himself never deals extensively with religion in his films, often confining it to the background of a shot or an occasional image of an abandoned church. (Elsewhere, in interviews and articles, he was more explicit.) Yet his view of it underlies much of his work, especially his sense that religion is a function of the past, now outworn and outmoded as a source of solace. As he knew, for Western society itself, theistically based and teleologically organized, the concepts of drama that derived substantially from Aristotle had sufficed for centuries. The cinema was born to that inheritance and, out of it, still produced fine works in the 1960s (although with a perceptibly increasing tinge of nostalgia that has, by the second decade of the twenty-first century, become overwhelmingly palpable). But Antonioni saw the dwindling force of this inheritance—“of an aging morality, of outworn myths, of ancient conventions,” as he put it in a statement accompanying the initial screening of L’avventura at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival[10]—and was finding new means to supplement it. He was achieving, in other words, what many contemporary modernist artists in his and other fields were seeking, not often with success: renewal of his art rather than repetition

 

It is a commonplace that the most difficult part of an artist’s life in our time is not to achieve a few good works or some recognition, but to have a career, as Antonioni (and Bergman) did: to live a life in art, all through one’s life, at the same time as one replenishes the life of that art. Since the beginning of the romantic era and the rise of subjectivism, however, the use of synthesis—of selecting from both observation and direct experience, then imaginatively rearranging the results—has declined among serious artists. It was around the mid-to-late eighteenth century that the subject matter of art became the maker himself, that the work ceased to be regarded as primarily a reflection of nature, actual or improved. The mirror held up to nature became transparent, as it were, and yielded insights into the mind and heart of the artist himself, into the artist’s emotions, intuitions, and imagination. The authenticity and sincerity of the pursuit of inner goals were what mattered.

 

This is most evident in the aesthetics of romanticism, where the notion of eternal models, a Platonic vision of ideal beauty, which the artist seeks to convey, no matter how imperfectly—on canvas, on the page, in sound, or later on the screen—is replaced by a passionate belief in spiritual freedom, in individual creativity. Instead of holding a mirror up to nature, the painter, the poet, the composer, and, yes, the filmmaker invent; instead of imitating (the doctrine of mimesis), they create not merely the means but also the goals that they pursue. These goals represent the self-expression of the artist’s own unique, inner vision, to set aside which in response to the demands of some “external” voice—church, state, public opinion, family friends, arbiters of taste—is an act of betrayal of what alone justifies the artist’s existence for those who are in any sense creative. In sum, romanticism embodied, according to Isaiah Berlin,

a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.[11]

 

Such a mode has long survived the formal romantic era, has survived realism and naturalism, in fact became intensified in the self-regarding twentieth century, until, by the 1960s, art had taken on some aspects of talented diary-keeping. (The most obvious examples from the period are the “confessional” poetry of writers like Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg, and the “action” painting of such artists as Willem de Kooning, Michael Goldberg, and Franz Kline.) An artist’s life and internal experience have thus become more and more circumscribedly his subject matter, and his willingness to stay within them has become almost a touchstone of his validity. So much so that Ingmar Bergman was moved to write the following in the introduction to his Four Screenplays:

In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more
or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality,” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his
case . . . Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation. The artist considers
his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy.[12]

 

Such a state led, and has continued to lead in the twenty-first century, to the familiar phenomenon of the quick depletion of resources—all those interesting first and second works, and then the sad, straggling works that follow them (to limit ourselves to only to the drama, we can name, from the mid-twentieth century, Jack Gelber, Mart Crowley, Romulus Linney, and Leonard Melfi)—not to speak of the debilitation of art. The question is further complicated because the more sensitive a person is, the more affected he is in our time by Ibsen’s Great Bøyg—that shapeless, grim, and unconquerable monster from Peer Gynt who represents the riddle of existence—which increases the artist’s sense of helplessness, of inability to deal with such experience as he does have.

 

One artistic response from the 1960s—the decade during which Antonioni made his great “existential” trilogy, which includes L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962)—was that of Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann, and their kin, who were exponents of modernist dissatisfaction rather than re-creation. Another was that of French anti-novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute, who, in their frustration with the limits of the conventional novel, asked readers to share their professional problems rather than be affected as readers. Bertolt Brecht, for his part, jostled the traditional drama healthily (ironically, more so subsequent to his death in 1956 than prior to it), but his theater was didactic and aimed toward a different godhead—a temporal one that now seems sterile to many. The so-called Theater of the Absurd faced reality rigorously, and even poetically, though such a theater of images and few or no characters was limited to disembodied effects—and each of its playwrights (Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter) seemed to have one reiterated effect.

 

In films, too, the avant-garde—Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, and many others to follow—had tried to find new methods or forms; yet they, too, sometimes concentrated so much on the attempt that they neglected to communicate much content. (The charge of “pure formalism” can certainly be leveled, however, at such later film experimentalists as Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Jordan Belson, Ernie Gehr, and Paul Sharits.) A more conventional artist like Ingmar Bergman felt the spiritual discontent of the 1960s as keenly as anyone, but his films from this period, for all their superb qualities, could be said to exemplify Cranly’s line to Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “It is a curious thing, do you know, how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.”[13] The fountainhead of these Bergman films, that is, may be mysticism, but his asking whether the God-man relation was still viable seemed anachronistic—to put it mildly—by the second half of the twentieth century. Antonioni himself seemed, around the same time, to have answered that question in the negative; to have posited that human beings must learn self-reliance or crumble in the face of their dashed theological hopes.

Nonetheless, Antonioni seemed to be forging a miracle, albeit of the secular kind: finding a way to speak to his contemporaries without crankily throwing away all that went before and without being bound by it. He was re-shaping the idea of the content of film drama by discarding ancient and less ancient concepts, by re-directing traditional audience expectations toward immersion in character rather than conflict of character, away from the social realism of his neorealist forbears and toward what can be called “introspective realism”—in order to see just what remained inside the individual after the nightmare of World War II (with its Holocaust and atomic weaponry) and all the political as well as economic upheavals that followed. Some have said that Antonioni maintains an aesthetic distance from his characters, observing them somewhat like the French anti-novelists (also called “new novelists”), but it is really the characters who seem distanced—from themselves.

 

As the director himself put the matter in 1958 in the Italian film journal Bianco e Nero:

Now . . . when for better or for worse reality has been normalized once again, it is more interesting to examine what
remains in the characters from their past experiences. This is why it no longer seems to me important to make a film
about a man who has had his bicycle stolen . . . Now that we have eliminated the problem of the bicycle (I am speaking metaphorically [in reference to Bicycle Thieves (1948, Vittorio De Sica)]), it is important to see what there is in the mind
and in the heart of this man who has had his bicycle stolen, how he has adapted himself, what remains in him of his past experiences, of the war, of everything that has happened to him in our country—a country which, like so many others, has emerged from an important and grave adventure.[14]

 

Particularly in the trilogy, but also in the film immediately following it (his first one in color), Red Desert (1964), Antonioni arrived, without inventing a totally new language of cinema, at a new and profoundly cinematic mode of expression or exposition, in which every aspect of style, of the purely visual—as well as aural or sonic—realm of action and object, reflects the interior state of the characters. Indeed, such films exemplified far more profoundly than any other works of the time the capacity of the screen to be a source of myth in the Artaudian, rather than the Christian, sense (myth as the expression of life “from an immense, universal aspect, and [as the extraction of] imagery from this life where we would like to discover ourselves”[15). These movies, linked to one another much less by subject than by sensibility and attitude, were creations that told us what we were going to be like next, how we were about to act, and the kind of regard we would have for our actions. At the same time—and as a principle of these forecasts—they delineated the world with a scrupulously accurate sobriety, a refusal to enhance or “dramatize” what lay open to the ordinary eye (as I shall soon document in the case of La notte.)

 

The same cannot be said for films of his from the previous decade like The Girlfriends (1955) and The Outcry (1957), though it’s true that as early as Story of a Love Affair (1950) one can discern Antonioni’s habit of shooting rather long scenes, in long takes. Fundamentally, he was thereby giving us characters whose drama consists in facing life minute after minute rather than in moving through organized, cause-and-effect plots with articulated obstacles—characters who have no well-marked cosmos to use as a tennis player uses a court, and who live and die without the implication of a divine eye that sees their virtues (whether people do or not) and will reward them. Such a long-take strategy also gave viewers additional time to scan the image and incorporate elements of the mise-en-scène into their understanding of the characters’ relationships—as in blocking strategies that show characters facing away from one another or on opposite sides of the wide screen, sometimes with a barrier image in between (something akin to T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative, introduced in his essay on Hamlet included in The Sacred Wood) to “alienate” them from each other.

 

Over characters like this, Antonioni ever hovered with his camera: peering, following, and then lingering to savor a place—after the people have left it, or while they still remain in it. Two examples: first, a sequence from L’eclisse that continues despite the fact that events pertaining to the central story having concluded, and despite the fact that the main characters themselves have disappeared. The images of L’eclisse’s seven-minute concluding sequence offer up the challenge, or chance, to wash away our memories of the recognizably human by documenting the phenomenal world through the camera’s presentation of material space. The familiar EUR streetcorner (outside Rome) and its milieu now emerge as an ever-modulating set of material facts, the contours of which are changing beyond recognition before our eyes. Concurrently unremarkable, confrontational, and revelatory, the physical reality of the streetcorner is shown as ever in flux and beyond our grasp, at the same time as it is absolutely quotidian: apparently “post-human,” yet entirely immanent.

 

Second, a sequence from La notte in which the characters remain in a place but seemingly are not central to what we see. In a brief interlude away from the long mansion party-sequence that comprises the second half of the film, rather than giving viewers conventional audio access to the car in which Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and a young man named Roberto appear to talk and flirt, the picture offers us only the sound of beating rain. We are left to watch the slowly moving vehicle for over a minute, during which the general tenor of what looks like an extremely amiable and increasingly amorous conversation (which nevertheless ends when Lidia turns away as Roberto tries to kiss her) can be ascertained as it is remotely played out on Lidia’s face, otherwise distorted by water pouring down the car window.

Jeanne Moreau as Lidia Pontano and Giorgio Negro as Roberto in La notte
(image credit: https://www.filmsupply.com/)

While the viewer can interpret Lidia’s apparent pleasure at this hermetic, private encounter away from the decadent upper-class gathering, as so often with Antonioni’s work, the already threadbare remnants of traditional form and drama are forcibly replaced here by another register, with much surer grounding in the reality right in front of our eyes: the moving image. The camera loses interest in the drama inside the automobile and the meaning of the characters’ escape from the party, replacing it with the drama of the form of the car, the rain on the windshield, the undulating chiaroscuro effects of a flashing traffic light, the background architecture of a quiet street, the visual distortions created by light and water and shadow. The viewer is thus given an opportunity to explore the densely textured, monochromatic gradations, shifting patterns, and transforming shapes as a formal event that, if it does not eclipse literary (and ultimately non-visual) elements of story and character, then comments on them through facial distortion, driving rain, the absence of audible communication, and the delimitation of the couple’s screen space.

 

Again, Antonioni was interested more in mood and the physical world than in drama, in setting as a way of expressing states of mind—so much so that in Red Desert, he even had the natural surroundings painted to serve the film’s underlying psychological scheme as well as to connote the seemingly metaphysical world of its characters. (The forest where Giuliana goes for her walks in Red Desert was painted white; her bedroom is suffused with an unnatural pink; a cabin on the water, scene of an abortive little orgy, was painted red; the fruit on a street vendor’s cart was colored gray.) He was interested more in the observation of characters than in the exigencies of storytelling, especially in his endings. And it is this interest—if we apply conventional cinematic standards—that at times makes his pictures, with their elliptical approach to narrative, seem to have lost their way.

 

Clearly, the director was trying to exploit the unique powers of film as distinct from the theater. Many superb film directors (like his countryman Vittorio De Sica, like Bergman) were oriented theatrically; Antonioni was not. He attempted to get from the cinema the same utility of the medium itself as a novelist whose point is not story but tone and character, and for whom the texture of the prose works as much as what he says in the prose. In this way, Antonioni’s movies, like other great works of modernist film art, can be seen as sharing in the flexibility and potential subtlety of imaginative prose, which stems from the very abstractness of words, their not being “real” objects—just as film, being made of reflections cast on a screen, is not “real” either. (It ought not to be necessary to say here that the resemblance between film and the novel is of an intellectual and aesthetic kind and not a physical, merely formal one. Movies are obviously not filmed literary statements, but instead creations obeying their own principles and accomplishing their own special, visual effectiveness.)

 

In fact, by purely theatrical standards, any of Antonioni’s major feature films could easily be condensed by a skilled cutter. La notte, of course, is no exception to this rule. Here Antonioni leads us untheatrically into the city, into concrete walls and reflections in glass, after the rocks, great spaces, sea, and terraces of L’avventura. And here the search, or the movement, comes to the same end as that film, or a fractional distance beyond. The acceptance is made of what we are, as opposed to what we would like ourselves to be in a God-governed world; it is impossible not to accept such a conclusion as this film dies out on its couple cumbrously united in a sand bunker, because everything we are not, but which we have found no other means of shedding, has been stripped away. La notte, then, is composed according to the same principle of narrative indeterminacy as its predecessor—the same refusal to tell an easily repeatable, anecdotal “story”—and of course it proceeds from the same kind of insight into contemporary moral or psychic dilemmas.

 

The relationship between the insight and its expression is crucial, and I will return to it; at this point I want to discuss the sequence that, in my view, best represents Antonioni’s style: the one from La notte in which Lidia, the wife of the novelist Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), slips away from the publisher’s party and wanders through the streets of Milan. Conditioned as we are, we expect something to happen during this sequence; we think that Lidia is off to meet a lover, or that she may get involved in an accident, even that she may intend to kill herself. (Later in La notte, at a lavish party thrown by a millionaire businessman named Gherardini, Lidia tells the host’s lively, charming daughter that she feels like dying and putting an end to the agony of her life, even as she subsequently tells her husband [on a golf course, of all places], “I feel like dying because I no longer love you.”) Yet nothing happens, and everything happens.

 

To wit: Lidia strolls past a bus conductor eating a sandwich and is fascinated both by his existence and his appetite in the same universe with her; she passes two men laughing uproariously at a joke and she smiles, too, although she has not heard it, anxious as she is to join them, to be one of the human race; she encounters a crying child and kneels briefly but unsuccessfully to comfort it; she tears a flake of rust off a corroding wall; she sees two young men punching each other ferociously, watches horrified, then screams for them to stop. (The victor thinks she must be attracted to him and starts to pursue her, in an aborted little reminder of the kind of movie La notte is not.) Next, in a field in the suburbs, Lidia watches some boys shooting off rockets. She finds that she is in a neighborhood where she and Giovanni used to come years before, so she telephones him and he drives out to pick her up.

Certainly by film-school definition, this is not a cumulative dramatic sequence. It is a miniature recapitulation, deftly done, of the possibilities of life: there is a child but there is also an old woman; we see a man eating and a man punching; sunlight on a fountain gets juxtaposed, at one point, against the lewdness of a greasy stallkeeper. Of every directorial technique during this sequence (as well as throughout La notte), Antonioni is an easy master. For one, his symbolism (which is unobtrusive): the mushroom cloud of smoke that envelops the boy who fires the rocket, and the fact that Giovanni meets his wife, following her walk, in front of a long-abandoned church. Antonioni holds everything together here with something like the surface tension of liquids and, by not commenting, comments—on Lidia’s apparent search for meaning, or meaningfulness (be it of the pedestrian or transcendental kind), in a world dedicated to meaningless publishers’ parties.

 

Antonioni’s art is essentially as drastic a revolution as abstract expressionist painting or Samuel Beckett’s litany-like deconstruction of dialogue, but he has not alienated us in order to speak to us about loneliness, and he has not sacrificed the link of recognition in order to create new images. Put another way, unlike such dramatists as Adamov, Arrabal, and Mrożek, he has not had to use absurdity to convey the Absurd—an absurd made manifest in our age by the crisis of faith, for which, in La notte, Lidia and Giovanni’s vitiated marriage itself serves as one large metaphor.

 

The action in La notte takes place over slightly less than twenty-four hours in the life of this married couple—childless and in their thirties—beginning with their midday hospital visit to a dying friend, Tommaso Garani (during which the low-pitched conversation is masterfully interrupted by the passage of a helicopter, like a pause in music, so that the hushed key will not become tedious), and ending early the next morning in the sunrise aftermath of the lavish party at which their simmering tensions drive them openly apart. The story of Giovanni, the philandering novelist, and Lidia, his wife of unstated if any profession and inherited wealth, is defined by time, but the time in which it exists is offscreen—the past, the early days of their love and the accretion of their discontent, the time in which he wrote the book (titled The Season) for which, in the course of the day, he is repeatedly feted (despite the fact that he reveals to his wife, “I no longer have inspirations, only recollections”).

 

The future, the possibility that the couple will overcome their estrangement, will remember what brought them together, will heal their hostility and rediscover their lost love, is belied not only by the scene in which Lidia learns of Tommaso’s death (overwhelmed with grief, she sits at a table opposite an empty chair; Giovanni walks over though does not sit down, and Lidia does not tell him about his friend’s passing), but also by La notte’s final moments. On Gherardini’s private golf course, Giovanni embraces and kisses Lidia but she resists, saying she no longer loves him nor does he love her. As the film ends, Giovanni continues to initiate sex with his wife in the sand bunker, beneath a gray morning sky.

 

It’s a strangely self-displacing story, one that’s pulled back to the past and catapulted forward into the future as Giovanni (though he recognizes the failure of their marriage) tells Lidia toward the end, before his attempt at lovemaking, “Let’s try to hold onto something we’re sure of. I love you. I’m sure I’m still in love with you.” Time itself seems to efface Giovanni and Lidia—which makes the casting of two intensely dramatic stars as the quietly smoldering, tensely involuted couple all the more crucial. Nonetheless, Antonioni has Mastroianni and Moreau restrain themselves, or he pares down and minimizes “all the conventional techniques of the performer’s ‘instrument’ . . . : facial expression, gesture, body language and movement, costume, and especially dialogue.”[16] The director leaves overt theatricality to other characters, whose flamboyant expressivity is more or less the mark of their insubstantiality, insincerity, or frivolity; their brazen self-assertion in the emptiness of the moment seems blind and trivial.

 

Giovanni passes through the world with a withholding temperament that presumably feeds a keen and discerning sense of observation, but which also results in a peculiar passivity—he goes where he’s invited, he yields almost somnolently to seduction in grotesquely inappropriate situations (as in the hospital, where a sick, uninhibited young woman attempts to seduce him, and he reciprocates until nurses enter her room)—as a result of which his handsome and finely set features seem as featureless as a mirror. Meanwhile Lidia, a capable, sensitive, smart, and worldly woman, is emptied out by her subordination to Giovanni’s existence; her own intellectual life has become merely a reflection of his: a reflection of a reflection. It might have been otherwise, Lidia implies, when, as they walk across a golf green in the film’s closing minutes, she tells her husband how Tommaso himself used to support her, have faith in her, and urge her to study, believing she was intelligent—and offering Lidia his own love at the same time.

Marcello Mastroianni as Giovanni Pontano & Jeanne Moreau as Lidia Pontano in La nott
(image credit: https://www.filmsupply.com/

The question of whether Lidia and Giovanni still love each other—or not—is itself an offscreen drama, the offscreen drama of La notte. But Antonioni, rendering characters who are remote from their own emotions and detached from their own existences, severs the link between action and feeling and turns his protagonists into distracted and puzzled spectators of their own gestures. It is as if the drama doesn’t pertain to the characters themselves, as if their actions, or lack thereof, were taking place at a remove from them, despite Lidia’s asseveration, before the decision to attend Gherardini’s big party, that “one must do something.” For instance, Giovanni’s paralyzed failure to comfort his crying wife on the street after their visit to Tommaso; Lidia’s inert response to her husband’s sexual advances in the sand trap; or Lidia’s passively looking on from a floor above as her husband and Gherardini’s daughter passionately kiss down below.

Because the crux of La notte’s story is internal, its correlates are not so much in the things that Giovanni and Lidia do as in the places they go and the locations they inhabit. Instead of establishing the movie’s locations as theaters of action, then, Antonioni turns them into the frames of abstract forms, which are the real stars of the picture. He films the outsides of buildings, their interior designs, and the innumerable incidental objects of daily life as a kind of visual music that is stretched out on staves of time. In the hospital where Giovanni and Lidia visit their mortally ill friend Tommaso, for example, shots out the window from different angles slice the cityscape into its past (with enormous, ornate buildings) and its future (a clean-lined, gleaming, abstracted modernism, as in the case of the Pirelli Building, down which the camera glides in the film’s opening shot): vast blank surfaces that overwhelm identity, immense glass walls that chill identity (or separate individual identities), hypnotically repetitive shapes that beguile identity, bare monumental vistas that distance identity, sharp lines that somehow make no distinctions, a shining white staircase that leads inward to nowhere.

 

The city of the living future, in this way, is utterly alien to nature. Indeed, the theme of nature versus civilization is key to an understanding of Antonioni’s work, as the director himself indicated in a 1962 Film Culture interview: “Our acts, our gestures, our words are nothing more than the consequences of our own personal situation in relation to the world around us.”[17] (Compare this ambiguous remark—which can be taken to mean that social alienation is just as much the result of the soul-deadening, nature-defiling effects of capital as of human psychological abnormality—with the unambiguous version by Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[18])

 

With understated shifts in perspective, Antonioni captures here a world that is subtly yet deeply out of joint. (In L’eclisse and Red Desert, the visual dislocation would be even more radical, and the emotional one irreparable.) When, for instance, Giovanni returns to the couple’s pristine modern apartment, in a massive residential complex, the breeze that lifts the curtains passes through them like an atavistic intruder. The moment offers an uncanny thrill of repressed spirits emerging from the awesome purity of the urban order and the monstrous, inhuman disproportion of its scale. In another, similar moment from La notte, Giovanni and Lidia are shown entering his publisher’s office for the book party. As the author walks past a rack of his books and pauses for a mortal instant, his name appears repeatedly in front of him like a caption emptied of meaning, an incantation of nonsense syllables that somehow constitute him and that he’s there somehow to impersonate—an anti-rhetorical opacity that lends its meaninglessness to the little bricks of words that lie behind these captions, and that also reduces to inanity the suited and dressed, coiffed and elegant, witty and eloquent intellectuals who are there to celebrate the novelist and his own opaque creation.

 

I think this verbally stripped and visually bare, yet nonetheless mercilessly “recognizable,” quality of Antonioni’s films is what was then so new, and what is still so marvelous, about them. The conversations, from any film in his “existential” trilogy, that fall into a void; the head and shoulders of Moreau, as Lidia, traveling, microscopically, along the angle of a building in La notte; the unfilled or unoccupied distances—all adding up to anomie, anguish, abandonment, diminishment, the anticipated event or sighting that never occurs, just as Godot never comes. Beckett and Antonioni are thus two artists who enforce our relinquishment of the answer, the solution, the arrival, two creators who dis-illusion us (and, in Antonioni’s case, without necessarily estranging us). The search for reality, and not reality as it appears to be, is Antonioni’s subject. His discovery is that the “real” world—consisting of the news media, the entertainment industry, the military-industrial complex; the lawyers, businessmen, politicians, generals, publicists, and prelates—is lying, is insubstantial and even treacherous, a thoroughgoing accomplice of our lovelessness. Lovelessness, and the tiny, sorrowing, infinitely vulnerable gestures we try to make to restore the possibility of love—these, too, are Antonioni’s subjects; they, too, make up the new reality that he has discovered and chronicled.

 

La notte ends in a scene of almost unbearably painful acceptance of such lovelessness: of our having to be what we are, of there being no fiction that will exonerate or console us, no ending. (As in the “mutual pity” of L’avventura’s ending, where the quietly weeping Claudia approaches the tearful Sandro—whom she had just caught in an act of sexual infidelity—and, after hesitating, places her hand on his head in a gesture of compassion and comfort.) Behind some trees on the rich man’s well-manicured golf course, Lidia reads to Giovanni a tender love letter, addressed to her. He asks her who wrote it. “You did,” she replies. Stung with anguish for his lost love, it is then that he seizes his wife and they writhe carnally in the sand trap, struggling ferociously toward truth, or rather toward truthfulness. They do not love; they may love again; they have at least begun by acknowledging their suffering and their despair.

Marcello Mastroianni as Giovanni Pontano & Jeanne Moreau as Lidia Pontano in La notte 
(image credit: 
https://www.filmsupply.com/

Clearly, La notte is a movie without a traditional subject. (We can only think it is “about” the despair of the idle rich or our ill-fated quest for pleasure if we are intent on making old anecdotes out of new essences; more on this subject later.) Yet it is about nothing we could have known without it, nothing to which we had already attached meanings or surveyed in other ways. It is, without being abstract, about nothing in particular, being instead, like most painting of its period, self-contained and absolute, an action and not the description of an action. To paraphrase Beckett on the fiction of James Joyce,[19] La notte is a film of something, not “about” something. Flaubert himself aspired to write “un livre sur rien,”[20] or a book about nothing, and even Jerry Seinfeld wanted to create a television show “about nothing.”[21]

Antonioni’s film is part of that next step in our feelings that true art is continually eliciting and recording. We had been taking that step for a long time, most clearly in painting but also in music, in certain areas of fiction, in anti-theater or meta-theater (of the kind, still scarce, which, through new parodic languages, breaks with everything moribund or dead in our theater). It might be described as accession through reduction, the coming into truer forms through the cutting away of created encumbrances: all the replicas we have made of ourselves, all the misleading, because logical or only psychological, narratives; the whole apparatus of reflected wisdom, inherited emotions, received ideas, reiterated clichés, religious mythologies.

 

Thematically, as opposed to formally, Antonioni was treating human connections no longer sustained by traditional values, or by any convictions at all (a humanity with too much freedom of choice, as it were), and therefore forced to abide with the most fragile and precarious of justifications. One might say that his films, commencing with the trilogy if not earlier, were the first truly existential ones. When I first saw La notte, I was filled with a sense of discovery of a world—a visual one this time, not a theoretical, abstract one as in Kierkegaard or Sartre—which no longer replied to the questions I had about it and gave me no feeling of nurture, acceptance, or invitation. And that is the way Antonioni’s characters—particularly Lidia in La notte, Vittoria in L’eclisse, Claudia in L’avventura—move through their environments, in a new and strange alienation, an individual isolation in the midst of constant social interaction: a condition very different from, and far more subtle than, what is suggested by the clichés of modern sophisticated awareness, all our talk (even more feverish in the twenty-first century) about the failure of communication, technological dehumanization, the death of God, the fragmentation or atomization of society, and the like.

 

This new alienation—a despair or desolation in spite of the superficial appearance of affluence and pleasure, an emotional barrenness that Antonioni called (in an interview published in Positif in March 1962) “the eclipse of all feelings”[22]—is what we might call his subject or theme, but that isn’t the same thing as his art and it is a great mistake to think it is. The basis for my argument that Antonioni’s films are not “about” a decadent class—let alone the death throes of capitalism—is that the visual world he composes, the one he discovers beneath appearances and calls into being, is the one we all inhabit, whether or not we have been summoned into any of its particular scenes. In La notte, this world is the stultifying city (Milan) with its geometry of streets and its assembly of artifacts, the coldest products of modern materialistic “wit” and inventiveness, the new nature. But it is Antonioni’s characters that have been given the task of being its explorers, and its exhibited (or unexhibited) sacrifices—Anna from L’avventura, whose “sacrifice” (or sacrifice to the film’s plot) is never explained; Piero and Vittoria, who, during L’eclisse’s long final sequence, never show up at their appointed meeting place despite having previously agreed to do so; Tommaso, whose death in La notte is the end of Lidia’s final link with selfless love, or love-without-ego.

Jeanne Moreau as Lidia Pontano in La notte (image credit: https://www.filmsupply.com/

Coherence, unity, connection between interior self and exterior reality are no longer sustained by the modern world of commerce and utility, so its inhabitants have to establish for themselves the very ground of their behavior. What is mistaken for boredom in Antonioni’s characters, then, is actually a condition of radical disjunction between personality and circumstance. For a vital connection has been broken: the physical world has been dispossessed of the inherited meanings and principles according to which its inhabitants had previously motivated their lives and structured its psychic as well as moral events—something hinted at in La notte’s nightclub scene, in which Giovanni and Lidia manage to sedately watch a mesmerizing, seductive, “natural” performance by a female African dancer; and something referenced in L’eclisse, where Vittoria dresses up as an African with dark makeup and dances around her apartment, in response to her friend Marta’s mention of the farm she and her husband own in Kenya (where the “monkeys” are arming themselves and threatening the minority whites). In such a world the idea of a “story,” in the sense of a progressive tale leading from a fixed starting point to a dénouement that “settles” something or solves some problem, no longer has any use and is in fact inimical to the way the world is actually experienced. (The director once quoted Chekhov to this end in an interview: “Give me new endings and I can reinvent literature!”[23])

 

Hence all the broken narratives, the conversations in a void, the events leading nowhere—Lidia’s wandering without destination through the city in La notte, for example. (She is like Walter Benjamin’s flâneur, the ambivalent figure of urban riches who idly wanders around, detached from modern society, with no other purpose than to be its acute observer before meeting his demise at the hands of mass culture and consumer capitalism.) For a story implies a degree of confidence in the world, or at least a trustfulness that the environment, no matter how painful or brutal it might be, is knowable, makes sense, and hangs together. But of course there is a “story” in Antonioni’s films, though not of the traditional kind. Will I be understood if I say that this story is in one sense the tale of the end of the stories with which the screen, along with the novel, has heretofore beguiled us? I mean that our former modes of fiction—the love story, the romantic quest, the action epic—have lost their power of conviction (if not their box-office clout) because the world we experience on a daily basis has lost its own such power.

 

The essence of Antonioni’s art in La notte, as well as in the other two films of his trilogy, is thus to forge, in the face of our lost convictions and acceptances about the world—convictions and acceptances upon which we had based our narrative arts—a new, mercilessly stripped “telling” of our condition of bereftness and chill, one that refuses to find “endings” or resolutions or definitive images, let alone God-substitutes, that can reassure us. Seen through Lidia’s and Giovanni’s eyes, vibrated through their nervous systems, the incidents in this essentially plotless film—sometimes unremarkable in themselves—take on the proportions of a pilgrimage. The reason is that the Pontanos’ relationship is not an instance of sexual ennui or a stage in marital intrigue; it is the result of their being perceptive people in a world inimical to confidence, therefore inimical to lasting love. The film exists in an ambience that is post-Hitler, post-Stalin, post-Bomb, in a society caught, on the one hand, between the far-reaching but iron-lined avenues of Marxism and, on the other, a creeping corpulence fed extensively by Western military preparations to deter Marxism. With no sense of strain whatsoever, because they know their habitat, Lidia and Giovanni step forward as protagonists of their age’s (and subsequent ages’) love tragedy: the lack of a whole, oriented self to give in love.

 

Like irony and parody, abstraction and reduction of the kind found in La notte are forms of aggression against traditional subjects, against what art is supposed to treat. They are, much more than direct violence, our most effective means of liberating our experience, of releasing those unnamed emotions and perceptions that have been blockaded by everything we have been taught to see and hear and feel. Such blockage is the reason why, despite the fact that Antonioni’s films are far from experimental in the sense of the work of Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, or Andy Warhol, his fictional narratives always feel flattened and his characters appear “flat” in E. M. Forster’s sense of the word[24]; or, to borrow a term from Roland Barthes, why this work seems curiously mat,[25] as if the spectator’s ability to gain immediate access to the fiction were being impeded by something. What continues to excite me about the films of Antonioni is the sense they communicate, to one degree or another, of extending the areas of freedom—troubled freedom because a price is paid when you are always half engaged in repudiating your erstwhile captors—which we have gained from the other arts. To recast a line from Act III, scene i, of Shaw’s Major Barbara—a well-made “discussion drama,” or play of ideas, about religion, capitalism, and salvation—we are learning something in the act of watching a film by Antonioni, and that always feels at first as if we are losing something.

 

What we learn from Antonioni’s world of alienation and disjunction is exemplified, not merely by what his characters do and say, but by the images they compose and that are composed as the context for their cinematic existence. “The fundamental problem of the cinema is how to express thought,” the great critic and theorist of the French New Wave, Alexandre Astruc, wrote over seventy years ago.[26] La notte is a film in which thought—indissolubly fused with image, lying behind it, selecting it and justifying it—produces an art worthy of ranking with any other. In the entire range of Antonioni’s oeuvre, of his calculated “boredom” and refusal of clear resolution, we see being fought this tendency of narrative to turn away from “thought” and into an extended anecdote that serves either to legitimate or mythologize actuality (especially through the promotion of religion and belief in God), thus making it nothing more than an illustration of what we have already undergone, surmised, or wished.

 

That Antonioni, in presenting not new stories but new relationships between consciousness and reality, was expected to do otherwise was the very basis of contemporaneous complaint against a film such as La notte. (At the upper end, Pauline Kael wrote, “I dislike La notte. Perhaps detest is a better word”[27]; at the lower end, Henry Hart followed up: “There is some evidence in this absurd melange of nothing [L’eclisse] that its perpetrator, Michelangelo Antonioni, is beginning to be aware that his blague about depicting contemporary man’s ‘inability to communicate’ is boring even those among the young, the foolish, and the venal who acclaimed his L’avventura and La notte.”[28]) This picture, however, is a new form of perception about, and artifact of, our continuing dilemmas and contradictions and perplexities—not a representation of them.

 

Antonioni was re-shaping not only the idea of the content of filmic drama in La notte and the two works that bookend it, he was also re-shaping time itself: taking it out of its customary synoptic form and wringing intensity out of its distention; daring to ask his audience to “live through” experiences with less distillation than they were accustomed to; deriving his drama from the very texture of such experiences and their juxtaposition, rather than from formal clash, climax, and resolution. The same became true of Bergman only in his masterpiece that followed the sober mystery of Winter Light: Persona (1966), where, having seemingly rejected all religious belief (and having also become convinced that human life is haunted by a virulent, active evil), he created a work that consists in the thesis that to be conscious of self—as simultaneous authentic being and hollow chimera—yet go on living in a godless universe is to suffer as only a tragic hero can.

 

My reservations about the secularity and hedonism of our own, post-Persona age, as opposed to the one that, almost at the same time, produced Bergman’s “faith” trilogy (1961-63) and Antonioni’s “existential” one (1960-62), are those of an aging critic who sees an increasing number of “faithless” movies coming along, yet who continues to hope (if not believe) that there is more to love than lust, that the spirit is greater in importance than the body, and that romance has as much to do with religious rapture as with sexual transport. For all their white heat, in other words, the giddy fantasy of most romantic movies (let alone porno pictures) leaves me alone in earthbound darkness, coolly and contractively contemplating the state of my own connubial bond. The romantic abyss of both Winter Light and La notte, by contrast, may have left me ice-cold, but it is glistening cold that seeks out the expansive warmth of divine solace (a solace absent from Antonioni’s oeuvre, and that disappeared from so much of Bergman’s work subsequent to Winter Light). And everything that so rises, naturally, must converge.

 

 

End Notes

[1]John T. Elson, “Christian Atheism: The ‘God Is Dead’ Movement,” Time, October 22, 1965), 62.

 

[2] William Shakespeare, King Lear, in The Norton Shakespeare, ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 2479-2553.

 

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:13, in Holy Bible: New International Version (New York: Biblica, 2011).

 

[4] Vilgot Sjöman, Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie [Winter Light].

 

[5] Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, trans. Joan Tate. (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988), 273.

 

[6] Ingmar Bergman, Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman: Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician, trans. Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960), xxii.

 

[7] Bergman, Four Screenplays, xxii.

 

[8] Herbert Bouman, “The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Theological Monthly 26, no. 11 (November 1955): 801-802.

 

[9] Stanley Kauffmann, A World on Film (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 286.

 

[1] Roy Huss, Focus on Blow-Up (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 96.

 

[10] Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, ed. Henry Hardy (London: John Murray, 1990), 92.

 

[11] Bergman, Four Screenplays, xxii.

 

[12] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008), 203.

 

[13] Peter Bondanella and Federico Pacchioni, A History of Italian Cinema (2nd ed.; New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 139.

 

[14] Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Victor Corti (Richmond, U.K.: Alma Books, 2013), 84.

 

[15] Frank P. Tomasulo, “‘The Sounds of Silence’: Modernist Acting in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up,” in More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance, ed. Cynthia Baron et al. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), 98. 

 

[16] Bert Cardullo, ed., Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 26.

 

[17] Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. S. W. Ryazanskaya (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 220.

 

[18] Samuel Beckett, “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” in Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, by Samuel Beckett et al. (London: Faber & Faber, 1929), 14.

 

[19] Gustave Faubert, “Lettre du 16 janvier 1852 à Louise Colet,” in Dans Correspondance, T. II, ed. Jean Bruneau (Paris: Gallimard, 1980), 31.

 

[20] Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 113.

 

[21] Philip Strick, Michelangelo Antonioni (London: Motion, 1963), 52.

 

[22] Cardullo, ed., Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews, 166.

 

[23] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (London: Edward Arnold, 1927), 93.

 

[24] Mike Gane and Nicholas Gane, Roland Barthes, Vol. 2 (London: Sage, 2004), 172.

 

[25] Alexandre Astruc, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” in The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, ed. Peter Graham (London: Secker & Warburg, 1968), 20.

 

[26] Pauline Kael, I Lost It at the Movies (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965), 162.

 

[27] Henry Hart, “Eclipse,” Films in Review 14, no. 4 (April 1963): 114.

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Antonioni, Michelangelo. Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni [Il grido, L’avventura, La notte, L’eclisse]. Translated by Louis Brigante and Roger T. Moore. New York: Orion Press, 1963.

 

Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin. Seinfeldia: How a Show About Nothing Changed Everything. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

 

Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. 1938. Translated by Victor Corti. Richmond, U.K.: Alma Books, 2013.

 

Astruc, Alexandre. “Du stylo à la caméra et de la caméra au stylo.” L’Écran française no. 144 (March 30, 1948): 207-217. Reprinted as “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” 17-23. In The New Wave: Critical Landmarks, edited by Peter Graham. London: Secker & Warburg, 1968.

 

Beckett, Samuel. “Dante . . . Bruno. Vico . . . Joyce,” 3-22. In Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. By Samuel Beckett, Marcel Brion, Frank Budgen, Stuart Gilbert, Eugene Jolas, Victor Llona, Robert McAlmon, Thomas McGreevy, Elliot Paul, John Rodker, Robert Sage, and William Carlos Williams. London: Faber & Faber, 1929.

 

Bergman, Ingmar. Four Screenplays of Ingmar Bergman: Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Magician. Translated by Lars Malmstrom and David Kushner. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960.

 

----------. The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography. Translated by Joan Tate. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

 

Berlin, Isaiah. The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, edited by Henry Hardy. London: John Murray, 1990.

 

Bondanella, Peter, and Federico Pacchioni. A History of Italian Cinema. 2nd ed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

 

Bouman, Herbert. “The Doctrine of Justification in the Lutheran Confessions.” Concordia Theological Monthly 26, no. 11 (November 1955): 801-819.

 

Cardullo, Bert, ed. Michelangelo Antonioni: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.

 

Elson, John T. “Christian Atheism: The ‘God Is Dead’ Movement.” Time 86 (October 22, 1965): 62.

 

Flaubert, Gustave. “Lettre du 16 janvier 1852 à Louise Colet,” 31. Dans Correspondance, editor, Jean Bruneau. T. II. Paris: Gallimard, 1980.

 

Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. London: Edward Arnold, 1927.

 

Gane, Mike, and Nicholas Gane. Roland Barthes. Vol. 2 (of 3 volumes). London: Sage, 2004.

 

Holy Bible: New International Version. 1973 (New Testament), 1978 (Old Testament). New York: Biblica, 2011.

 

Huss, Roy, ed. Focus on Blow-Up. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

 

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. 1916. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

Kael, Pauline. I Lost It at the Movies. Boston: Little, Brown, 1965.

La notte. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Dino de Laurentiis Distribuzione. 1961.

 

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. 1859. Translated by S. W. Ryazanskaya. New York: International Publishers, 1970.

 

Shakespeare, William. King Lear, 2479-2553. In The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, Gordon McMullan, and Suzanne Gossett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

 

Sjöman, Vilgot. Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie [Winter Light]. Documentary film, aired in five half-hour episodes on Swedish television commencing January 27, 1963. Available from the Criterion Collection, New York, in “A Film Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman: Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence” (2003).

 

Strick, Philip. Michelangelo Antonioni. London: Motion, 1963.

 

Tomasulo, Frank P. “‘The Sounds of Silence’: Modernist Acting in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up.” In More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance, edited by Cynthia Baron, Diane Carson, and Frank P. Tomasulo, 94-125. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

Winter Light. Directed by Igmar Bergman. Svensk Filmindustri. 1963