Antonioni and the language of film

Antonioni Monica Vitti

The last few weeks have seen the wonderful Antonioni retrospective at the BFI Southbank. So far I’ve caught the extraordinary The Passenger with Jack Nicholson from 1975 (seemingly quite a rarely seen film today which is just bizarre given its remarkable quality and Nicholson’s brilliant performance), and tonight hopefully catching up on the second of the 1960s trilogy, La Notte. The first, L’Avventura, I saw a week ago and am still overwhelmed by it.

The only Antonioni film I’ve seen before is Blow Up, which everyone’s seen. That didn’t prepare me for L’Avventura, two and a half hours of utter bliss where not a lot happens in the most unforgettable way. And the one actor doing not a lot in such an intense and dynamic way is Monica Vitti whose performance is genuinely spellbinding. Antonioni lets the camera just gaze at her for what seems like minutes while each muscle of that beautiful face twitches and turns as she plays out about a hundred different tragic scenarios of ennui, culminating in an extraordinary scene towards the end where she lies in bed, unable to sleep because she suspects her lover is up to no good, and all she can do is count, writing down ascending numbers on the cover of a trashy magazine. One, two, three, four, five, six…It’s genius.

Antonioni’s films demonstrate how language, the written and spoken word, must sometimes be relegated to a supporting role if the truth of an artistic vision is to be achieved. His cinematic language, which as he says he used to show how morally ill-equipped his contemporaries were to deal with the modern world of 1960, is so much more eloquent than any words could achieve. For anyone who spends their time rooting around with words, it is a salutary and entirely fulfilling lesson.