Filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni Dies at Age 94

The Italian Neorealist, who was perhaps best known for his film Blow-Up, died Monday at his home in Rome. He was 94.

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Another legendary international film director has died. Michelangelo Antonioni was 94. His death last night in Rome followed by hours that of director Ingmar Bergman.

Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY: Michelangelo Antonioni started as part of the Italian filmmaking movement known as Neorealism.

Mr. PETER BRUNETTE (Film Scholar): Neorealism was obsessed with the visual, with the surface of reality.

ULABY: Film scholar Peter Brunette says Antonioni was different from such gritty Italian neorealists as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, who focused on postwar problems. Antonioni preferred stark, existential meditations on the things you can't see and the things you can't say.

Mr. BRUNETTE: And so you have to read between the lines. Everything is very powerfully expressive but you can never exactly pin down what it means.

ULABY: The film that swept Antonioni before an international audience in 1960 was "L'Avventura," which in Italian means both an adventure and a fling. Brunette says the vague plot belies the title.

Mr. BRUNETTE: It definitely is trying. You know, they're out there on this rock in the middle of nowhere, on this island, and people are wandering around, looking for somebody and they can't find her.

(Soundbite of movie, "L'Avventura")

Mr. BRUNETTE: "L'Avventura" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. And these supposedly sophisticated critics were booing and yelling cut, cut. And that was a big scandal. And that film went on to become known as one of the greatest films of all time.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Brunette says Antonioni's visuals packed much more trauma than his narratives. His characters drift through the movies with a preoccupied error, trying to connect and failing.

Mr. BRUNETTE: They're a couple and they are either in love or out of love or whatever. But much more important to him, I think, are the characters as sort of graphic images.

ULABY: The liquid-eyed actress Monica Vitti was one of Antonioni's favorite graphic images. But using actors as props shocked Jack Nicholson, who starred in Antonioni's 1974 film, "The Passenger."

On a DVD reissue of "L'Avventura," Nicholson remembered Antonioni's direction.

Mr. JACK NICHOLSON (Actor): Jack, nothing wrong, but for me the actor is a moving space.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: A moving space didn't even have to move as far as Antonioni was concerned. He could find an epic in a blank stare. And why complicate a close-up with a distracting tear or smile? In the late 1960s, Antonioni's movies - already abstract and philosophical - became even more so.

Mr. BRUNETTE: They're trying to talk much more about the meaning of vision, how do we see reality through visuality and through vision.

ULABY: The most accessible example of Antonioni's cinematic vision may be the 1966 movie "Blow Up," about an amoral photographer blithely swinging through London.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blow Up")

Mr. DAVID HEMMINGS (Actor): (As Thomas) That's great. That's great. That's good. Good. Come on, more of that. More of that.

ULABY: "Blow Up" stars David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave, whose character is outraged when her picture snapped in a park.

(Soundbite of movie, "Blow Up")

Ms. VANESSA REDGRAVE (Actress): (As Jane) Stop it. Give me those pictures. You can't photograph people like that.

Mr. HEMMINGS: Who says I can't? I'm only doing my job. Some people are bullfighters. Some people are politicians. I'm a photographer.

ULABY: Upon developing his pictures, the hero comes to believe he has inadvertently documented a murder.

Mr. BRUNETTE: But as he blows up the pictures more and more and more, he sees less and less and less.

ULABY: That's the kind of conundrum Antonioni cherished. But Brunette says "Blow Up" may have been the director's last great film.

Mr. BRUNETTE: After that, I think he kind of became a parody of himself so that the character who is the protagonist became more and more overtly and obviously him.

ULABY: The photographer in "Blow Up," the TV reporter in "The Passenger," or the novelist in "La Notte." One of Antonioni's last movies starred John Malkovich as an aging filmmaker.

(Soundbite of movie, "Al di là delle nuvole")

Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH (Actor): Don't get me wrong. I'm not a philosopher. On the contrary, I'm someone who is profoundly attached to images. I only discovered reality when I began photographing it, photographing and enlarging the surface of things that were around me. I tried to discover what was behind them. I've done nothing else in my career.

ULABY: For Michelangelo Antonioni, that may have been enough.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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Antonioni, a Filmmaker with an Eye for the Invisible

Michaelangelo Antonioni behind the camera in 1965. i i

Michelangelo Antonioni behind the camera in 1965, about five years after he burst on the international scene. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Michaelangelo Antonioni behind the camera in 1965.

Michelangelo Antonioni behind the camera in 1965, about five years after he burst on the international scene.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Watch 'Blow-Up' Clips

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Blowup 1

 

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Blowup 2

 
Jack Nicholson and Michaelangelo Antonioni at the Oscars in 1995. i i

In 1995, Antonioni was honored with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Jack Nicholson, who starred in the 1975 Antonioni film The Passenger, presented the award. Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images) hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)
Jack Nicholson and Michaelangelo Antonioni at the Oscars in 1995.

In 1995, Antonioni was honored with an Oscar for lifetime achievement. Jack Nicholson, who starred in the 1975 Antonioni film The Passenger, presented the award.

Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

Michelangelo Antonioni had a long, solemn face and hooded eyes — he looked like Humphrey Bogart. But the work of the Italian filmmaker, who died at home on Monday at the age of 94, couldn't be further from the traditions of Hollywood.

Antonioni, whose name became synonymous with European art-house cinema in the 1960s, began his career as part of the Italian filmmaking movement known as Neorealism. Their style, says film scholar Peter Brunette, was obsessed with the visual — in the sense of what we can see, the visible surfaces of reality. But Antonioni was different from such gritty Italian Neorealists as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sicca, who focused on postwar problems; Antonioni preferred stark, existential meditations on the things you can't see and things you can't say.

"And so you have to read between the lines," Brunette says. "Everything is powerfully expressive, but you can never exactly pin down what it means."

The film that swept Antonioni before an international audience in 1960 was L'Avventura, which in Italian means both an adventure and a fling. Brunette says the movie is visually compelling, but the vague plot belies the title. The film, frankly, can be trying.

"They're out there on this rock in the middle of nowhere on this island, and people are wandering around looking for someone, and can't find her," Brunette says. "L'Avventura was shown at the Cannes film festival, and people were booing — those supposedly sophisticated critics were booing and yelling 'Cut, cut!' .... And that film went on to become known as one of the greatest films of all time."

It's true that Antonioni's visuals pack much more drama than his narratives. His characters drift through their movies with a preoccupied air, trying to connect, and failing. Much more important to the director, Brunette says, were the pictures they made — "the characters as graphic images."

The liquid-eyed actress Monica Vitti was one of Antonioni's favorite graphic images. But the idea of using actors as props shocked Jack Nicholson, who starred in Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger. On a DVD reissue of L'Avventura, Nicholson remembered Antonioni telling him that his performance was fine — but "'for me, the actor is a moving space.'"

A moving space didn't even have to move, as far as Antonioni was concerned. He could find an epic in a blank stare. And why complicate a close-up with a distracting tear or smile? In the late '60s, Antonioni's movies — already abstract and philosophical — became even more so.

"They're trying to talk more about the meaning of vision," Brunette says, "what it means to see the visual world — how do we understand it, how do we see reality through visuality and through vision."

The most accessible example of Antonioni's vision may be the 1966 movie Blow-Up, about an amoral photographer blithely swinging through London. David Hemmings' protagonist snaps a series of voyeuristic pictures in a public park, outraging a woman who's caught unawares in his lens — and upon developing his film, he comes to believe he's inadvertently documented a murder.

"But as he blows up the pictures more and more and more," Brunette explains, "he sees less and less and less."

That's the kind of conundrum Antonioni cherished — how reality is called into question in what we see and what we don't. But Blow-Up may have been the director's last great film.

"After that, I think, he became a parody of himself," Brunette says. "The character who was the protagonist becomes more obviously him."

The photographer in Blow-Up, the TV reporter in The Passsenger, the director in Identification of a Woman, or the novelist in La Notte ... and the aging filmmaker played by John Malkovich in one of Antonioni's last movies.

"Don't get me wrong, I'm not a philosopher," Malkovich's unnamed character says in Beyond the Clouds, which Antonioni co-directed with Wim Wenders. "On the contrary, I'm someone profoundly attached to images. I only discovered reality when I started photographing it — photographing and enlarging surfaces of things that were around me. I tried to discover what was behind them. I've done nothing else in my career."

For Michelangelo Antonioni, that may have been enough.

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