Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni. Film retrospective at TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West, 416-599-TIFF
Films this week: The Passenger; Il Grido (The Cry); Chung Kuo, China; The Mystery of Oberwald
Michelangelo Antonioni is one of the most significant figures in what Susan Sontag and other critics called “the heroic age of film.” A great stylist, he is noted for his distanced camera eye, which places characters in mid-shot, apparently as important to the unfolding narrative as the landscape or the inevitably immaculate room they’re in. When confronted by something dramatic, his characters are often left with three options: to be anguished, overwhelmed or—most likely—cool and ironic.
The films of his great period, from 1959’s mysterious L’Avventura to the hip British feature Blow-up in 1967 aren’t represented this week but the four being screened have their own virtues. Two are brilliant and should absolutely be seen by anyone interested in Antonioni—or wonderful art films. Both star Americans and acquire some of their resonance due to their presence.
Steve Cochran never became a star in Hollywood but he was an effective physical presence in a number of films including the classic film noir White Heat and the multi-Oscar winner The Best Years of our Lives. In Antonioni’s Il Grido (The Cry), he’s riveting as Aldo, a worker in a refinery who discovers that his longtime lover Irma (the beautiful Alida Valli) doesn’t want him anymore. The film quietly follows Aldo, observing him interact with the characters he meets on the road, including an ex-girlfriend Elvia (an affecting Betsy Blair) and a new lover, Virginia (Dorian Gray). Nothing goes right for Aldo, who can’t find a job and seems to be gripped with despair.
Two years later, with L’Avventura, Antonioni, will give us a character who may or may not commit suicide; here, Aldo’s fate is clear but there is also a mystery to his final act. Il Grido is beautifully shot–and the impoverishment of the characters is well observed in a manner representative of neo-realism. This is an Antonioni masterpiece and deserves to be seen.
The Passenger features another American actor but this time he is very famous: Jack Nicholson. Made in 1975, at the height of his prowess as an actor (and way before his descent into self-parody), The Passenger’s plot was created by Antonioni and has a notable twist. Nicholson plays a disaffected TV reporter who finds the body of someone who greatly resembles him—and has just committed suicide. On impulse, he takes on the recently deceased man’s name only to discover, to his chagrin, that he’s now a gunrunner.
In The Passenger, Nicholson takes an intriguing premise and turns it into one of his best films. He keeps the viewers’ interest up as he struggles to understand his “new persona.” Both Nicholson and Antonioni were clearly interested in creating an existential thriller. And they succeeded. This is an excellent film, and features a stellar performance by Nicholson.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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