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Michelangelo Antonioni, 94; film great directed `Blowup' and `The Passenger'

August 01, 2007|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Michelangelo Antonioni, the master Italian film director who depicted the emotional alienation of Italy's postwar generation in films such as "L'Avventura" and "La Notte" but achieved his greatest popular success with "Blowup," an enigmatic tale set in swinging London of the 1960s, has died. He was 94.

Antonioni, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 1985 that severely limited his ability to speak, died at his home in Rome on Monday evening, according to Italy's ANSA news agency.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said Tuesday that Italy had "lost one of cinema's greatest protagonists and one of the greatest explorers of expression in the 20th century."

For many American filmgoers, Antonioni may be best remembered for his English-language films "Blowup," "Zabriskie Point" and "The Passenger," which starred Jack Nicholson.

Nicholson said Tuesday that as a director, Antonioni was in a ranking "by himself."

"I don't know how to put this: He's just a maestro, and everybody loved him," Nicholson told The Times, searching for words to describe his longtime friend.

Describing Antonioni as "a father figure to me as a few other people I've worked with somehow became," Nicholson said they had great affection for one another.

"He was a man of joy and impeccable taste," he said. "His whole life was dedicated to modestly being a brilliant artist."

"Blowup," Antonioni's 1966 film about a London fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who discovers that he may have inadvertently captured a killing in a park while surreptitiously shooting pictures of a tryst between a young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) and an older man, was the director's first English-language film.

An imaginary tennis game played by white-faced mimes at the end of the film, which movie scholars say symbolizes the difference between illusion and reality and whether or not a killing even occurred, has been described as "one of the defining moments of 1960s cinema."

The film earned Antonioni Oscar nominations for best director and screenplay.

"Zabriskie Point," the director's 1970 vision of campus revolutionaries and the current American scene, was a box-office disappointment panned by most critics.

But "The Passenger," his 1975 suspense drama starring Nicholson as a disillusioned TV journalist who is in Africa to cover a civil war and assumes the identity of a dead man in his hotel who turns out to have been a gunrunner, has been called one of the great films of the 1970s.

Film critic and former Times staff writer Kevin Thomas praised it as "a masterpiece of visual and rigorous artistry that is as tantalizing as it is hypnotic," and the New York Times' Vincent Canby deemed it "Antonioni's most entertaining film."

A former film critic and documentarian, Antonioni had a decade of feature filmmaking behind him when he achieved international renown in 1960 with "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure"), which many consider his finest film.

It is the first in a loose trilogy of acclaimed films that established the director-screenwriter as one of the world's most enigmatic and innovative moviemakers, known for his stylistic, technical and thematic risk-taking.

In "L'Avventura," a young woman (Lea Massari) disappears on a yachting trip to a volcanic Sicilian island, and her lover and best friend (Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti) are among the group of friends who join in the search.

But Antonioni defies movie narrative conventions and leaves the woman's disappearance unresolved: It remains a mystery, and she is virtually forgotten after the search is abandoned and her lover and best friend begin a relationship of their own.

Indeed, the movie is not about the search for the missing young woman. It is, as critic Roger Ebert has written, "about the sense in which all of the characters are on the brink of disappearance; their lives are so unreal and their relationships so tenuous they can barely be said to exist."

Or, as critic Pauline Kael wrote of the film: "They are people trying to escape their boredom by reaching out to one another and finding only boredom once again."

Antonioni's three cinematic parables of alienation -- "L'Avventura," "La Notte" ("The Night," 1961) and "L'Eclisse" ("The Eclipse" 1962) -- marked what film historian Andrew Turner has called the discovery of a "new cinematic language" and are "among the truly extraordinary achievements of postwar cinema."

New Republic film critic Stanley Kaufmann went even further, calling Antonioni's trilogy "among the highest points of film history."

Antonioni's 1964 film "Il Deserto Rosso" ("The Red Desert"), his first in color, had a similar style and themes, which he called the "spiritual aridity" and "moral coldness" of Italian society after World War II.

"The Red Desert," also starring Vitti, was notable for Antonioni's use of color: Rooms, streets, trees and even apples were painted and repainted different colors to reflect the neurotic main character's unbalanced emotional state.

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