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An influence that is easy to see

Today's arty films often reflect Michelangelo Antonioni's style. Many of his originals are hard to find on DVD, though.

August 12, 2007|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

MICHELANGELO Antonioni, who died last month at age 94, was once one of the most fashionable filmmakers in the world.

He remains among the most influential, judging by the extent to which his oblique, deliberate style can still be felt among today's most celebrated art-film directors. But compared to the other European titans who helped briefly establish movies as a serious art in American culture -- Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, François Truffaut and, certainly, Ingmar Bergman, who died the same day as Antonioni -- he remains somewhat underrepresented on DVD.

On the bright side, Antonioni's first and last great films -- "L'Avventura" (1960) and "The Passenger" (1975) -- are both available, from Criterion and Sony, respectively. Bookending a remarkable 15-year run during which he went from Italy's poster boy of elegant ennui to international man of mystery, the films are both existential thrillers and mirror images of each other. The former concerns the search for a woman who has abruptly gone missing; the latter is the story of a man who impulsively vanishes from his own life.

"L'Avventura," the film that established Antonioni's signature style, caused a stir when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It was greeted at its press screening with boos and catcalls from viewers put off by its languorous pace and the apparent lethargy and blankness of its characters. But it also inspired some critics and filmmakers to sign a petition demanding a second screening (the film won a runner-up prize from the jury, coming in second behind Fellini's "La Dolce Vita").

"L'Avventura" was the first entry in a loose trilogy, all shot in black and white, all starring the gorgeous Monica Vitti (Antonioni's muse and lover at the time) and collectively responsible for more or less inventing a visual syntax for the modern malaise often described, for want of a better term, as "alienation." In Antonioni's hands, film space and time were like the materials of sculpture, malleable and endlessly expressive. He shot landscapes, and positioned figures within them, with consummate mastery and, like few directors before him, he understood the provocative effects of duration. The concluding film in this trilogy, "L'Eclisse" (1962), is available in a pristine edition from Criterion (as is "L'Avventura"; both discs boast plentiful extras). "La Notte" (1961), the middle installment, can be found in a no-frills package from Fox Lorber.

Of the early work, Antonioni's first feature, a fatalistic noir titled "Story of a Love Affair" (1950), was released in a two-disc edition by the small company No Shame Films. "Le Amíche" (1955), an effective if atypical melodrama, is available from Image Entertainment and "Il Grido" (1957), an important transitional work with intimations of "L'Avventura," from Kino International. Key formative works like "The Lady Without Camelias" and "The Vanquished" (both from 1953) and the socially conscious documentaries that Antonioni made in the 1940s have never been released.

The only other two features on DVD are from his later incarnation as a globe-hopping chronicler of the zeitgeist. "Blowup" (1966, Warner Home Video), his time capsule of swinging London, remains his best-known film. "The Passenger" (1975) -- until recently Antonioni's most notoriously unavailable film, thanks to its protective star, Jack Nicholson (who owned the rights) -- was reissued on its 30th anniversary in a slightly longer cut than the release version. Nicholson's commentary on the Sony DVD, reverent and warmly anecdotal, is well worth the time.

A maddeningly large portion of this major filmmaker's work has been altogether overlooked on home video. "Identification of a Woman" (1982), the last film he made before suffering a stroke in 1983, and "Beyond the Clouds" (1995), his tentative return to filmmaking (co-directed with Wim Wenders), are no longer in print; both are minor works but not without interest. The bigger crime is that two of Antonioni's greatest films are among the titles missing on DVD: "Red Desert" (1964), his first color film, is a haunting story of industrial pollution and environmental illness. (An Australian edition has just been released.) And "Zabriskie Point" (1970), his immersion in post-Kent State youth radicalism, forms a loose trilogy, along with "Blowup" and "The Passenger," about the counterculture and its discontents.

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