L’avventura — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avventura” is the first in a trilogy of modernist relationship films the auteur created to reflect Italy’s post-war crisis of desensitized culture trapped in an identity of alienation. Notable for its distinct lack of empathetic characters and slow pacing “L’Avventura” met with fierce criticism during its premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival where it was widely jeered. It wasn’t until four months later that the beautifully composed film appreciated respect at the London Film Festival, where it won a prize for “the most original and imaginative entry to be shown.”
Antonioni subverted his mentor Roberto Rossellini’s neorealist ethos into an equally minimalist style, but one that examined the mindset of Italy’s upper class rather than neorealism’s exclusive concern with the working class. The enigmatic story for “L’avventura” follows Anna (Lea Massari), the daughter of an Italian diplomat. Anna’s wealthy boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is a disillusioned architect. Anna’s undeniably beautiful friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) joins Anna and Sandro for a boating trip to the Aeolian Islands north of Sicily with two wealthy couples whose relationships suffer. Adultery is in the air. A bored husband describes his wife as similar to Oscar Wilde. “Give her luxuries and she’ll do without the little necessities.” The nature of the remark is given context by another character that claims, “If you don’t quote someone, you die.” These are people who have everything, and yet are incapable of expressing love or respect. Only lust and desire matter.
Once on the jagged shores of the remote island, Anna and Sandro discuss their relationship. Upset at Sandro’s month-long business trips, Anna dismisses their marriage plans since they are already living like an unhappy married couple. The thought of losing Sandro makes Anna “want to die,” and yet she doesn’t “feel” him when they are together. In close proximity to the group, Anna mysteriously vanishes. She is nowhere to be found. Sandro and Claudia remain on the island while the others leave to send for a search team. Anna’s father arrives the next day. Upon discovering a bible in his daughter’s luggage, he dismisses the idea she committed suicide.
Once back in Italy, Sandro engages ineffectual local police and a journalist who covered Anna’s disappearance but nothing comes to fruition. Sandro and Claudia strike up a romance that obliterates all memory of Anna. The emotional substitution works only up to a point.
“L’avventura” is a haunting film that presages Fellini’s post-modern cinema, and informs the French New Wave that gave way to such iconic auteurs as Jean Luc Goddard. Antonioni’s depiction of Italian males as beauty-obsessed dogs flips on itself to show a similar phenomenon in the privileged women who audaciously pursue Sandro at the extravagant San Domenico Palace Hotel where Sandro hunts for fresh meat while Claudia sleeps in their room. No one is satisfied.
The Bicycle Thief - Classic Film Pick
Vittorio De Sica advanced Italian neorealist cinema in 1948 with this modest story about a family man trying to get back his stolen bicycle. Considered at the time of its release to be one of the finest films ever made and one of the most searing indictments of the caprices of capitalism in any medium, “The Bicycle Thief” went on to influence all aspects of world cinema, including the French New Wave and American independent cinema. Using a cast of nonprofessional actors, De Sica turned Luigi Bartolini’s postwar novel into a filmic parable of staggering impact.
Real-life factory worker Lamberto Maggiorani plays family man Antonio “Ricci.” World War II stimulated America’s economy and did the opposite to Italy. Ricci waits every day on the street with a mob of unemployed men for a “shape up,” in the pathetic hope that one of their names will be called by a petit bureaucrat who will offer them a job. Ricci anxiously accepts a position putting up posters around Rome even though the bicycle he needs sits gathering dust in an enormous pawnshop. Ricci’s wife Maria (Lianella Carell) is sympathetic to Ricci’s plight. Without complaint Maria strips their bed in order to exchange their good linens for the bicycle. At the pawnshop she even manages to negotiate a somewhat larger sum for the trade. De Sica patiently weaves in every detail of character, atmosphere, and social reality without editorial commentary. Text and subtext become interchangeable.
With a stack of Rita Hayworth posters, and a ladder he carries with his free arm as he rides his bike, Ricci comes to life with excitement on his first day on the job. Almost immediately, his bicycle is stolen as he puts up a poster. With his six-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staola) in tow, Antonio searches for his “Fides” cycle, or at least for the thief who took the one thing standing between financial stability and starvation for his family.
The overpowering sense of desperation that overtakes Ricci sweeps up the audience in its wake. When Ricci reports the theft to the police, he’s told no effort will be made to retrieve his bicycle. De Sica examines myriad aspects of postwar Italian culture with a generous depth of field dedicated to a social background that percolates with discontent, sadness, and a longing sense of what it means to be a man.
“The Bicycle Thief” is a purely socially driven story. Nearly every scene is set in some form of social setting. De Sica leads his audience on a tour of Rome and its inhabitants during a deeply troubled time. When Ricci finally succumbs to a crisis decision that practically seems preordained, it comes as a heartbreaking moment for its effect on Ricci’s son whose future seems as uncertain as that of his father.
8 1/2 (Classic Film Pick)
Federico Fellini 's "8 1/2" (made in 1963) is an act of artistic desperation. "8 1/2" ensured the great Italian filmmaker's permanent departure from the neo-realist style that made up his previous films, including his most recent departure from traditional narrative structure "La Dolce Vita" (1960). Fellini had mastered narrative drama and wanted to challenge himself as a filmmaker. But he went to his modernist destiny confused, kicking and dancing the whole way, just as his simplified alter-ego Marcelo Mastroianni does as Guido Anselmi. Guido is a hugely popular filmmaker with whom everyone wants to be associated. Producers, mistresses, crew members, actors, family members, and friends all want to possess Guido or at least to snatch a piece of his talent. The best way for them to do so is to be associated with the film he is currently making. Indeed, the movie is as much about them as it is about Fellini's own obsessions. The enigmatic director's thematic goal is to mirror on a grand scale every aspect of his own soul that he can touch or project. Guido engages in a journey of self that necessarily includes his splintered fantasy visions of female archetypes that he will use and discard as his whims dictate.
Filmed almost entirely on artificial sets, "8 1/2" is a pure look inside the mind of a director's cinematic exploration during a midlife crisis. Its title expresses the film's position as an in-between movie made on the way to Fellini's ninth feature "Juliet of the Spirits." The original title was "La Bella Confusione" ("The Beautiful Confusion"). However, Fellini strikes at a hotter brand of bewilderment with a title that led some would-be audiences to think it represented pornography. It is rather a dynamic celebration of Fellini's miraculous methods of creating cinematic magic from the fabric of his personal dreams, desires, experiences, and relationship to Italian culture. This is a movie you can return to again and again, and still discover new meanings and messages.