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Michelangelo Antonioni belonged to an era when filmmaking was considered an art form as capable of modernist ideas and techniques as any of the fine arts. Throughout the 1960s, major filmmakers from around the world experimented with formal techniques and adopted new approaches to narrative, which expanded perceptions of cinema for movie-goers.
Like other modernist filmmakers and artists, Antonioni felt the need to break with the past to capture the changes that had occurred in post-World War II Europe. As people from various classes broke with traditional cultural values, participated in economic progress, and embraced a consumer-based lifestyle, life was not the same as it had been before the war. The classic mode of cinema with its emphasis on simple cause-and-effect storytelling seemed unable to adequately reflect or depict the modern world.
Though Antonioni's style challenged viewers accustomed to the clarity of classical cinema, by 1962, when L'Eclisse was released, fans and followers welcomed his intellectually stimulating films. The Italian director abandoned the clarity, logic, and directness of classical modes of filmmaking, preferring intentionally vague characters in tenuous narratives that remain open-ended and disorienting. He was obsessed with themes of disconnection and dislocation, which he felt epitomized the bourgeoisie in contemporary society. In Antonioni's films, men and women are incapable of connecting in any sincere, meaningful way. Part of the nouveaux middle class, his characters embrace the advantages of the Italian Economic Miracle by living in stylish new apartments, driving sports cars, and pursuing a fast-paced lifestyle. Abandoning traditional ideals and social values, his characters have been blinded by the enormous changes that have occurred in their new world and oblivious to their ramifications, resulting in profound alienation.
Antonioni pursued a recognizable visual style that suited his themes and characters. In his carefully composed long shots, barren and stark locations reflect the sterile emotions of the characters. Sometimes, people are isolated within the mise-en-scene by elements of the architecture or details of the set design. Dead time, in which the characters are absent and no action occurs, adds to the deliberate pacing, which allows viewers to consider the mise-en-scene and to absorb the haunted sense of dislocation suggested by the film's style.
L'Eclisse is considered by critics to be the third film in an unintentional trilogy that includes L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961). Antonioni's rise as an important filmmaker for the era can be traced through the critical and popular reception of the films in this trilogy. L'Avventura was booed at the Cannes International Film Festival when it premiered in 1960, though several prominent directors defended it to the press. When L'Eclisse was released two years later, it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Palme d'or. The following year, Antonioni released Red Desert, considered by many to be his masterpiece.
Antonioni's muse, Italian actress Monica Vitti, starred in all three films of the trilogy. In L'Eclisse, she plays Vittoria, a woman who seems displaced by the new Italy. The episodic narrative unfolds as a series of incidents that don't add up to a tightly structured story with a beginning, middle, and end. As a matter of fact, the film seems to begin with a conclusion and end with an opening scene. The film begins with the romantic break-up of Vittoria and Riccardo, who are emotionally exhausted after spending the night talking about their failed relationship. She visits friends, travels with her social circle, interacts with her mother, who is obsessed with making money via Rome's stock market, and begins a new relationship with her mother's broker, Piero. The famous conclusion of the film is a seven-minute sequence of mostly empty shots of locations shown earlier during Vittoria and Piero's courtship. More akin to an opening sequence in which long shots establish the primary setting, the cryptic, almost abstract conclusion offers no closure regarding Vittoria and Piero's relationship.
Like most of Antonioni's films, the cityscapes and environments in L'Eclisse telegraph the emptiness of the characters and the existential malaise of their lives. Vittoria lives in a suburb of Rome called the EUR, or the Esposizione Universaile di Roma. The EUR was a development of modern-style architecture that Mussolini had envisioned as the site for a world's fair. Never completed, it was reconstructed during the 1950s and used for Olympics-related activities. By the early 1960s, the neighborhood was inhabited by the Italian nouveau bourgeoisie. Vittoria lives in the EUR in a modern-looking building devoid of decorative detail or visual interest. Antonioni depicts her in long shots tightly framed within her window or doorway, visually underscoring her isolation and alienation. An oddly shaped tower is also part of the EUR neighborhood, and it looms in several shots throughout the film. With its bulbous top, the tower looks like a nuclear mushroom cloud, reminding viewers of "the bomb," which was a pervasive threat during the Cold War. That threat is echoed in the extended conclusion in a shot of an anonymous man carrying a newspaper as he steps off a bus. The headline warns of impending nuclear war-just another pressure of the modern era.
In a sequence that current viewers often find uncomfortable, Vittoria visits the home of a friend whose parents own a farm in Kenya. Her family represents the last vestiges of European colonialism. Kenya was struggling for its independence from Great Britain in 1962, and the friend is incensed that native Africans are creating trouble. Her crude racist remarks and complete lack of sympathy for their plight seem to call for another character to challenge her views, but instead, Vittoria dons blackface to perform her version of an African dance. The scene reveals the dark realities of colonialism and its impact on the generations of Europeans who remained alienated from the native peoples of the Third World countries they inhabited.
Alain Delon costars as Piero, the stock broker whom Vittoria takes up after meeting him at the stock exchange where her mother goes to follow her meager investments. During the prosperity of the 1960s, which was dubbed the Italian Economic Miracle, people of the middle class began to play in the market, as represented by Vittoria's mother. The Roman Stock Exchange was constructed in an ancient building that was originally the temple of the Emperor Hadrian. But, none of Rome's illustrious past seems to be part of the activities of the modern stock exchange, a noisy, chaotic place devoted to gambling with other people's money. When the head of the exchange stops for a moment of silence for a recently departed broker, Piero complains that it was a minute that he could have been making money. Delon was a major star when he appeared in L'Eclisse, and his dashing good looks were suited for the self-absorbed Piero. Before his infatuation with Vittoria, he dallied with beautiful call girls, whom he purchased and consumed like any other commodity. If Vittoria seems vaguely unsettled and discontented about her life in contemporary Italy, Piero has no such qualms. He is a part of the modern world, enjoying his high energy job and the financial perks that it makes possible.
Despite their influence on later generations of filmmakers, the films of Antonioni seem almost neglected now, perhaps out of vogue with movie goers captivated by postmodern irony and fast-paced editing, in which shots are on the screen for seconds instead of minutes. If so, then we are the worse for it. His work reflected not only a major change in Italian society but also a profound shift in film culture. His visually driven style and provocative approach to narrative raised the bar of what constituted popular filmmaking, and audiences at the time rose to the occasion to embrace it.
Producer: Robert and Raymond HakimDirector: Michelangelo AntonioniScreenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri Cinematography: Gianni Di VenanzoEditor: Eraldo Da RomaProduction Designer: Danilo MarcianiSet Designer: Piero PolettoOriginal Music: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Vittoria (Monica Vitti), Piero (Alain Delon), Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), Vittoria's Mother (Lilla Brignone), Stockbroker (Louis Seigner), Anita (Rossana Rory), Marta (Mirella Ricciardi)
By Susan Doll