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1961's La Notte is perhaps the most accessible film of the four, as it does not abandon its conventional story about a marriage in crisis. Retaining a realistic surface, Antonioni observes his disaffected husband and wife through their subdued, muted behaviors. Their feeling of emotional deadness is never difficult to understand. Architectural context is everything for this director. The modern city's cold surfaces seem to negate the human dimension, as if making honest relationships impossible.
The first thing we see is a shot of a glass tower blocking our view of an older, traditional building. Popular novelist Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) visit a hospital where their dear friend Tommaso Garani (Berhnard Wicki) is dying. Warm feelings are expressed, but Giovanni keeps his emotions in check. Giovanni will later be surprised to learn that Tommaso, an important mentor and inspiration for his writing, has always been in love with Lidia. Lidia leaves to wait outside, and Giovanni is almost seduced by a disturbed young woman from a room down the hall. Later, at a reception to celebrate Giovanni's new book, Lidia feels redundant. She excuses herself and spends the afternoon in a taxi, driving around the city to places where she once lived. She finally calls Giovanni from a neighborhood where some young men are firing off small rockets. Although Giovanni pouts and Lidia remains aloof, they end up attending an all-night party at the palatial home of the industrialist Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbella), where they are treated as extra-special guests. While the revelers dance to a live jazz band in the vast garden, the Pontanos go their separate ways. Each resents seeing the other behave in a lively and animated manner around other people. Lidia begins to flirt with a globe-hopping playboy, Roberto (Giorgio Negro), while Giovanni becomes fascinated with Gherardi's twenty-something daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti), who he finds reading his new book.
La Notte is a study of modern Italian sophisticates that aren't coping well with their affluent, selfish lifestyles. The slightly jaded, self-obsessed Giovanni is so caught up in complacent comfort that his handsome face seems drained of real emotion. The neglected Lidia feels as if she has been cheated in life: at one point she was also involved in creative pursuits, and now lives in Giovanni's shadow. Women flock to the author like a magnet, leaving Lidia feeling like an accessory to an unappreciative husband. At one point she reads a passionate love note to Giovanni, who asks who wrote it. Lidia doesn't even express anger when she tells him that he wrote it to her, back when their relationship meant something.
Lidia's wandering on the outskirts of Milan can't bring the past back to life. In her expensive clothes she's offered assistance; a bored taxi-driver patiently waits for her, presumably satisfied by the charge being rung up on the meter. The model rockets are an interesting diversion, and perhaps a symbol of the future Lidia might have had, if she had stayed single and pursued her own interests.
Lidia and Giovanni glide into the fancy house party looking like a fabulous success story; they blend right into the crowd of privileged Italians celebrating their own wealth. The host regales Giovanni with talk about his vast business empire; he wants the writer to head up his company's new corporate culture and morale division. Signora Gherardini (Gitt Magrini) is the definition of the gracious society hostess, all clever talk and smooth introductions. Lidia is politely unimpressed. Giovanni is soon following the attractive Valentina around the glass walls of her father's designer mansion. They play a shuffleboard- like game on the checkered floor of the playroom, which becomes an impromptu arena and betting parlor for the party guests. Lidia allows the on-the-make Roberto to take her for a spin in his new sports car. Giovanni behaves as if he were free to toss his life away and run off with the first interesting woman he sees, something that Valentina is wisely aware of. Lidia realizes that she's incapable of making a casual conquest, no matter how unfulfilled she feels. As the dawn approaches, the Pontanos find themselves together again. Have they learned anything?
What makes Michelangelo such an admired filmmaker? La Notte is an uncomplicated narrative about complicated people, packed with insights not expressed in dialogue. Busy street scenes and two large parties contrast with Lidia's lonely wanderings on the fringe of the city, and in every scene we feel as if we have taken a time machine back to Milan of 1961. Antonioni carefully stages and lights everything, but his camera technique rarely draws attention to itself. Images in the millionaire's house frequently involve reflections in the glass walls that make people look like ghost figures, or duplicates of themselves. It's a house for vain, ostentatious creatures. The shots can be disorienting, but angles are never chosen simply for pictorial effect. We feel as if we're inside a cinematic equation that relates interpersonal relationships with architectural forms. The architectural abstraction is not an end in itself, but instead connects the viewer with Antonioni's feelings about the quality of life. When Lidia and Giovanni walk together on Gherardini's vast garden lawn, the feeling that their marriage might be healed is not an intellectual deduction.
This is one picture in which the handsome Marcello Mastroianni convinces as a shallow intellectual. Giovanni takes Lidia utterly for granted. He needs to find his way back to the basic realities of his life, to remember which people and commitments really matter. The fact that Jeanne Moreau is dubbed in Italian is never an issue. The actress's seemingly neutral stares express a range of emotion, from complete despair to muted optimism. Her Lidia has simply been burned far too often. Monica Vitti would soon become Antonioni's leading player; here her character is quite a charmer. Valentina sees nothing wrong with flirting with Giovanni, but makes no promises and surrenders no emotional ground. In a telling moment, she reports to her mother that the famous married author is getting rather serious. Mother and daughter assess the situation as if similar intrigues are common occurrences, and best resolved without undue dramatics.
German actor Bernhard Wicki was also a prolific film director. His character Tommaso begins the film with a burst of honest emotion that affects everything that follows. La Notte is perhaps the Antonioni that casual viewers should see first, as it is least likely to frustrate (or annoy) those unacquainted with unconventionally structured movies. It creates strong feelings about its characters, a quality that seems of less importance to the director in some of his more abstract, complex films.
Criterion's Blu-ray of La Notte is a marvelous encoding of Michelangelo Antonioni's B&W masterpiece, conveying the many textures in the cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo (Salvatore Giuliano, Juliet of the Spirits). When Lidia rides in the playboy's sports car, a downpour sends curtains of water pouring down the windows - the minimalist visuals instantly give them isolation and privacy. The widescreen aspect ratio enables Antonioni to feature his characters in relationship to architecture old and new, maintaining a sense of human scale. We come to know that lavish party house inside and out.
The extras are lightly illustrated video lectures. Critic Adriano Aprà and historian Carlo di Carlo investigate all aspects of the film, while professor Giuliana Bruno gives us insights on Antonioni's cinematic use of architecture. Richard Brody's insert booklet essay condenses the film's unique qualities into a few informative pages. In a brief but insightful article, director Antonioni explains that the show was inspired by parties he attended. He began planning La Notte before L'Avventura, but needed extra time to work out various story problems.
By Glenn Erickson