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Monica Vitti and the Modern ‘Something Terrible’

In the eyes of hecklers and impatient optimists, the world of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni is one of bleak boredom and self-indulgent despair. Stillness, silence, and long, long shots are composed to deliver an ongoing meditation, an expression of a pervasive attitude embedded in the sediment of 1960s culture. “Something happened, something terrible,” Don Draper tells protégé Peggy Olsen in an early episode of AMC’s “Mad Men,” “and the way that people saw themselves is gone.” “Mad Men” is one of many recent works to echo sentiments introduced to us in the work of artists like Antonioni, and remind us that our collective psychology today is not far from what our musical, cinematic, and literary artifacts leave us to understand was the general mentality of the 1960s. Antonioni was one of a few film directors to uniquely capture the feeling of living in this era, and his success was due in large part to the living, breathing embodiment of this indefinable mood—his partner, his muse, the actress, Monica Vitti.

The pair is among the most well-loved filmmaking couples in the medium’s history based on the successful portraits of alienation captured in their four famous films together: “L’Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), “L’Eclisse” (1962) and “Il Deserto Rosso,” more often referred to as “Red Desert” (1964). Vitti starred in three of the four, playing a crucial supporting character in “La Notte” rather than the leading lady. The first three are often recognized as an unofficial trilogy, but it is unthinkable to deny “Red Desert”’s place in the Vitti/Antonioni (or, as Andrew Sarris coined, “Antoniennui”) canon. Each of Vitti’s characters in these four films share with one another the inability to reconcile themselves with their surroundings and adapt to the mysterious present, let alone accept the mysterious future.

“That’s all you know how to say—‘I don’t know.’” Spoken to Vittoria, Vitti’s character in “L’Eclisse,” this line provides a point of tension in the already-strained relationship between Vittoria and young, impatient stock broker Piero (Alain Delon), but it’s also one which speaks on behalf of anyone who has ever been frustrated with Vitti and the characters Antonioni had her play in the course of their relationship. She is always uncertain, disappointed, dismayed with the habits of modernity and unsure of how to move herself about in it; she takes time to appreciate the natural world and takes pleasure in watching strangers, yet is impatient with those close to her; she is both childlike and cynical, often easily amused and just as easily troubled.

Vitti’s characters exist in a perpetual in-between, the empty space left from the absence of something else, the dash that interrupts lines of Emily Dickinson with their infinite possibility instead of offering one more solid word with a definition we can understand. It is no coincidence that Vittoria in “L’Eclisse” is a literary translator—her desire to effectively communicate with those around her is one of Vitti’s most ironic motivations, as her characters fail again and again to find people who understand what she is trying to say about them, herself, and the world they live in. Vitti is authentic and almost unreadable at times, like the best and worst of us and like the film world she helped Antonioni create. Her face effortlessly shifts from playful instants of childish joy in games and goofing around to sudden distrust in everything around her; in her signature move, Vitti transforms her expression from delighted to disturbed in less than a heartbeat, almost comically quickly. In high fashion, elegant Italian costumes, she always appears to have evolved and disguised herself flawlessly to convince others she is a part of their world, but her sham reveals itself as often as we fear our own shams will. Vitti embodies Simone de Beauvoir’s “second sex,” always portrayed as “other” even among her fellow females—she is an alien force, ideal for carrying the narratives of alienated characters.

The world was introduced to the incendiary Vitti with “L’Avventura,” which was booed by audiences when it premiered at Cannes in 1960; so passionate was their aversion to the film’s slow pacing that Vitti and Antonioni felt compelled to flee the theater. Although “L’Avventura” later won a jury prize at the festival (after a petition for a re-screening), that initial audience response speaks volumes about the public resistance to the new cinematic language established with the help of Vitti’s contemplative performance and long shots of nothing but empty spaces and the backs of characters’ heads. The film follows Vitti’s Claudia as she becomes more involved with her missing friend’s lover while they investigate the sudden disappearance together. Even the most basic summary of “L’Avventura” introduces Antonioni’s fondness for absence, an idea that weighs more and more heavily on Claudia as she grows torn between loyalty to her missing friend and attraction to her missing friend’s abandoned lover. The first few minutes of the movie offer a rudimentary explanation for the allure of absence: “It’s convenient,” Claudia’s friend tells her while debating the pros and cons of a long-distance relationship, “because you can imagine whatever you like, whereas when somebody’s right in front of you … that’s all you get.”

Although she had acted in some movies before, “L’Avventura” feels like a natural beginning for Vitti in the ongoing development of her holistic Antonioni character. Claudia seems to be a well-adjusted member of society up until the disappearance of her friend, when she is overwhelmed by the existential implications of her actions and the cracks in her consciousness begin to show. Vitti’s subsequent role as Valentina in “La Notte” feels like an organic progression, where Vitti this time plays a young woman with enough sense and tragic experience to approach her romantic interest, the married Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), with much more caution and insight than the shaken Claudia did. Valentina, too, seems to be struck by the same ambiguous melancholy which characterizes Vitti’s work as a whole. “I felt very sad earlier, and playing with you cheered me up,” she tells Giovanni after the two enjoy a rousing made-up game with rules she invents on the spot, “but now it’s coming back. Like the sadness of a dog.” Because Valentina is intelligent, observant, and self-aware, she is well-practiced in coping with and covering up her sadness, knowing better than to continue engaging with a married man; instead, she encourages him to spend the rest of the evening with his wife as part of a debt owed and paid to her.

By the time Vitti gets to play Vittoria in “L’Eclisse,” the final chapter in the unofficial trilogy, she and her character seem to have grown tired of men and their disappointingly identical ambitions—which may be why Vittoria finds herself drawn to the young, restless Piero (Alain Delon) after liberating herself from a much older lover. “There are times when holding a needle and thread, or a book, or a man—it’s all the same,” she laments to her friend early on in the film, carrying on the suggestion that Vitti and her characters are seeking something to fill an inexplicable lack. When Piero is determined to be just as disappointingly materialistic and oblivious as anyone else (particularly the men) in her disconnected world, the film’s famous eight-minute ending, devoid of either character, is not a surprise.

The gendered specificity of these characters and their conflicts (with themselves and others) is not insignificant; although Vitti’s characters depict a general crisis felt by the generation of conscious adults in the 1960s era, Antonioni undoubtedly chose to focus on female protagonists for a reason. “Perhaps because I understand them better?” he is quoted as saying in 1990 by the British Film Institute. “I was born amongst women, and raised in the midst of female cousins, aunts, relatives … Through the psychology of women, everything becomes more poignant. They express themselves better and more precisely. They are a filter that allows us to see more clearly and to distinguish things.” Antonioni frequently plays with the male-perpetuated stereotype that women are difficult to read and deal with by having his female characters interact with men who often could not be less astute when it comes to the nuances of human behavior. The exception is “La Notte”’s Giovanni, a writer who is naturally more perceptive than the average person, but even he cannot see that Valentina understands him more than he is willing to try and understand himself.

“Red Desert,” Antonioni’s first color film and the last he would make with Vitti while they were still a couple, brings all of this to an unsettling culmination. Following the essentially plotless story of Giuliana, a mentally disturbed woman, wife and mother who seems to grow sicker and more agitated with each and any kind of interaction, “Red Desert” uses Italy’s growing industrial setting to illustrate the often destructive effects of modernity and explore the disparity between those who have been willing to adapt and those who cannot seem to bring themselves to do so. The result is a disconcerting portrait of evolution which resonates with particular force among the equally uncertain and isolated audiences of today.

When finally asked what it is she is so afraid of, Giuliana’s response—“Streets, factories, colors, people … everything”—reflects the paranoid sensation of complete disconnect that anyone with anxiety from any era can identify with, but which certainly carries more weight coming from a time when color onscreen was just arriving, and streets full of factories and people were springing up at rapid rates in the wake of Italy’s “economic miracle.”

Despite the specific circumstances of “Red Desert”’s protagonist, the film can be easily identified as less a tale of Giuliana’s illness and recovery than a strangely poetic representation of a feeling, overall; indeed, when watching “Red Desert” now, the modern viewer cannot help but be reminded of a number of other films and stories dealing with similar crises of the era. Like “The Graduate” (Nichols, 1967, USA), “Walkabout” (Roeg, 1971, Australia) and “Easy Rider” (Hopper, 1969, USA), “Red Desert” is a film which evokes in contemporary audiences not only the sense of alienation and internal crisis which Giuliana experiences but, additionally, the uneasy sense that this is nothing new in our growing global, industrial society. From this modern perspective, it often seems like a sudden wave of self-awareness swept over the masses of the 1960s through all facets of entertainment, only to mix with the inherent anxieties that come with watching the world transform into one much closer to a new millennium, and permanently marring the link between entertainment and escapism.

With this in mind, the experience of seeing “Red Desert” and Vitti’s other films now can have a strange effect on viewers like me, who have only known one generation of culture and collective sentiment. Being partly about the rapidity with which time and culture changes and the effects such change can have on those who feel disconnected from it, one cannot help but think of Antonioni’s films in terms of evolution and where his protagonists stand in the evolutionary spectrum. Is Vitti’s Giuliana experiencing a universal feeling and simply reacting immaturely, as if she is truly alone? Or is she ahead of the others, who don’t seem to realize just how alone they are? These questions mean a lot on their own and in context of the period when the film was made; to a contemporary viewer, however, the questions double themselves: if something like this was expressed over 50 years ago, what does it mean if we still feel this way today?

“There’s something terrible about reality, but I don’t know what it is,” Giuliana admits by the end of "Red Desert." “No one will tell me.” Vitti may as well be speaking for all her previous characters, both in this line and in the film’s final words, when Giuliana’s son asks if the poisonous yellow smoke from Ravenna factories kill the birds that fly through it. Having come to terms with the fact that her life, and all lives, are separate and inherently isolated, she calmly tells him that the birds know by now that the smoke is poison: “They don’t fly there anymore.”

Now, here in 2017, we are left to consider what it is that we should learn to avoid in order to keep ourselves from spiraling—what and where is the yellow smoke now? Even if the anxieties Antonioni conveyed and Vitti embodied seemed morose and self-indulgent at the time, they are more relatable than ever, and the reasons for our own anxiety—individual and collective, financial and creative, political and sexual—are hardly melodramatic. Something terrible did happen somewhere along the road and still is happening, infecting us with the implications of our advancing technology, our regressing political climate, and our hyper-awareness of it all. Antonioni and Vitti were wise to offer no answers to our unaskable questions, and instead simply show us the value of blank and empty spaces, the possibility that absence will eventually be filled by something better.

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