Michelangelo reborn

Antonioni has come in from the cold after 14 years. He's lost the art of speech, but none of his power to communicate. By Kevin Jackson
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The Independent Culture
There were giants on the earth in those days. They were called by the thrillingly exotic names of Fellini and Bergman and Bunuel and Godard and Wajda, and between them they conjured into being a wonderful phenomenon, the Post-War European Art Cinema. Bliss was it in that baby- boomer dawn - from the late Fifties to the early Seventies - to be alive. But to be hip to what was happening in continental movies was very heaven. If you were a foreign film buff, you were keenly aware (perhaps with just the faintest touch of self-righteousness; remember Galton and Simpson's thinking rag-and-bone man Harold Steptoe proudly buying his ticket for Eight and a Half while his dad sneaked into a skin flick?) that in the hands of these few demigods, the movies had come of age. They had shucked off their penny-arcade origins and blossomed into an art form intimate as a lyric poem, anguished as a spiritual confession, tentative as a journal entry, profound as a Goldberg Variation and, not least significant, a damned sight sexier than the beach-ball tossing Health and Efficiency nudies that were making old Albert Steptoe drool.

And squarely in the troubled heart of this new pantheon of visionary directors (auteurs, people were learning to call them), who kept turning out film after film combining the urgency of a headline and the authority of a classic, was Michelangelo Antonioni. Though not everyone was enchanted by the air of stately spiritual torment that hung about his films (consult the entry in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film for some eloquent limiting judgements), to his admirers he was not simply one of the greatest film-makers, but one of the greatest artists of the age: the one who most adequately addressed the nature of what it was to be alive and gloomy in the second half of the 20th century.

International recognition came to Antonioni quite late, when he was pushing 50 - L'Avventura (1960) was the first film to put him unassailably on the map of world cinema. He rapidly consolidated this position with three more films starring the desolately beautiful Monica Vitti: La Notte (1961), L'Eclisse (1962) and Il Deserto Rosso (1964). What were these gorgeously composed tales of isolated, neurasthenic women about? Debatable. (One plausible answer, less trifling than it may sound, is "architecture". Few directors, if any, have paid such careful attention to the relationship between characters and the man-made environment.) At the height of Antonioni's triumph, a certain type of critic or fan would inform you that they were about something known as "alienation" and related woes. Hence the writer and film-maker Jonas Mekas in 1962: "His films are about people, about us, who don't have anything to communicate, who don't feel a need to communicate, whose human essence is dying. Antonioni's films are about the death of the human soul."

Metaphysical ad copy of this stripe took you a long way in those days, and Antonioni was soon snapped up by Anglophone producers. He cast a cold eye on Swinging London in Blow-Up (1966) - a surprise hit - then on Californian hippies in Zabriskie Point (1969), and in the mid-Seventies cast Jack Nicholson with Maria Schneider in an intellectual adventure story, The Passenger (1974). But over the past 14 years, since Identification of a Woman, Antonioni has brought no further chill and comely images to the screen, and a whole generation has grown up without the experience of the "new Antonioni" to wonder at and debate into the night. Nor did it seem possible that this long silence would ever be broken. Antonioni had, so the reports said, succumbed to a major stroke and lost the powers of movement and speech. It was a grim vindication for those who believe that art may have a dangerously prophetic edge: the poet of non-communication was no longer capable of words.

His career as a film-maker seemed done. Many film-goers - and not just the callow ones who believe Pulp Fiction to be the undisputed capstone of the seventh art - must have thought he was dead. So the sudden appearance on the festival circuit, late last year, of a wholly new Antonioni feature, Beyond the Clouds, seemed to border on the miraculous ("Lazarus productions present...?"); while the prospect of meeting the immortal director himself seemed scarcely less improbable and intimidating then an encounter with his still more famous namesake and countryman, Michelangelo Buonarroti.

But the reality proves less daunting. This survivor from the Age of Giants is quite a small man: perched on a couch for tea at the Savoy, he has something of the air of a diminutive monarch dwarfed by his throne. And on this occasion at least, his is a mutely genial presence. Throughout our brief encounter, Antonioni nods benignly and beams his approval of what is being said on his behalf by his wife and his producer, participating enthusiastically in the conversation with gestures as though his speechlessness were a minor technical hitch. In the space of an hour, he manages to articulate only three intelligible words: "Wim" (meaning Wim Wenders, who directed the brief passages about a wandering film director linking the four short love stories that make up Beyond the Clouds), "poco" (meaning that Wenders' contribution to the episodes themselves was negligible) and "si" (meaning, "yes"). Despite this, a fair amount of information is accurately conveyed.

Both the wife and the producer obviously adore their beloved Michelangelo this side of idolatry, and sometimes the far side of idolatry, too. Signora Antonioni is given to observing that Antonioni did not develop into a maestro, but was a maestro from birth, and marvels at his generosity in sharing his visions with us. At one point, she remarks of Beyond the Clouds that "This film has so much power ... I've seen people become younger after seeing this film. It's true! I'm not exaggerating! For example it happened to Carlo Ponti, the husband of Sophia Loren. He came to see the film in Los Angeles and he told Michelangelo, `Michelangelo, this is the youngest film you've ever made.' And then we saw him three days later, and he was younger!"

Whether or not the movie has the power to rejuvenate others, it certainly seems to have rejuvenated the director. During shooting, his wife reports, he was always the last to leave the set and the first to arrive, often scouting around locations in the freezing cold at four in the morning. A documentary she shot for Italian television, entitled For Me, Shooting a Film is Life, gives some indication of the ways in which he overcame his inability to communicate with words: scribbling drawings and diagrams, pointing impatiently at a video monitor to indicate a reframing, vigorously re-arranging the elegant limbs of Fanny Ardant. "He has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can shoot a feature film," says his producer, who had originally approached Antonioni several years ago with the offer of a starring, though non-speaking role in a film that Alain Robbe-Grillet was trying to put together, "and that his physical condition is absolutely not a problem".

He has also proved that an Antonioni film can still draw in the discerning crowds, on home turf at least. At one point, Beyond the Clouds was number three at the Italian box office, just behind Die Hard With a Vengeance and Showgirls. Fired by the success of his late return, he is now, at the age of 84, preparing a film with the provisional title Tanto per Stare Insieme (Just to be Together) based, like Beyond the Clouds, on short stories from his book of "narrative nuclei", Quel Bowling sul Tevere (1983; translated by William Arrowsmith as That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, 1986).

On the last day of shooting Beyond the Clouds, the producer recalls, cast, crew, director and fellow travellers were all overcome with emotion. "Working with Michelangelo, people became connected in a way that really doesn't happen on a film. But after we had finished the last shot, there was a silence and then, within 10 minutes, 60, 70, 80 people were all weeping. It was an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life." Understandably, my own farewell to Antonioni is significantly less emotional; but I am enough of an awestruck buff to ask him if he will sign my copy of That Bowling Alley on the Tiber. With his working hand, he slowly scratches the single word "Michelangelo" at a wobbly slant, then painstakingly decorates it with a long squiggle that curls into small flowers. It does not, frankly, seem like the gesture of a man greatly possessed with non-communication and the death of the human soul

`Beyond the Clouds' opens in January