Italians rush to defend a failing film icon

ANDREW GUMBEL

Rome

What is a critic supposed to do when an undisputed master of the cinema comes up with a film that is not quite up to his usual standards? Say so? Not in Italy, it seems, where the latest film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni has sparked a furious debate on whether honest criticism really is the best policy.

Granted, Beyond the Clouds is something of a miracle for existing at all. The veteran director of L'Avventura and Blow Up is 83, half-paralysed and unable to speak as a result of a stroke. The film, based on four of Antonioni's short stories, got made only thanks to a mixture of determination and the support of Wim Wenders, the German director, who contributed 14 minutes of footage and acted as a guarantee to the money men.

The Italian press followed every step of the film's progress, right up to its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last week. Everybody was hoping against hope for a masterpiece.

They did not get one. The critic Irene Bignardi tried to put this as delicately as she could in La Repubblica: ''I feel tremendously sorry... because the great film we would all have liked to see has not emerged, because it would have been wonderful to celebrate a masterpiece that had been created under such circumstances, because it is impossible to see the film without doubts and reservations.''

Ms Bignardi went on to describe her awkwardness at the stiff, pretentious dialogue and bad acting. As she almost certainly knew she was breaking a fundamental taboo of Italian public life, for Antonioni - like Fellini - is a national institution.

Among Ms Bignardi's detractors was the director Bernardo Bertolucci, who argued that at times critics needed to stop criticising and react as simple cinema-lovers. ''One doesn't go to see Antonioni today to judge him, but to absorb, enjoy and get involved in the best of what he, as a fundamental figure in the history of cinema, is still able to give us.''

Monica Vitti, Antonioni's erstwhile companion and star of many of his moody studies in alienation from the early 1960s, went further, refusing to accept that there might even be grounds for criticism. ''I haven't seen yet, but I am sure it is wonderful,'' she said.

The truth is that Antonioni has not produced a landmark film since The Passenger in 1975. Still, it will take more than critics to dent the reputation of one of the true icons of cinema.

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