Michelangelo Antonioni’s first nondocumentary, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair), is an interesting piece of noir whose complicated story and insipid characters do not succeed in distracting the viewer’s eye from the film’s extraordinary visual presentation. Film is a visual medium, not a dramatic one, but to the degree that a film admits plot and people it must suffer the consequences of their admittance. Cronaca di un amore is the weakest film that Antonioni made in Italy. The sculpted interiors, the attention to exterior architecture, the gray streets—these visual elements are highly expressive. They are what matter most, and how one wishes Antonioni had dispensed with the dramatic elements, which, while they leave the visual ones intact, sometimes appear to be trying awfully hard to dominate them.
The plot turns on a cunning irony. A rich businessman with a new, much younger, beautiful wife feels sufficiently jealous to hire a private detective to investigate her past. (One would think that the best time to do this is before the marriage!) The investigation stirs up memories of a wartime death: a friend of theirs who fell down an elevator shaft while she and Guido, whom both she and another girl loved, looked on. This is the irony: Although Paola and Guido have kept apart during the intervening years, the investigation reunites them and they have a torrid love affair. They also plot to murder Paola’s spouse.
Insinuating itself into the film is Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1942), whose working-class marital infidelity and murder plot, and angst and melancholy, are given an upscale treatment here, although Guido, an automobile salesman, is working-class, as once upon a time Paola was. Guido, I might add, is played by Massimo Girotti, who played the drifter in Ossessione.
There is nothing derivative about the film’s visual style, however; it’s pure Antonioni. Both in Ferrara and Milan, Antonioni’s eye captures a wealth of images of wornness and desolation. Too bad, outdoors, he opted for a few too many angled overhead long shots, the cumulative effect of which is grandiose.
Cronaca di un amore is essential, not because of its brilliance (Martin Scorsese and others consider it a masterpiece), but because of the steps it takes on a path down which its maker would unhinge narrative and have it evaporate, making city streets and rural landscapes the principal “story” and “characters” instead.
Incidentally, the glimpse of city streets during the opening credits suggests that Cronaca di un amore may be intended as a sequel of sorts to Antonioni’s amazing documentary City Streetcleaners (Netteza urbana, 1948).