L’ECLISSE (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)

The concluding part of Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy about post-World War II alienated humanity, L’eclisse (Eclipse) comes from Italy and France. This visionary work tries “to see whole” a myriad of emotional, psychological and social currents, and it expresses these in vibrant, poetic visual and aural terms. One would have to return to silent cinema to discover another film as thoroughly original and complex as this highest attainment of Italian cinema. At Cannes, L’eclisse won both a Special Jury Prize and the Catholic Film Office Award. In my opinion it is the greatest movie of the 1960s and one of the four or five most wonderful movies ever made.

Antonioni’s cinema is essential to understanding the 1960s, a time of shaken identity and compensatory political radicalism. For a wrecked Western Europe, the immediate post-war period had been a time of terrible uncertainty about the future; many no longer knew what being European meant. It would seem that the progress which resulted in renewed economic viability would resolve this crisis, but instead it posed the overwhelming question, “What now?” The capitalism that had fueled recovery came under close, crabbed scrutiny, and an especial part of this was an examination of the extent to which capitalism intrudes on individualism and people’s everyday lives. This included a keener awareness of others in the world—an examination of how, through colonialism, capitalism had intruded on other peoples’ lives. For those in the West, these concerns seemed mooted in Eastern Europe by the imposition of Communist order; those in the West felt, instead, keenly afflicted by a moral and perpetual social disarray. They often felt terribly on their own. “I am the least speculative man on earth,” Antonioni once said about himself. Such a soul was the right person for the job of tackling sixties unease at its tangled and in spots suffocating roots.

Something else qualified Antonioni. He had no need to contend personally with the ghosts of Fascism. Like Gillo Pontecorvo and Luchino Visconti, he had never taken even a turn on the national dance floor with Fascism. There was nothing for Antonioni to suppress. He would never be called upon to direct valuable psychic energy toward misremembering his own political history in an autobiographical film titled I Remember (Amarcord, Federico Fellini, 1974). Enlightened, humanistic, analytically probing, Antonioni arrived at his masterpiece with clear eyes and “clean hands.” It is worth noting that much of L’eclisse takes place in the EUR suburb of Rome (Esposizione Universale Romana), whose post-war completion intriguingly wars with Italy’s attempts at burying its ghosts. This new part of Rome had been conceived by Mussolini as an architectural and atmospheric monument to both modernity and Fascism, but the war, intervening, postponed its construction, which when taken up had of course lost its political impetus. Its futuristic appearance underscores the reality of inhabitants and identities unmoored and cast adrift. It implies an end to the world that has permitted a newer world to replace the former one.

L’avventuraThe Adventure (and a more aptly titled film there never has been)—began the trilogy that L’eclisse completed. In this beautiful film that is sometimes credited with reinventing the language of cinema, two souls, Anna’s lover, Sandro, and Anna’s friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s partner and muse at the time, phenomenal), search for Anna, who is missing from their party on an uninhabited island. In the course of this adventure, the two become a couple and lose the thread of their search. What had brought them together no longer matters—except to us, who miss Anna, who at first seemed to be the film’s protagonist. Finding ourselves the projection of the pair’s conscience makes us a participant.

The fragile nature of relationships; the ties that loosen and unbind: Antonioni shows the abstract way that modern humans live, giving themselves up to experience. These characters demonstrate self-estrangement and an inability to make emotional contact with others. Visually, L’avventura translates the concepts figure and ground into the relationship between humanity and landscape. Daunting Sicilian locations fail to do what we expect locations to do in a film: locate the characters and their story. Instead, they project the vast spaces, the disconnects, between, among and within characters who lack moral and sensitive rootedness. Here is a film, then, about will-o’-the-wisps.

Antonioni had mined the poetry of bleak landscape before, such as in The Outcry (Il grido, 1957), but never to such intoxicating effect. Used to their own abandonment, the landscapes appear to reveal (or mimic) the idle, empty, well-to-do characters. This is a film of long- and wide-angle shots, in which characters are often on the verge of becoming lost to the eye. It is about how, like Anna, we all can be lost in this modern world of ours—lost to ourselves and to others. Its overarching theme is the signature one of the sixties: alienation. But Antonioni investigates its character rather than exploiting a fashionable mood (as perhaps he does in Zabriskie Point, 1970).

La notte (1961) is the middle part of cinema’s greatest trilogy. It occupies the dead-center between the hopefulness with which L’avventura ends and the utter desolation of L’eclisse, which begins and ends with the end of a relationship. It is a gray, weathered film that ends with a standstill in love that may yet be set back into motion. We certainly hope that life is still possible in Giovanni and Lidia’s marriage, and we appreciate their courteous, civilized treatment of one another in this troubled time of theirs. Their humanity, then, forms the basis for our hope that the couple may yet prevail. In retrospect, the conclusion of the trilogy, although it deals with a different (and unmarried) couple, eclipses all such hope.

Giovanni and Lidia visit Milan to see Tommaso, a dying friend, in hospital. From this we can see their decency and compassion; few filmmakers have such fondness for their characters as Antonioni does. But, too, Tommaso functions symbolically to suggest the emotional and spiritual exhaustion that each of the marital partners feels. It is after Lidia learns of Tommaso’s death that she tells Giovanni that she no longer loves him. She feels this way not because of anything that Giovanni has done but because of what he hasn’t done; exhausted himself, he hasn’t been able to pull her out of her doldrums. In Antonioni, a marriage isn’t an island; Giovanni and Lidia are affected, severely, by the alienating modern world in which they find themselves. Antonioni wouldn’t think of cheapening the moment with sentimentality, so it is all the more heartrending when he reveals that Giovanni, a writer, is so lost to himself that he fails to recognize the most intimate words he has written, in a letter, as his own.

Night may be Antonioni’s most moving film.

L’eclisse, then, begins with the end of one romantic relationship and ends with the end of another. The constant in both cases is the protagonist of the film, Vittoria (Monica Vitti, phenomenal yet again). Vittoria works as a translator, but the film doesn’t show her at work. Translation connects people across languages and ethnicities. Our knowledge of Vittoria’s work reminds us of the possibility of such connections, and indeed the film itself, viewed with subtitles outside Italy, brings this knowledge of ours to a kind of fruition. However, Antonioni’s decision to withhold scenes of Vittoria at work helps establish a pull in the opposite direction, suggesting the limited capacity of translation to translate into connections between and among disparate cultures and individuals. At the beginning of L’eclisse Vittoria and Riccardo have lost their connection; near the end, as Vittoria and her new lover, Piero, commit themselves to a rendezvous, their faces silently reveal, cheek-to-cheek, that each has no intention of showing up for the date. They are losing their connection right before our eyes. The film ends with scenes of the appointed place of assignation, to which indeed neither has come. The film thus ends with an overwhelming impression of their permanent absence.

Absence is one of the things that L’eclisse is about. I stated earlier that the film opens with the end of Vittoria and Riccardo’s relationship. However, I am not being entirely accurate. The film opens on the morning after the end of their relationship. It is a bravura passage of loose ends, with Vittoria, at Riccardo’s place, already of the mind of being out of there. At some point, when after a very long silence she speaks, Vittoria says something to the effect that nothing more can be added to what was already said the night before. Perhaps last night Riccardo pleaded for Vittoria to sleep on her decision to leave him, but that decision hasn’t budged. Out of breath and utterly helpless as a result of Vittoria’s decision to end their relationship, Riccardo says to Vittoria, “Find something for me to do when you’re gone.” Riccardo’s mind is already at the place where Vittoria is out the door. What terrible irony: their minds are at the same place, but that place is the imminent future when they are absent to one another because they no longer share a life in the present. They are no longer a couple, and their hopes for a life together are “out the door.”

This opening passage consists mostly of the silence between Riccardo and Vittoria. Riccardo is waiting for Vittoria to speak, and Vittoria has nothing to add to what she presumably said the night before. It is the awkward silence of the end of a romance where both former partners know the irreversible score; one doesn’t want to hear it, and the other, Vittoria, scarcely wants to repeat it, for to do so, however faintly, restores at the least the appearance of a connection, delaying yet again the necessary rupture. Antonioni’s silence isn’t a stylistic choice; it is the expression of what Riccardo doesn’t want to hear and Vittoria doesn’t want to say.

Vittoria makes herself busy filling the silence created by the lack of conversation between herself and Riccardo. (I don’t want to be too clever, because L’eclisse is a devastating film, not a clever one, but in effect there is nothing left for Vittoria, a translator, to translate here.) Vittoria walks around the room; she touches this and that; she pokes her hand through a sculpture that resembles an empty picture frame, slightly repositioning a nick-knack on the same table. (Joseph Losey would joltingly adapt this concept in Accident, 1967, when something from outside unexpectedly sails through the “frame” of an open window toward the camera.) The implication is that the silence we hear (and see) expresses not only the end of the relationship but also the relationship’s preceding petering out—the loss of meaningful conversation between Riccardo and Vittoria over time. The sounds we hear accentuate the absence of sound we otherwise “hear.” A partially rotating fan—a simulated panning camera!—very slightly reverses the absence of air movement in the room; we see its slight effect on Vittoria’s crown of hair. Another sound, that of Riccardo electric shaver, eventually connects with that of the fan as Riccardo, both hideously and poignantly, attempts to impose a sense of order on the moment, as though this were any ordinary day. Later, the sound of a private airplane in which Vittoria is a passenger, connects with the sounds of Riccardo’s electric fan and electric shaver, stressing his absence by recalling Riccardo. In effect, noise punctuates silence, rendering it material and associating it with human relationships. Noise becomes a defense against a vast amount of silence that intimates human disconnection, loneliness and unease and ultimately, of course, mortality.

Antonioni delivers a shock to our ears. From the opening suburban silence in the early morning, interrupted by the humming sounds of fan and shaver and the blipping sounds of parting exchanges, he plunges his film, and us his audience, into the loud, cacophonous noise of Roman traffic, including honking horns,* and the similarly dense, layered chaotic sound inside the Rome Stock Exchange, which is beset right now with human anxiety and intense trading activity. Vittoria is there to find her mother, one of the army of those who, “playing the market,” ironically identify Italy’s gradual post-war economic recovery with an unsettled state of human affairs. Inside the exchange, everything human is suddenly in fevered motion and emotion, as though a series of cages of wild animals in a zoo had been rattled, eliciting a stark response. Antonioni isn’t finished engineering the crash landing of hectic sound in silence; just as suddenly as he plunged us into noise, he plunges us back into silence—silence, that is, except for the stray ringing of phones. The occasion for this new sharp aural contrast is the moment of silence that is extended in memory of a broker who that day died of a heart attack. This unexpected shaft of silence associates silence yet again with ends, absences and mortality. Piero, who will become Vittoria’s new lover, and who is a stockbroker himself, in fact Vittoria’s mother’s broker, explains to Vittoria that such silence as this costs millions of lira. His confidence and arrogance are breathtaking, but his inhuman remark, contrary to his intent, has the effect of exposing stock exchange activity as inhuman as well. It is another instance of us filling silence with noise to defend ourselves against the silence, and it casts a pall on the relationship between Vittoria and Piero that we already anticipate, because she looks like Monica Vitti and he looks like Alain Delon and they’re the two most gorgeous persons in the room. Even with Vittoria’s mother as a linkage between them, they will prove a more short-lived couple than Vittoria and Riccardo, and in a time-bending prank that Antonioni allows us to invent in our heads we toy with the possibility that Piero is unwittingly mocking a moment of memorial silence for himself sometime in the future. In an elliptical way Antonioni swipes capitalism on the side of its head, and the impression this leaves is deepened once our recollection of the stock exchange passage in Vsevolod I. Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927) kicks in. Piero’s materialism and inhumanity are a match for the materialism and inhumanity of the economic/political system he toils in and represents. Both Riccardo and Piero come to mind when Vittoria tells a friend, “There are times when holding a needle and a thread, or a book, or a man are no different.” (The brilliant script is by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, in collaboration with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri.) Antonioni achieves a shattering apotheosis of transience when inside the Rome Stock Exchange a siren signals the end of the memorial moment of silence and pandemonium noisily breaks out again. The man who died will never cross his colleagues’ minds again.

Materialism is indeed one of the film’s principal themes, and a signature concern of the 1960s. Materialism depersonalizes everything, even intimacy. Thus Antonioni shows huge columns at the stock exchange dividing future lovers Piero and Vittoria—a sign of the societal ill, capitalism, that will infect their relationship. Ironically reflecting Italy’s flypaper past since it is obviously the case that an old building now houses the Rome Stock Exchange, the columns are orderly. But what now passes for order is divisive rather than integrative, an idea stunningly expressed in the film’s conclusive series of bleak, underpopulated nightscapes—underpopulated in the main by the absence of Piero and Vittoria: a world of order with little or nothing left to order: form outlasting content. All this also relates to the theme of materialism by ironical indirection; Antonioni’s minimalism, his spare exteriors as the film reaches its fine, counters Piero’s compulsive greed—greed that is less voracious appetite than mechanical behavior, another something to fill up the silence with which modern society is loath to contend. (Sex-by-rote, without noticeable connection between partners, is still another such “something” to fill up the silence.) Capitalism itself is an example of form outlasting content.

Three passages in L’eclisse are among the finest in cinema. Two of these are the ones already noted: the early passage in the Rome Stock Exchange; the mostly vacant conclusive series of brief shots (to which this essay will return in due course). Both these passages remind the viewer that Antonioni began as a documentarian; each is invested with an air of documentary realism. This is not the case, however, with the other great passage. Vittoria is visiting a colonialist friend of hers, a woman who is back from Kenya. This friend shows Vittoria a book of photographs of Africa; there is a photograph of a baobob tree. She explains: “Kenya has everything: Jungle, snow, savannah.” Something is missing; once again, there is a particular absence. This friend of Vittoria’s doesn’t mention Kenyans, that is to say, Native Africans. By contrast, it is the photographs of black Africans that draws Vittoria’s attention as she peruses her friend’s book. Such people in Kenya were not a part of the colonialist’s life; we find here the tragic circumstance of the West’s failure to recognize, let alone embrace, its human connections to the rest of the world—a theme that Antonioni would bring to fruition in the film known in the U.S. as The Passenger (1975), where a reporter in Africa at a time of political upheaval fails to recognize any connection between himself and the people and events he is reporting on. In L’eclisse, the white European who has lived in Kenya is certain that no such connection exists. Vittoria, bless her, is not so sure; she is adrift between the moorings of Western culture and something else as yet undefined on the other side. In the ferociously nondocumentary-like moment to which I referred, she acts out her problem of identity; she does so at her friend’s party, in pseudo-tribal dance. The electric moment is complex. This extreme performance of hers redresses the imbalance created by her friend’s exclusion of African humanity from her experience and thoughts despite the time she spent living in Kenya. In a way, the get-up and the dance are a slight mockery of her friend’s disposition and stance, that is to say, of the polite Europeanness that covers a basic inhumanity vis-à-vis “Europe’s backyard.” (Kenya was granted, first, internal self-government and, second, complete independence from British rule the same year as L’eclisse.) But, however unconsciously perhaps, Vittoria is also mocking herself, her performance of African tribal identity a reflection of her uncertainty as to who she is—this, an extension and reflection of Europe’s uncertain identity that came about with the end of war, the turning of its back on its recent political storms, the confrontation with new economic hardship, and the African independence movements that further eroded its sense of control, superiority and destiny. Antonioni isn’t resorting to literary allegory here; Vittoria comes to embody current European uncertainty and disarray from the inside out. Indeed, in this light (or dark), her friend and she seem to reflect a European attitude and counter-attitude, an insistence on past prerogatives and an embrace of the dashing of those prerogatives. Antonioni finds a gripping way to express this: at night, the two women venturing out into the streets to gather up the colonialist woman’s fleet of escaped dogs—a scene lent a touch of the surreal by its association with a terrifying passage from Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (Les yeux sans visage, 1959), a masked assault on reactionaryism. (Please see my essay on Franju’s film.)

Perhaps the most phenomenal achievement of Antonioni’s masterpiece is its visual form. Unlike the “flat,” arid, expansive images in L’avventura, the frames of L’eclisse are composed in intricate, dynamic depth—a depth evoking modernity, where, rather than keeping hidden below, a now thoroughly and acutely known-about, hence objectified, unconscious so intrudes on the surface of human behavior and thought that, rattled and unsure of themselves amidst self-criticism and second guessing, people seem lost in their own lives—the problem of identity that Vittoria’s frenzied dance, in African brownface, apotheosizes. The dense, teeming images inside the stock exchange, with its detailed gesticulations and grimaces, disclose a “civilized” ritual that masks and suppresses primitive fears of silence and vacant space—conditions that might press individuals to confront themselves. Instead, in this chaotic dance of sorts individuals seem to be confronting one another, as when Piero in the close background, facing the camera, grimaces and makes some incomprehensible point to someone else who has his back towards us in the foreground of the shot. All this is part of the scene just following the memorial moment of silence, during which Piero cannot even stay silent but must talk to Vittoria, his client’s daughter. A tad farther back from the exchange floor than Piero, she is behind one of the huge columns, back and around of which Piero must twist his torso in order to address her. This seeming doubling or twisting of space has the effect of reinforcing our sense that Piero cannot leave the silence alone; he exudes a phosphorescent energy, like a marionette, that deepens the air of unnaturalness about what we see. The relative silence approaches the muteness of a dream, which throws into relief the selfconsciousness of all that we witness here, including the instant memorial, Piero’s incapacity to cope with it for even a minute, and Vittoria’s failed attempt to engage her mother’s attention, let alone sympathy, following her breakup with Riccardo. Appearing calm and composed, Vittoria may be occupying the dead center of her own bad dream of modern times.

Even with, or perhaps because of, its documentary air, the closing series of shots showing (by their absence) Vittoria and Piero’s failure to meet at night, also suggests a waking bad dream. Over the shoulder of some anonymous passenger exiting a bus we read in his newspaper this headline: “Nuclear Arms Race . . . Fragile Peace.” Piero and Vittoria have not kept their date. L’eclisse sharpens despair to a point of imminent apocalypse, signalling in the failure of two individuals to remain a couple the end of the world. By indirection, then, Antonioni touts the primacy of love. His film begins and ends in near silence—sheer silence but for sparse natural sounds—and with an overwhelming sense of vacancy, loneliness and abandonment. It is Antonioni’s heart-piercing image of our modern lives.

* Ingmar Bergman drew upon elements of L’eclisse for his masterpiece, The Silence (1963). These include the quietude, the hotel room fan, the fact that Ester is a translator, and Anna’s plunge from the quiet hotel into noisy traffic.

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