THE OBERWALD MYSTERY (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1980)

Experimenting with video, Michelangelo Antonioni based his Il mistero di Oberwald on L’aigle a deux têtes, which its playwright, Jean Cocteau, himself filmed (boringly) in 1948. Gorgeously videographed by Luciano Tovoli, this color work—a symphony of filters—reunited Antonioni with Monica Vitti, who is brilliant as a nineteenth-century queen whose King Frederic, age 25, was assassinated on their wedding day ten years earlier. Now the Queen is the object of an assassination plot.
     Sebastian, who might be a time-transplanted member of the Brigate Rosse (indeed, Antonioni throughout reflects on current politics), has penetrated the Queen’s castle retreat at Oberwald to murder her. The Queen herself spins the tale that seemingly assigns the 25-year-old this role. Moreover, she solidifies this role assignment by announcing she will kill Sebastian if he does not kill her. Between the two, the Queen seems to be the playwright, Sebastian her captive audience. This is certain: Sebastian is the very image of the young Frederic. Perhaps Mystery’s most phenomenal shot is the quick one that introduces the trespassing boy’s face in the same frame as a portrait of the King.
     Who can doubt that Pirandello is an influence here? Yet the shimmering, spooky effects by which Antonioni turns the castle into a haunted place suggest Strindberg in his later expressionistic mode. In another phenomenal shot, the Queen’s ghost—someone else’s memory of her shortly after Frederic’s assassination—diaphanously moves down a corridor toward the camera. Like so many others here, this shot is ineffably sad, a distillation of the reality and hope with which the King’s death robbed this woman. (Her ongoing contest with her vicious offscreen mother-in-law perpetuates the theft.) Her taking the boy as her lover is a futile attempt to reverse time and reclaim the past.

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