- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

The most highly regarded films of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni set up mysteries they never resolve.

His breakthrough film “The Adventure” (1960) involves the disappearance of a woman from a boating party off the rocky coast of Sicily. His most commercially successful movie, “Blowup” (1966), stars British actor David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who accidentally records a murder. In both, the cases remained unresolved.

Starting Saturday, viewers will have the opportunity to puzzle over more of Mr. Antonioni’s ambiguous artistry in an eight-part retrospective of his earliest films at the National Gallery of Art.

“Michelangelo Antonioni: The Italian Treasures,” which is co-sponsored by the Italian Cultural Institute at the Embassy of Italy, runs through Aug. 24 (for a complete schedule, go to www.nga.gov/programs/film/italian_treasures.shtm). It features his lesser-known cinematic creations from the 1940s through the mid-1960s before he became famous for “Blowup.”

Kicking off the series is a 2005 documentary on the career of Mr. Antonioni, who died last July, with clips from his films and commentary by those who worked on them. “Images and Time” was made for Italian television by Rome-based filmmaker Luca Verdone, who will be at the museum at 2 p.m. Saturday to talk about his portrait of the late director.

“I focused on Antonioni’s personality [to show] why he got in touch with … the existential issues in the contemporary age,” Mr. Verdone said in an e-mail. Interviews with Mr. Antonioni were taped before his 1985 stroke, which left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak.

The documentary doesn’t fully explain the motivation behind the Italian filmmaker’s fascination with anxiety and alienation, which are a part of his every film, but it does a good job of showing the most memorable of his off-kilter characters.

Clips include the drifting Vittoria in “The Eclipse” (shown at the National Gallery on Aug. 17) and the unhinged engineer’s wife in his first color film, “Red Desert,” (shown Aug. 24).

Both roles are played by actress Monica Vitti, the director’s lover and muse on five of his best films, who reminisces about her roles in Mr. Verdone’s documentary.

She recalls how “the audience sneered” when the controversial “The Adventure” was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. The boos and jeers prompted a backlash by directors and critics who signed a petition expressing admiration for the film. The Cannes jury sided with them to give the film a prize for “a new movie language and beauty of its images.”

The vocabulary of that new language was drawn from fleeting impressions rather than fast-paced narratives to capture the anomie of the modern-day bourgeoisie. “The middle class is the world I know best,” Mr. Antonioni says in the documentary.

Rather than portraying action heroes, his films revolve around passive, discontented characters and the missed connections between them. Some of them are so slow-paced as to be painfully boring. They depart not only from the Hollywood mainstream but postwar Italian neorealism, a style of filmmaking focused on glaring social problems.

That approach came into vogue while Mr. Antonioni was starting his movie career and he worked as a script writer for directors Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti, who practiced it. Mr. Verdone credits Mr. Visconti’s 1943 film “Obsession” as an early influence; it was being shot at the same time Mr. Antonioni was making his first documentary about life on the Po River.

The beautifully shot “People of the Po” (shown July 27) was the beginning of the director’s lifelong obsession with cinematic poetry.

The most memorable parts of his movies are ravishing images, not engaging stories. Landscapes, buildings, interiors and montages of places, rather than words, are used to examine the disparity between appearances and reality.

“Many things can be said during silence,” Mr. Antonioni says in the documentary. “Images carry their own strength, they speak on their own.”

His obsession with visual detail drove his actors crazy.

“He made us do a scene 40 times. We all hated him, but he was a great director,” says an electric-blue-haired Lucia Bose, the star of the director’s first commercial film, “Story of a Love Affair,” (unfortunately not being shown at the National Gallery) and “Lady Without Camellias” (shown July 25).

At the beginning of his film, Mr. Verdone suggests Mr. Antonioni’s elegant, artistic style was influenced by the Renaissance art and architecture he saw growing up in Ferrara. The late director made paintings and collages, some of which are shown in the documentary, and saw film as another visual creation.

As an art lover, he would have undoubtedly appreciated the National Gallery as the venue for his well-composed, enigmatic films.

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