“For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis,” says the narrator of Don DeLillo’s novel The Names. “It daunted me, that somber rock. I preferred to wander in the modern city, imperfect, blaring. The weight and moment of those worked stones promised to make the business of seeing them a complicated one . . . There are obligations attached to such a visit.”
It’s easy to feel something similar about the films of Michelangelo Antonioni, which are, one might say, cursed with greatness. Their creator was not merely a towering figure in cinema history but perhaps the last great modernist, an artist of such daunting rigor and seriousness that such works as L’avventura (1960) and L’eclisse (1962) sometimes seem less like movies than weighty monuments to that extraordinary mid-twentieth-century moment when cinema lay at the heart of modern consciousness. There are obligations attached to watching them. As well as, of course, thrilling pleasures. That’s why Antonioni has inspired directors as diverse as Wim Wenders, Edward Yang, and Sofia Coppola—not to mention DeLillo himself and the hordes of artists who have strip-mined his work for visual ideas.
Antonioni didn’t always produce demanding High Masterpieces, though. And a perfect example is Identification of a Woman, his foolishly underrated 1982 film about men and women, love and cinema. When it first came out, the responses were furiously divergent—it won a prize at Cannes, got creamed by the New York Times—but three decades on, it’s easier to assess its place in Antonioni’s career. Made when he was nearing seventy, this is one of those autumnal movies—think Rio Bravo or An Autumn Afternoon—in which an aging director allows himself to be more relaxed and genial than in his most finely tuned work. Far from serving up a major statement about the human condition—something Antonioni was never shy about doing—Identification of a Woman comes tinged with modesty and irony. His first feature set in Italy since 1964’s Red Desert, it finds him taking a provisional measure of how the modern world has been shifting around him.
Fittingly enough, the film’s hero is himself a filmmaker. Shifty-handsome Tomás Milián stars as Niccolò Farra, a successful Italian director who, like the hero of Federico Fellini’s 8½ (1963), is at an impasse both artistically and romantically. As with so many Antonioni heroes, Niccolò is searching for . . . something. “I’m looking for a face,” he says, but he wants much more. He’s after a woman to inspire, and star in, his next film, but also a woman to fill the emotional hole left by his divorce. To that end, he gets successively involved with two wildly different beauties: Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a highly sexed aristocrat, and Ida (Christine Boisson), a salt-of-the-earth actress. Of the two, Mavi proves the trickier, and not only because she runs and hides; their affair leads to Niccolò’s receiving mysterious threats, including one delivered in, of all unthreatening places, an ice cream parlor. For her part, Ida presents Niccolò with another kind of challenge. She’s emotionally honest—a virtue that many men reckon a vice.
Antonioni is famous, perhaps notorious, for his narrative elusiveness, and no one would ever accuse Identification of a Woman of being too explicit (except perhaps in its sex scenes). It’s filled with loose ends and unresolved enigmas whose very lack of resolution is part of the point. This isn’t to say that the story is a brainteaser, even if Niccolò himself is slightly flummoxed by how everything is changing all around him. Indeed, despite his air of cool detachment, he’s slightly out of sync with the contemporary world, be it his cordless phone (the size of a ski boot) or the newfangled concern with personal security.
When we first see him, he’s returning to his apartment and has trouble with his burglar alarm. The need for such equipment is the first sign of something’s being awry with the whole culture. Far from pulsing with la dolce vita, Antonioni’s Rome feels louche, if not dangerous (there are pimps, drug dealers, Brigate Rosse terrorists), and rather boringly corrupt. When Niccolò and Mavi go to a party with her aristo friends, there’s not the slightest whiff of sexiness or glamour. The scene is chilly, hostile, and shallow, a feeling enhanced by Antonioni’s pointed use of the awful pop music, all pulsing tinniness, favored by eighties Eurotrash.
Of course, in one way or another, the Eternal City has been declining eternally, and Identification of a Woman is no more a sociological portrait of that city than Blow-Up (1966) is a documentary about Swinging London. Rather, it’s the backdrop against which Niccolò seeks to identify the woman (or women) he needs, a quest that Antonioni uses to explore the relationship between men and women in a post-women’s-liberation world. In so doing, he was pursuing a theme—the crisis of the heterosexual couple—that had been central to his work since his feature debut, Story of a Love Affair, in 1950. In fact, from that decade on—especially after the great 1955 Le amiche—he was pleased to be known as a director sympathetic to women. Although it would be going too far to call Antonioni a feminist filmmaker, Identification of a Woman does deal with feminist concerns—especially the abyss separating who women actually are and the meanings men project onto them.
Here again one thinks of Fellini. Two years earlier, in 1980, that master showman had released a juicy, personal, unrestrained fantasy about a horny businessman (Marcello Mastroianni) who tumbles into a futuristic world run by powerful women who have all but eliminated men. The movie was called City of Women, and even though Antonioni’s film could hardly be more different, it might well share that title. For even as Niccolò is searching for the Woman, he’s living in a city bursting with a baffling multiplicity of women. Everywhere he looks, there they are, teasing and inescapable. They’re making lewd gestures in shopwindows, playing pianos in hotel lobbies, and gracing the cover of Time under the headline “Europe’s Women Today.” When Niccolò goes to the swimming pool, he meets a ravishing young woman who tells him that her favorite style of sex is masturbation—“Better yet if someone else helps. Especially a woman.” Heck, his sister even turns out to be a gynecologist.
Niccolò’s two lovers are vivid extremes. Mavi appears caught up in the quicksilver possibilities of contemporary womanhood. She’s bisexual, aristocratically bolshie, hard to pin down. Hot to trot, she is never more naked to us than when, well, she’s naked. I’ve heard complaints that Antonioni fell into Dirty Old Man–ism in Mavi’s sex scenes with Niccolò—by his standards, they’re startlingly raw—but they’re designed not as turn-ons but as revelations of character. In one key scene, she looks at herself in the mirror as Niccolò brings her to orgasm with his hand. Such narcissism makes her almost opposite of the warmhearted Ida, who, though far from sexually shy, prizes sincerity and connection. (Antonioni’s conception here, it must be said, is slightly trite. Just once I’d like to see the aristocrat be awash in warm feelings and the down-to-earth gal be the kinky one.) Although possessed of an old-fashioned stability—she’s able to take life as it comes—Ida also has a modern sense of herself. “I’m a human being like you,” she tells Niccolò at one point. “A different sex only by chance.”
Niccolò can’t quite comprehend the truth of this, and it’s not clear whether Antonioni himself understood just how retro his hero’s attitudes are. No matter. The film shows us how Niccolò’s relationship to women gets caught up in clichés and fantasies (there’s even an allusion to Vertigo). Faced with Mavi’s mercurial nature, he tries to define her with labels, telling her she’s “intelligent and stupid, good and bad.” Faced with Ida’s willingness to talk openly about things, he proposes they get married—then solve their problems later. For a man who talks endlessly about seeing, Niccolò is curiously blind to what it means to be in a couple.
This inability to see shapes the film’s two most memorable sequences. In the first, Niccolò and Mavi drive into the country and get caught in a devouring fog that eventually prompts a bitter fight. While some critics have suggested that the symbolism here is too obvious, what makes the scene striking is its masterfully executed literalness, the brilliance with which Antonioni weaves together the fog, the driving, the couple, the argument. Besides, the fog sequence doesn’t stand alone. It’s a counterpoint to the later one, in which Niccolò and Ida go boating in one of Venice’s open lagoons, a melancholy seascape in which sea and sky meld so seamlessly it’s as if there’s no world to see.
These are tours de force, yet they are only a small part of Identification of a Woman’s stylistic achievement. In shooting this film, Antonioni said, he deliberately paid more attention to its characters than to its look. Maybe so, but I’m not sure he ever made a more ravishingly beautiful film, from its sumptuous colors (majestically captured by the great cinematographer Carlo Di Palma) to the quietly exquisite compositions in Niccolò and Ida’s climactic scene in a Venice hotel, where the reflections of flying gulls on the windows are more eloquent than anything they say. You could teach a seminar—doubtless someone already has—on Antonioni’s incomparable use of windows.
By story’s end, Niccolò still hasn’t identified the woman (or women) who will give his life its emotional center and let him make his film. But where the failed loves in Antonioni’s earlier films often feel charged with a sense of cosmic barrenness, here the worldly Antonioni allows the worldly Niccolò to take losing Mavi and Ida in stride. He knows, as do we, that there will be other women, just as there will be other films.
Antonioni had a taste for endings that radically shift the frame of a story—the empty streets in L’eclisse, the imaginary tennis match in Blow-Up, the camera leaving Jack Nicholson’s dead body and going out the window in The Passenger (1975). He offers such an ending here. Our final glimpse of Niccolò finds him not searching for a woman but staring out the window at the sky. He closes his eyes and imagines a science fiction film about an asteroid-spaceship traveling toward what looks like the womb of the sun. On one level, this may be Antonioni’s wry commentary on the future of movies in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977). But more important, Niccolò’s vision of the spaceship also suggests an attempt to escape the manifold confusions of this world—and its women—and to push toward a whole new realm of knowledge. Of course, this being Antonioni, that also means a whole new realm of mystery.
John Powers is the film critic at Vogue and critic at large for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He has written for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Nation, and L.A. Weekly, where he was the film editor as well as critic. He is also the author of Sore Winners, a study of American culture during the Bush years.