Le amiche: Friends—Italian Style

On Film / Essays — Jun 7, 2016

Le amiche (1955), Michelangelo Antonioni’s fourth feature film, was the first, of very few of his works, to be adapted from a literary source. For his three previous features, he cowrote the screenplays from his own stories, and he did the same, with three exceptions, for everything after Le amiche. That film thus now seems less a game changer than an indication of Antonioni’s respect for and affinities with the Italian novelist Cesare
Pavese, from whose 1949 novella Tra donne sole (Among Women Only) it was adapted.

Among those affinities was a tendency to use the plight of women as a mirror of the problems faced by Italian society, both in the immediate postwar period and during the country’s rebuilding in subsequent decades. This focus, implicit in Story of a Love Affair (1950) and The Lady Without Camelias (1953), the two melodramas before Le amiche, is more explicitly manifested through the restlessness and unhappiness of the women in the latter film, and would deepen in Antonioni's later works. One can argue, for example, that in Le amiche, the women’s view of marriage and children as dead ends anticipates the unspecified malaise suffered by the heroines of Antonioni’s mature films—Claudia in L’avventura (1960), Vittoria in L’eclisse (1962), and Giuliana in Red Desert (1964), all played by Monica Vitti.

Even the changes undergone by the city where the story is set are telling in this regard. Whereas the postwar Turin of the novella is compatible with a sense of loss and hopelessness, the panoramic opening shot of Le amiche, made six years after the book was published, reveals a fully recovered city, almost as chic as the Milan of Story of a Love Affair and The Lady Without Camelias—thereby suggesting a disaffection between a thriving metropolis and its cynical inhabitants. Turin’s growing importance is reflected in the story, in which Clelia, the protagonist (Eleonora Rossi Drago), has just arrived from Rome to open a dress salon in the city she left years earlier—a premise that no doubt resonated even more strikingly in the fifties, when the cachet of Italian fashion was at its height. Far from a mere backdrop, however, this milieu is critical to the film’s viewpoint. Just as Antonioni would later make the stock exchange in L’eclisse embody the mercantile nature of contemporary relationships, he uses the fashion world in Le amiche to reflect the glamorous facade of the bourgeois atmosphere and the superficial nature of the characters’ lives.

Returning to one’s birthplace after achieving success is one of Pavese’s themes, and because Clelia is the novella’s narrator, her feelings about her working-class origins and why she left Turin are unambiguously transmitted. But though she does not narrate the film, the well-tailored screenplay (cowritten by Antonioni, Suso Cecchi D’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes) still conveys her outsider status, as when she revisits the run-down working-class neighborhood of her childhood. More importantly, her clearer perspective is displayed in her interactions with the class of women she once envied. Aware of how far she has come and how much she has achieved, Clelia is a natural foil for these callous, selfish creatures. We weigh her gumption and values against their refusal to reject the easy life and venture beyond it or quietly submit to its limitations without complaint.

The catalyst for Clelia’s involvement with these women is not just the salon she is about to open but also a suicide attempt by Rosetta, the most vulnerable member of the circle, which occurs in a room adjacent to Clelia’s in the hotel where she is staying. Shocking as it is, Clelia soon grasps that neither Rosetta’s so-called best friend, Momina, nor the shallow, man-crazy Mariella exhibits more than passing concern. Similarly, later, Clelia is the only one genuinely disturbed by Rosetta’s affair with the world-weary Lorenzo, the breakup of which ultimately leads to her successful suicide. As an outsider, Clelia perceives that Rosetta’s despair in no small part reflects the cynicism and indifference of her friends.

While no film could have the luxury to expound on what ails these characters to the degree the novella does, the flesh-and-blood actors who portray them in Le amiche telegraph plenty. We learn as much about Momina’s moral character and her need to guard against insecurity from the impeccably garbed and coiffed Yvonne Furneaux, who plays her, as we do from anything she says. The same goes for Anna Maria Pancani’s convincingly frivolous turn as Mariella. And Madeleine Fischer is unnervingly believable as she flits from Rosetta’s involuntary hysterics to her sudden retreats into self-pity, and an obsequiousness that turns people off. The more we resist being pulled into her pathology, the more we understand why everyone is impatient with her and blind to her real suffering. In fact, the more we learn about the hopeless vacuity of all of these women’s lives, the more Rosetta’s suicide seems symbolic: she was just the most brittle and unstable of the lot.

Suicide was an important subject for both Pavese and Antonioni. Two years before Le amiche, the latter had contributed a segment entitled “Tentato suicidio” (Attempted Suicide) to an anthology film, L’amore in città (Love in the City). Pavese had actually committed suicide in 1950, apparently because of a failed love affair. It’s possible that this circumstance had some bearing on the screenwriters’ decision to link Rosetta’s suicide to dejection over a love affair, rather than to leave her motives unclear, as in the novella, even though that would have been more in sync with the anxiety characteristic of Antonioni’s later work. But it is also true that the affair itself, its aftermath, and the man whose rejection prompts Rosetta’s action all anticipate L’avventura.

Antonioni ignores the novella’s allusion to Rosetta’s fleeting tryst with Momina. At the same time, he expands the text’s faint hint that something may have transpired between her and the inconsequential painter Loris into a full-blown affair with the film’s Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a failed artist prone to despondent outbursts and completely dependent on his partner, Nene (Valentina Cortese). The effect of Lorenzo’s rebuff is clinched by the film’s strongest instance of narrative ellipsis: the cut from Rosetta running hysterically down a dark street to an overhead shot of the embankment of the Po River, from which her body has just been retrieved. Lorenzo’s reconciliation with Nene, following this—a scene of Antonioni’s invention—is a model for the more devastating scene at the end of L’avventura, complete with the same actor, Ferzetti, playing the faithless Sandro.

The differences between the two films are suggested by the different affects in play. In Le amiche, pity seems the only logical response to the two walking case studies of Nene and Lorenzo. Nene, who turns down a career opportunity in New York to stick with Lorenzo despite his morose nature and infidelity, does not win our sympathy so much as she queasily confirms the codependency of their relationship. It’s a role Cortese had down from her many performances of neurotic, self-sacrificing women—and not only in Italian films. By contrast, when Vitti’s Claudia, in L’avventura, places a forgiving arm around Sandro’s trembling shoulders, the camera’s shift to an extreme long shot, transcending the problems of mere mortals and anything in Le amiche, evokes the existential void that afflicts the human condition. This style, in conjunction with the impersonal spaces that characterize L’avventura, is consonant with the sense of estrangement that we associate with Antonioni. The unsettling mind-set that afflicts Rosetta, then, can be seen as an early instance of what plagues, less melodramatically, Antonioni’s later heroines, who serve as conduits for what he viewed as the depersonalization of the modern world.

While both Pavese’s novella and Antonioni’s film are bookended by Rosetta’s attempted and successful suicides, the novella’s Clelia is less immediately affected by the latter. Nor is her decision to return to Rome ever in question. If, at first, she seems less decisive in the film, it is because of her attraction to the appealing, if colorless, Carlo (Ettore Manni), a construction worker who shares her working-class roots but for that very reason reminds her of exactly what she has left behind. In the film’s final scene, Antonioni implies her disappointment that Carlo has not come to see her off as he promised and, in a filmic touch that the novella could never have matched, allows us to see what she cannot: Carlo hiding from view and watching the train move off. The poignancy of the moment is balanced by the camera’s distance, refusing an easy tug on the emotions.

Some contemporary critics, such as the novelist Alberto Moravia, found Antonioni’s approach to the material cool and tentative. The sense of detachment those adjectives imply might be understood as the filmmaker’s reaction against the grittier approach of the neorealist aesthetic that had dominated Italian cinema during the preceding decade (and that can be discerned in the three stories of postwar adolescents that make up the filmmaker’s 1953 I vinti). But it is apparent that the neorealist style would have suited neither the subject matter to which Antonioni was drawn, with its bourgeois personae, nor the glamorous actors who portray those personae. In a real sense, then, Le amiche shows us Antonioni finding his way toward the fusion of style and subject matter that would mark his best work. In this film, we see these efforts in the way the characters move about in a credible social reality, constantly before us in the forms of the city’s real spaces.

The film’s use of actual locations—a strategy of neorealism that Antonioni did adopt—beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, not only testifies to Turin’s cultural and historical significance (in 1861, it became Italy’s first capital) but also makes the city as much a character as any of the fictional ones. Crucial to Antonioni’s increasingly modernist aesthetic, the city is a living organism, its arcades, cafés, boutiques, avenues, railroad terminal, and beaches throbbing with an energy that permeates its sparkling bourgeois milieu (even if there seems to be a reluctance to show the working-class tenement visited by Clelia and Carlo).

To embed the action in the fabric of a living metropolis, Antonioni privileges medium and long shots and mobile long takes almost exclusively over the extensive editing that shot/countershots require. Even when two people are in private conversation—as in a scene where Momina seems to be negotiating a return to her husband, Cesare (Franco Fabrizi)—Antonioni frames both and then moves the camera to reframe, without resorting to reverse editing or successive over-the-shoulder shots. Favoring continuity over fragmentation, the style renders the world before us palpable, and avoids any facile contrasts between continuity and editing or intimacy and its lack. It is a style that can as easily integrate character and space as it can put the very idea of integration in question—something it does in L’avventura and subsequent works in which long shots and wide angles of open spaces evoke emptiness and alienation.

For all their seemingly hollow cores and affected airs, the film’s characters escape cruel judgment, in part because of the artful manner in which Antonioni choreographs their actions and gestures, as if they could not behave otherwise. The camera, moving almost indiscernibly from one space and situation to the next, picking up a casual embrace on a beach or a fleeting look of distress in a crowded room, observes uncritically, rendering everything these mortals do as so many feeble attempts to keep pace, make contact, and alleviate their boredom and loneliness—a cluster of motifs that became central to Antonioni’s worldview and that would find its full stylistic correlative in his masterpieces.