Goings On

Journeys to Italy with Visconti and Antonioni

On Film / The Daily — Jun 8, 2018
Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963)

This is a fine summer for revisiting some of cinema’s grand old masters. Last week, we took a look at some of the season’s highlights in the ongoing yearlong celebration of Ingmar Bergman’s centenary. Now already underway or opening soon are retrospectives of work by two Italian giants, Luchino Visconti and Michelangelo Antonioni. Born in northern Italy just six years apart, Visconti in 1906 and Antonioni in 1912, both directors would work at some point early in their careers with Roberto Rossellini—and both would break away from the neorealism Rossellini represented, but then head off in entirely different directions.

So different, in fact, that it’s odd to think of the two men as contemporaries. Visconti, raised in an aristocratic family (his father was Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, Duke of Grazzano Visconti and Count of Lonate Pozzolo), would join the Communist Party, direct a classic of Italian neorealism, Obsession (1943), a film about the exploitation of Sicilian fisherman, La terra trema (1948), and a story centering on a working-class mother in Rome (played by the great Anna Magnani), Bellissima (1951), before making the first of his lushly operatic historical dramas, Senso (1954).


Visconti revisited the decadence and decay of the collapsing world order of the late nineteenth century in what many regard as his greatest work, The Leopard (1963), and again with Ludwig (1972), a portrait of the Bavarian Swan King starring his lover, Helmut Berger. Noting in the New York Times that Visconti was a “realist, historian, [and] man of letters,” A. O. Scott emphasizes that the “films are as intoxicating as they are illuminating, a welcome reminder, in this or any time, that seriousness and pleasure go hand in hand.”

If Antonioni’s films could in any way be described as “intoxicating,” it certainly wouldn’t be for any sort of Viscontian opulence but rather for the resolute movement within his rigorous compositions. Last year, Hannah Leiß explored Antonioni’s use of vertical lines in L’eclisse (1962) in an audiovisual essay:


Following L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961), L’eclisse caps a trilogy that, as TIFF Cinematheque programmer James Quandt puts it, “established Antonioni’s reputation as a pre-eminent modernist with its image of postwar Europe unmoored and adrift in what Alberto Moravia called ‘a nameless, formless anguish.’” In that same essay, Quandt makes a rather bold claim for Antonioni’s place in cinema history. Referring to a landmark work by Picasso from 1907, Quandt argues that “just as there is painting before and after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, so there is cinema before and after L’avventura.

The Harvard Film Archive’s Visconti retrospective is already underway and runs through July 15. There’s another opening today and running through June 28 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, to be followed by a Visconti season at TIFF in Toronto (July 26 through August 19). 

Theater director Ivo van Hove has adapted Visconti’s The Damned (1969), the story of the rise of a German industrialist family during the Third Reich, for the Comédie-Française, and the North American premiere runs at New York’s Park Avenue Armory from July 17 through 28. Meantime, the new issue of Peephole Journal features Ted Snell’s piece on Death in Venice; Jonathan Romney writes about Ludwig for Film Comment; and at the Notebook, Adrian Curry has put together a gallery of posters for Visconti’s films.

There are Antonioni seasons currently on in Toronto (through July 21) and London (through June 30), and the Pacific Film Archive’s series will run in Berkeley from June 15 through August 31.

Further reading? You may want to begin with two primers from the British Film Institute: Christina Newland on Visconti and Pasquale Iannone on Antonioni.

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