Monica Vitti, from Alienated Beauty to Madcap Comedienne

Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960)

Though she was a widely beloved star of Italian and international comedies in the late 1960s and ’70s, Monica Vitti, who has passed away at the age of ninety, will be remembered first and foremost for the four films she made with Michelangelo Antonioni between 1960 and 1964. In 2014, the great critic Gilberto Perez ranked this remarkable pairing of director and star with those of D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich, and Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. But while “it may be said that, in these cases, the woman is a figure of beauty, an object of contemplation for the man behind the camera,” the dynamic between Antonioni and Vitti was altogether different.

Vitti’s undeniable beauty may have been “more tentative” than that of Gish, Dietrich, or Karina, but it was thoroughly “in keeping with the unsettled, questioning beauty of Antonioni’s visual style,” wrote Perez. “And in her films with him, Vitti is as much beholding as beheld, identified with the director, whose gaze she doubles. Other male directors have adopted the point of view of a female character, but none has made a woman his surrogate in the way that Antonioni has Monica Vitti.”

When Vitti met Antonioni in 1957, she had already appeared in a handful of small roles in film and television. She had, in fact, been acting most of her life. Born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome, she later looked back on putting on shows as a child during the Second World War. “As the bombs fell,” she recalled, “when we had to take refuge in the shelters, my little brother and I would improvise little plays to entertain those around us.” When she was eighteen, her parents and two brothers emigrated to the U.S., but she stayed behind to study at the National Academy of Dramatic Art.

Antonioni had her dub over Dorian Gray’s performance in Il grido (1957), a film that, despite winning the Golden Leopard in Locarno, did so poorly at the box office that the director seriously considered abandoning cinema and returning to the theater. Instead, he set to work on L’avventura, an enigmatic story that seems at first to focus on a not particularly happy couple, Anna (Lea Massari) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Together with Anna’s friend, Claudia (Vitti), they join two wealthy couples on a yacht and set sail along the Sicilian coast. During a stopover, Anna goes missing, and while the party searches for her, Claudia and Sandro find themselves drawn to each other.

L’avventura premiered in Cannes in 1960 and won a jury prize. The Palme d’Or went to Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita, another landmark film signaling Italian cinema’s break with neorealism. “The two films shared a pessimism about modern life, but otherwise could not have been more different,” writes Rick Lyman in the New York Times. “Fellini’s film embraced audiences with its seductiveness, while Antonioni’s was maddeningly obscure, not so much failing to meet audience expectations as ostentatiously ignoring them.”

The first screening of L’avventura, in fact, was a nightmare for Antonioni and his cast. In 1966, Vitti spoke about the shock of experiencing the laughter, boos, and catcalls ripping through the theater in Cannes from the opening titles to the final credits. “When I came out of the theater, I was crying like a baby,” she said. “I was desperate. I felt that all my work, all these months where I had invested all of myself . . . were all for nothing.” But the next morning, when they left their hotel rooms, the team found a typed statement of support for the film signed by filmmakers and critics from around the world: “Yesterday, we saw L’avventura, the best movie ever screened at this festival.” The name at the very top of the list: Roberto Rossellini, who had won the grand prize in Cannes for Rome Open City (1945).

Another film invited to the festival that year—even though it had opened in France a few months before—went home empty-handed. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless “positioned him a bit closer to the center of the period’s cultural zeitgeist than Antonioni,” wrote Robert Koehler for Sight and Sound in 2012, but L’avventura and the films starring Vitti that followed—La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), and Red Desert (1964)—“have exerted a greater long-term impact,” one that Koehler traced to the work of such filmmakers as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso, and Jia Zhangke. “Many great films are of their moment, yet lessen over time,” wrote Koehler. “Here, the entrance of Monica Vitti, with her classically hip black dress and sexily tousled blonde mane, amounts to an announcement that the ’60s have arrived; a lesser work with her in it would be no more than a key identifier of that moment.”

L’avventura made Vitti a star whose “sharp, patrician features and icy demeanor provided a visual and stylistic counterpoint to the working-class voluptuousness of the leading Italian actresses of the period, among them Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani,” writes Lyman. In L’eclisse, Vitti plays Vittoria, a translator who leaves one lover for another played by Alain Delon. “Paradoxically,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in 2014, “and although Antonioni is rarely viewed as a director of actors, I would argue that L’eclisse features the most expressive and exuberant performances by Vitti and Delon in any movie, and that the achievements of this highly structured masterpiece would be unthinkable without them.”

At the beginning of their affair, “they’re very loose with each other,” notes Sheila O’Malley, but eventually, a pervasive “blankness” sets in that “empties the whole entire world in the most eerie final sequence in cinema . . . Vitti’s intermittent blankness is a perfect projector screen for what we out here in the dark think she’s thinking. We fill in her blanks. This ability is one of the hallmarks of a great movie star. They all have a version of it. There are no exceptions.”

In La notte, Vitti vamps it up a bit as an industrialist’s daughter coming on to a writer played by Marcello Mastroianni, and in Red Desert, Antonioni’s first film in color, she plays an industrialist’s wife. “Red Desert is the most ambitious of all of Antonioni’s attempts to ground the condition of our modern existence in a theory of alienation,” wrote Mark Le Fanu in 2010. In L’avventura and L’eclisse, her characters’ “alienation from the world is pictured as a kind of neurosis—although one uses the word rather loosely to describe something that might otherwise be characterized as mere loneliness; there is nothing hysterical about those films’ heroines, who are, in fact, singularly self-possessed. Giuliana, on the other hand, while sharing some of the coolness (one might almost call it the irony) of her two filmic predecessors, at moments moves over into madness.”

Vitti always claimed that it was Antonioni who put an end to their working and romantic relationship in 1967. They did reunite for one more project in 1980, The Mystery of Oberwald, which was based on a 1946 play by Jean Cocteau, but the film fared poorly, both critically and at the box office. But in 1967, Vitti, as Lyman puts it, “decided to reinvent her entire career, switching to light comedies, which at the time in Italy were dominated by male stars. Italian audiences and critics were stunned by her facility as a comedian, which many came to believe was her greatest calling.”

She had done some dubbing work for Mario Monicelli way back in 1958 on Big Deal on Madonna Street, and she returned to headline such light fare as his The Girl with a Pistol (1968). Alberto Sordi directed her in Help Me, My Love (1969), a comedy he wrote and costarred in. Ettore Scola’s Dramma della gelosia (1970), starring Vitti and Mastroianni, was a hit in Italy and broke through in the U.S. as The Pizza Triangle. In 1974, she joined the sprawling cast of Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty.

Vitti carried on appearing regularly on Italian television, and in 1989, she directed her first and only feature, Secret Scandal. She plays a housewife who inadvertently videotapes her husband cheating on her with her best friend. Another friend, a director played by Elliott Gould, suggests that there might be a movie in the footage. Over time, Vitti began receding from the public eye as she dealt with Alzheimer’s disease. Roberto Russo, a cameraman, screenwriter, and director she married in 1973, cared for her during the final years of her life. On Wednesday, Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, remembered Monica Vitti as “the queen of Italian cinema.”

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