There is no burden to be carried in claiming how easy on the eye Monica Vitti is. In today’s microscopic, scrutinized vision of women in the movie world (and everywhere else, of course), I and others may get shot down for such perceptions. But the cynical arena of film, where there is little to suggest of the classic golden age, proper movie stars, innovative new waves, things are a hell of a lot different now. I have nothing to apologize for in my declaration of Monica Vitti’s beauty, none whatsoever. It’s a timeless, harmonious attraction, akin to a priceless painting to hang on every wall in the house.
I don’t want to dwell on today’s film industry, but I wonder how Monica Vitti would be perceived now. Would Michaelangelo Antonioni, one of the very greatest filmmakers of all time, be judged in a positive or negative light, in his story-telling about, and depiction of, women? I’d love to jump back in time, and be a cinema-goer in the era of, say, L’Avventura in 1960. And then become an immediate fanboy of Antonioni, as both La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) dazzled my cinephile brain. Before Il Deserto Rosso, Antonioni’s first color feature, brought even more life into Italian cinema in 1964.
The four films, all masterpieces I might add, involved an unmatched collaboration between the director, Antonioni, and the actress, Vitti. They were romantically involved in those years, but no such relationship hindered any of the magnificence, both in front of, and behind, the camera. The bond of their personal life, filtered through the language of cinema in such a magnetic way, that the vision of Antonioni, and the sight of Vitti, was a winning formula.
The camera loves Monica Vitti, that’s hardly breaking news. And without dismissing the glorious works of La Notte and L’Eclisse, I chose to focus on the first and last venture between them – L’Avventura and Il Deserto Rosso. Sure, it’s valid to suggest Vitti’s characters in both films are, in some ways, objects of desire / love interests. But Antonioni, and co-screenwriter Tonino Guerra (Elio Bartolini has a writing credit for the 1960 film), paint much broader strokes of personality and depth in their characters. Generalizations just won’t do.
In L’Avventura, Monica Vitti’s Claudia enters the film as a secondary character, to Anna (Lea Massari), about to take a short break with friends and lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Sooner, rather than later, Claudia becomes the focal point of the entire film. In Il Deserto Rosso, Vitti plays Giuliana, a mother of a young boy, who develops a fond attachment to Corrado (Richard Harris), even though she is married to Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). The personas, and the performances by the actress, are impressionably worlds apart.
Given Claudia’s ‘backseat’ status initially in L’Avventura, director Antonioni, and stellar photography from Aldo Scavarda, establish much of Vitti from the back. In the opening car ride, when talking to Anna outside, a glimpse in the doorway as she waits, sitting at the end of the boat as the group head off to a nearby island, drying her neck after a swim. And those are just early examples.
And they are more prominent in the first act, but the positioning of Claudia follows the pattern throughout. In fact, I am not sure such an iconic performance from an actress has existed in cinema with likely half of the screen time from behind her. But it works. It is instrumental. Vitti is also often placed in the background, as if Claudia is watching the others. Antonioni switches carefully to medium close-ups around the time Anna has disappeared. Later, reversing, with Claudia in full view at the forefront, while other characters natter away in the background.
With Il Deserto Rosso, Antonioni, and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (equally mesmerizing work) almost give Vitti’s Giuliana free reign within the frame. Of course, there are the trademark shots from behind the characters, but it seems Giuliana is coming towards, or beyond us, if not backing away nervously. As I said, a truly different turn given Giuliana’s mental state.
Antonioni takes to color like a duck to water, the film set amidst an industrial site. Giuliana appears with her young son – he donning a mustard-colored coat, and she in green coat, her hair reminiscent of cinnamon. Moments later, a small building is framed by a land of grass, juxtaposing those very color tones. Antonioni is painting quite a picture. At the film’s close, Giuliana and her son are walking away from the industrial site, and the yellow smoke drifting from a couple of the chimneys, which Giuliana tells her little boy is poisonous.
Even with an often sullen expression, and a smile not always in sight, Vitti’s Giuliana is still a wonder to look at. She is a slightly frantic woman, clearly imposed with mental health issues. Unlikely called such a thing back then, and portrayed with a great deal of empathy and impact by Vitti. Giuliana is a bundle of nerves – there’s no violent fits of insanity or screams into the night, but more likely startled by her own shadow and unable to hold another person’s gaze for too long.
Even when seeking her husband’s embrace for comfort, she somehow shows to be a little uncomfortable in his arms. When Giuliana meets Corrado, and talks of interior color tones, she appears far more sedate. Even then, she can’t keep still, wandering from wall to wall, looking away, making eye contact on her own terms. Corrado definitely brings a warm glow to Giuliana, one which she is missing.
That very radiance is a natural attribute of Claudia’s in L’Avventura. There’s a gorgeous, picturesque shot as Claudia wakes the day after Anna’s disappearance, opening the cabin door to reveal the rapturous sunrise. One scene later, men flock around her like flies in the street. Or when Claudia trots down some stairs and appears by a wall mirror, checking her appearance. It’s sometimes like the motion picture equivalent of running your fingers over sheets of silk. So beautiful in moments, Vitti’s appeal is beyond a sexual appetite, more a porcelain doll to be treasured.
And how many times does Antonioni have Vitti turn to face us in a classic pose of melodrama? Or how impeccably the actress takes her moments to shine, without ever over-acting. In both films. The free spirit she evolves into towards the end of L’Avventura, intoxicated by love, is the happiest we see Claudia. Symbolic of the scene in which she accidentally tugs on the rope that rings a bell in the village.
Yet, the strength and self-worth of Claudia is no match for the sight of betrayal. Her face lined with the shock and hurt – real tears of sorrow are shed, by both Claudia and Sandro. But that composure, and natural warmth and affection, from Claudia is epitomized by the hand she rests on the back of Sandro’s head. Vitti has carried so much weight of emotion throughout, this unselfish act takes your breath away.
There’s similar snippets of tactile contact in Il Deserto Rosso. Giuliana touching her son’s head, even when he is sleeping. Vitti’s body language, sporadically edgy, hiding some of her face under a scarf, is a meticulous demonstration of real acting. So convincing in her subtlety, even I was hit with paranoia here and there.
Giuliana has moments of personal torment, personified by the smallest traits. Following fabric patterns with her finger, cowering into corners, biting her fingernails. In the opening sequence, Giuliana eats a sandwich like its her first ever meal, scuttles off into the bushes, barely taking a breath of air.
Vitti’s glare here, in Il Desrto Rosso, is one of an inquisitive, yearning nature. Giuliana is not reclusive, she is shown to be actually comfortable around the group of friends. Though easily distracted by a noise or a thought, or her own mind-drifting notion that the sea is never still. Shrouded in mist in several of the exterior shots – at one point, a unnerved Giuliana runs off and disappears briefly into the fog.
When her son says he can’t feel his legs, Giuliana hides her concern by calling his bluff, because the reality that he can’t stand is no joke. Obviously, this only magnifies her woes. But she catches him walking to fetch toys, and the relief is washed up by a disappointing kind of deceit. Quickly, this manifests into further self-loathing, and the declaration that he does not need her. Nobody can possibly love her.
In L’Avventura, Claudia is hostile towards Sandro, the shock of Anna missing, but also brimming sexual tension. Vitti delivers the dialogue with such subtle conviction. Increasingly more dramatic as her temptations grow. That said, Vitti doesn’t need to say words to express her emotion. It’s a performance delivered through her voice, a true sense of what she wants, and the ethics of their current situation. All the while a fear of breaking her loyalty to a friend who has seemingly been forgotten.
Vitti’s remarkable turn in Il Deserto Rosso might be her finest hour. But so tough to compare. Two very varying depictions of human despair, isolation, desire, invigoration. Characters of circumstance, and nurtured to a certain degree by their surroundings, the people and the places. An abstract neglect of loved ones, with acts of unfaithfulness – but out of a natural desire rather than any malice.
Monica Vitti’s unquestionable physical beauty plays an essential part in both films. It also tunes into our very own aesthetic and enjoyment of the cinema art form. Regardless of your sexual reference. Antonioni and Vitti were a match made in movie heaven. As Vitti’s hair blows about, seemingly impossible to mess up, in the changing winds, the illustrious actress will forever prove she is much more than just a pretty face.