Michelangelo Antonioni’s Poetics of Space

We see the city in reflection. Moving down the body of the tower, the camera’s gaze remains fixed on the tangled loose threads of Milan’s post-war urban fabric, but the context keeps shifting. It’s not really Milan we’re looking at, but rather its fractured reflection in the glass of a skyscraper as we journey into the city below. Then, the camera pulls back from the building, and we see the city twice: reflected and real. These are the opening moments of La Notte, by Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007), one of several films that encapsulate the Italian director’s architectural sensibility. Characters and dialogue may advance the narrative, but buildings and landscape form the vessel that shapes it.

Michelangelo Antonioni, La Notte, TIFF
Still from the 1961 film La Notte, with Monica Vitti and Marcello Mastroianni.

Flanked by 1960’s seminal L’Avventura and 1962’s L’Eclisse, La Notte forms the central episode of a trilogy that marks the apex of Antonioni’s formal experimentation. This summer in Toronto, the films anchor the TIFF Cinemateque retrospective “Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni.” With a programme that illuminates Antonioni’s understanding of architecture and urban space, a month of screenings and talks have offered windows into the work of a cinematic modernist.

As the New York Times’  Stephen Holden put it, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse make up Antonioni’s exploration of “modernity and its discontents.” Drifting through the alternately half-finished or half-destroyed landscapes of Milan and Rome, Monica Vitti (who appears in all three films) is joined periodically by the likes of Alain Delon and Marcello Mastroianni to navigate rudderless iterations of romance and desire. So much for the discontents, but what of the modernity?

According to James Macgillivray, who introduced L’Eclisse at its June screening, the “architecture in the films mirrors the experiences of the characters.” MacGillivray—a founding principal of the Toronto firm LAMAS and assistant professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design—points to the settings as vital narrative elements. Much of L’Eclisse is set in Rome’s EUR district, which was built to host the 1942 World’s Fair and celebrate 20 years of Italian fascism. In 1962, Antonioni finds it alien, placing his isolated characters in the middle of all the empty grandeur.

Like many of his contemporaries—and the neo-realist auteurs who preceded him—Antonioni is distrustful of modernism. “Antonioni is also able to find irony in the heroic Mussolini-era architecture,” MacGillivray says, as well as the modernist buildings that followed. Through a play of angle composition, an aggressively futuristic concrete water tower becomes a subtly humorous backdrop to everyday life, its utter lack of context and scale accentuated in the frame. In La Notte, Antonioni finds “inventive angles that transform the city into impenetrably alluring abstractions,” as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes.

Crucially, Antonioni’s lens often abandons his characters at key moments, turning to gaze instead at the city around them. He shows us buildings, sidewalks, trees, people, cars. Showing movement and hinting at entropy, those extended shots and sequences mirror Antonioni’s photographic obsession. In L’Eclisse, his lens lingers over photos on the wall, and in 1966’s Blow-Up, a photograph itself—still and unchanging as any—drives the plot when the photographer sees a murder scene unfolding in the grain.

What does it all mean?

Antonioni’s films resist easy resolution, dwelling in the ambiguous subtleties of mood and composition rather than didacticism. Yet, just as the cinematic study of photographs interrogates the truth of the photographic medium itself, Antonioni’s fascination with architecture and cities reveals the urban realm as a canvas on which all those lives unfold. In playing with cities, shaping them, distorting them, he merely hints at what they do to us.

The TIFF Cinemateque film series “Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni” runs until July 21 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.