The Late Monica Vitti Was the Muse of Modernism

The star of Antonioni's masterpieces came to signify an entire attitude. It's impossible to imagine his films without her.
FILE - Monica Vitti poses for a portrait at the Venice Film Festival, where she is seen in 1964. Monica Vitti, the versatile blond star of Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" and other Italian alienation films of the 1960s, and later a leading comic actress, has died. She was 90. (AP Photo, File)
Monica Vitti in 1964

To cite Monica Vitti as an icon, following her death in Rome this week at 90, is somehow unsatisfying. She could never be summed up as something so inert — she was far too vividly alive. If her sensuality has been called “chilly,” it nonetheless animated every frame she stood in or fast-tapped through in high heels. If the landscapes her greatest creative partner Michelangelo Antonioni directed her across were at times sprawling or forbidding, she always held the eye, whether with a look or a highly kinetic outburst.

To a young film buff crammed into a swaybacked seat at a Manhattan arthouse, beholding her for the first time was to risk a schoolboy crush. She’s been called “Impossibly lovely” on this site, and that’s true enough — impossible, and yet there she is onscreen. The sturdy lips forming a blossom of a mouth, the eyes that seem focused just a little beyond where we sit watching, the sun-streaked nest of bright blonde hair set dancing on the windy, rocky shorelines of Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960), demand our attention.

Even as a cropped brunette in a frame with the scandalously handsome young Marcello Mastroianni in the next year’s “La Notte” —or seeing who does the most for a little black dress opposite sexual rival Jeanne Moreau in that dark comedy of manners — she holds sway. She’s been quoted as saying the director — who discovered her onstage in Milan, though she subsequently had classical training — had, like his cinematic cousin Hitchcock, few notes: “Michelangelo treats his actors as objects, and it is useless to ask him the meaning of a scene or a line of dialogue.”

They were lovers, her mentor and his camera, and she observed with presumed wryness that he had promised to make her the Carole Lombard of her time. If there was nothing screwball about “L’Avventura” and their subsequent filmic hook-ups, any young film buff could recognize in that unapologetically cryptic work (plus the remainder of the trilogy, 1961’s “La Notte” and 1962’s “L’Eclisse,” not to mention 1964’s unrelenting and riveting “Red Desert”) something that the smarter pundits were calling revolutionary. Even Time magazine found “L’Avventura” to be a “nightmarish masterpiece,” but it was famously laughed at (the starlet exited crying) and booed at Cannes.

Then Roberto Rossellini and a gaggle of peers wrote a committed appreciation of the film, and it won a special jury prize. In her memorable New Yorker piece “What is the best film of 1961?,” Pauline Kael wrote that the surprise sensation “demonstrated that the possibilities for serious, cultivated, personal expression in the film medium were not yet exhausted…it’s a barren view of life, but it’s a view.” Kael likened the film’s melancholy tone to Chekhov (as this season’s “Drive My Car” has been) and said of Vitti’s Claudia (“the only one capable of love”) that she epitomized “a kind of vacuum in which people are aimlessly moving — search­ers and lost are all the same, disparate, without goals or joy.”

In his quietly and convincingly articulated commentary on the Criterion edition of the movie, Gene Youngblood finds it revolutionary in a “subtle, veiled” way and notes that Sight and Sound would rank it among the top 10 films ever just two years later — only behind “Citizen Kane” and “Battleship Potemkin.” “We see her seeing,” he notes in pointing out the primacy of a witness (others have evoked a “watcher”) as we view the film’s moments from over Vitti’s shoulder.

L'AVVENTURA, Monica Vitti, 1960
Vitti in “L’Avventura”Courtesy Everett Collection

Both an initially supportive Andrew Sarris and Kael were less awestruck by the subsequent actor/director collaborations, but what they accomplished— though never exceeded by more popular or mirthful works when Joseph Losey and Michael Ritchie tried to exploit the Vitti magic — will last as landmark cinema. (Even Luis Buñuel tucked her into “The Phantom of Liberty,” where she made a brief impression despite the conventional wisdom to never share the frame with a child or, in this case, an ostrich.)

There could be many an essay written about how Antonioni’s at times Marxist critiques and spiritual journeys ushered in a kind of societal awareness, and with any justice Ms. Vitti — in her womanly power, which just as an aside, generally outpoints that of the men — will continue to be recognized as the force she remains.

For this young film buff, the last word has to go to Vitti herself, in the person of Claudia, who finds the compassion and resolve, in the midst of the raging anomie of “L’Avventura,” to taunt the feckless, playboy architect who stands in for all that’s witless and transitory. “Go ahead and visit the city alone,” she tells him, and what follows is echoing for me today: “You must tell me you want to embrace my shadow running along the walls.”

So we shall, Ms. Vitti.

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