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Cinema: Raise the Colors

4 minute read
Richard Corliss

THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni Screenplay by Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra

Michelangelo Antonioni is a restless eminence. For more than 40 years he has been testing the limits of film narrative—as a young critic and documentarist, as a screenwriter in Italy’s neorealist cinema, as the director of such parables of alienation as L’Avventura (1960) and Eclipse (1962). And while he expanded the viewer’s understanding of the way stories can be told, he helped change the way the world is seen on film. In Red Desert (1964), he reflected the industrial and emotional decay of modern Ravenna in skies streaked like a sulfurous rainbow. In Blow-Up (1966), he painted London phone booths a deeper red, turned the grass a brighter green, to play against his protagonist’s Day-Glo life. Now Antonioni has plumbed the resources of the new video technology and emerged with his most impressive experiment yet. The Mystery of Oberwald will be shown next week at the New York Film Festival; it is unlike anything you are apt to see on a TV or movie screen this year.

Jean Cocteau wrote The Eagle Has Two Heads—a chatty historical romance about a 19th century queen who falls in love with the man sent to assassinate her—for Edwige Feuillère and Jean Marais, who played it on the Paris stage in 1946 and in a film version in 1948. Tallulah Bankhead brought it to Broadway in 1947 (but without her original costar, the young Marlon Brando). Thirty years later, Monica Vitti, whom Antonioni had made a star with L ‘Avventura, would call on her old mentor to collaborate on the project for RAI, the Italian television network. But Antonioni saw no challenge in restaging the play. Instead, he would shoot the production on videotape, and then transfer it to film—and, in the process, transform the story into a meditation on the incestuous links among the performing arts.

The movie begins at sundown in Oberwald. Soldiers patrol the castle grounds in search of Sebastian (Franco Branciaroli), the would-be assassin. The film stock looks grainy, murky, like a kinescope of some 1948 “Kraft Television Theater” production. Afterimages cast a split-second shadow on every movement. Then a sound is heard, a soldier arms his rifle, a shot is fired—and bright red flame spits out of the barrel. The sky is suddenly soiled pink with brooding clouds. Lightning flashes, and it is as unnaturally red as the gun blast. The forces of nature are gathering to announce the beginning of a thundering melodrama—one in which the technique provides the action.

Vitti and Branciaroli, two handsome and appealing actors, follow Antonioni’s cue. There is little passion in their voices, even when the queen and Sebastian over come their initial distrust and become lovers to the death. No surprise here: Antonioni is the man who made aleatory music out of monotone in L’Avventura. But there is feeling aplenty conveyed through the vibrant orchestration of color. Each character is given his own “aura”—a kind of placenta of color that indicates his passion or humor. And every time the queen’s mood changes, her surroundings change too, like obedient subjects. The queen recalls her dead husband, and a bouquet in her hands turns blood red at the memory. When the lovers walk through the woods, chlorophyll seeps into the leaves, and flowers segue from red to royal blue. Now the queen, revived in love, rides through the meadow, and the colors chorus riotously: her hair is rifle-fire red, the grass a Midas gold, the trees electric green, her horse an impossible white—and as it gallops by, its tail waves bright yellow in the new morning breeze of a storybook kingdom brought to life in the movies.

By the end of the film, Antonioni has reconciled the past and the present of three media. His video experiment looks like prehistoric television but manipulates tomorrow’s techniques. His film is a fairly faithful adaptation, yet it departs radically from even the most modern movie strategies. The acting in this traditional theater piece is modishly austere and alienating. Because of this last contradiction— because The Mystery of Oberwald does not “work” on the accepted narrative level—the film may be scorned or, worse, dismissed. That would do this tireless innovator an injustice. Antonioni will be 70 next year, but he has suggested a bold new direction for the cinema—and created a work of dazzling ambition and achievement. —By Richard Corliss

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