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Cinema: The Body of This Death

4 minute read

The Night (Lopert) begins at noon. In brilliant sunshine, silently, from the summit of a glittering skyscraper, from the zenith of man’s pride and material achievement, the camera descends relentlessly into the convenient hell of a meaningless marriage, into a dark and joyless night of the contemporary soul imagined with monstrous art by Michelangelo Antonioni, the somber master of cinema who made L’Avventura (TIME, April 7).

In the first scene of the movie, a well-known Italian writer (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife (Jeanne Moreau) arrive at a hospital in Milan to visit a dying friend (Bernhard Wicki). Leaving the friend’s room some minutes later than his wife, the writer is accosted in the hall by a mental patient, a nymphomaniac. Impulsively, he enters her room.

The incident is revolting and revealing. The writer, frightened by the presence of death, snatches at sex for reassurance. But a man who cannot die cannot live: the writer is a moral cadaver. Since he cannot face his condition, his wife has to face it for him. On the way home he confesses somewhat too readily what has happened— if she forgives, he can forget.

Night falls. Man and wife are restless and preoccupied— easier to go out than to be alone together. They drift off to an all-night brawl at a millionaire’s mausoleal residence. “They’re all dead here,” the wife sighs as they enter the house. Antonioni’s point is unmistakable: his hero, like Orpheus, has entered Hades, the contemporaryhell of unmeaning materialism— will he find there the love, the soul, the vital core of meaning he has lost? He finds the daughter of the millionaire (Monica Vitti), a dark-haired charmer whom he fiercely pursues, only to find her as empty and desperate as he is. “At heart,” she tells him with a vacant smile, “I’m just a girl who likes golf.” Dimly he begins to understand that something is dreadfully wrong with him.

Morning sheds a cold, clear light on the subject. The writer and his wife wander through the expensive desolation of the millionaire’s golf course. She explains to him calmly, without bitterness, that he simply does not exist— he has never lived, he has only written. She adds that she no longer loves him, but she has too little strength to make a break, to start a new life; and he has even less. Death, the dread of his own unbeing, frightens him once again into the arms of the nearest woman— ironically, the woman is his wife.

He begins to make passionate, terrified love to her at the edge of a sand trap.

“But I don’t love you any more,” she protests wearily. “Be quiet,” he mutters hoarsely, tugging at her skirt.

The Night, made a year later than L’Avventura, is its sequel in spirit. It examines the same diseases of leisure: anxiety, despair, loss of soul, and the degenerate eroticism that serves as a soul substitute. It employs the same radically original methods: the deliberate, contemplative, novelistic pace of the narration (“I write with a camera; I make visual novels”), the lifelike lack of any point-to-point correspondence between what a character is doing and what he is thinking, the inspired sense for the importance of unimportance, for what is happening when nothing is happening.

In The Night, as in L’Avventura, these methods have produced a picture that, for all the fascination of its photography and performances, moves too slowly, lasts too long (two hours), and demands too much intellectual attention to command a mass audience. Even moviegoers who liked L’Avventura will probably find The Night black and cold; it has a basilisk intensity that turns the heart to stone. Nevertheless, at the heart of Antonioni’s plutonic pessimism lives a blazing mote of hope.

Though he confesses no faith, he is essentially a religious artist. He believes that a spirit inhabits human beings, and in every film he proclaims his creed: to obey that spirit is to live, to deny it is to perish.

In every film his heroes, though in humbler phrases, cry as St. Paul once cried aloud: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” And Antonioni always pities them.

He attacks the weakness, not the man.

He takes no pleasure in human suffering. He forces himself to examine it as a doctor would examine it. He is a pathologist of morals, an Italian Chekhov.

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