LA NOTTE (The Night)—–“There’s still so much to do. I feel like I watched from the sidelines when I should have been more involved. I lacked the courage to go all the way. I console myself with the thought I wasn’t smart enough anyway.”
Shortly after the striking credits sequence that opens director Michelangelo Antonioni’s celebrated 1961 drama, the dialogue passage above is spoken by a dying man to his friends who’ve come to visit him in the hospital. Time running out, ‘Tomasso’ (Bernhard Wicki) levels with his novelist friend ‘Giovanni’ (Marcello Mastroianni) and Giovanni’s wife ‘Lidia’ (Jeanne Moreau), voicing regret that may also be a plea to the couple, whose marriage is fraying under the emotional debris of affairs, anomie and alienation– -from each other, from a frivolous modern culture, from their own emptied-out selves.
“You only worry about losers. A typical intellectual. Egotistic, but compassionate.”
Taking place over a 24-hour period, there isn’t plot so much as progression (or deterioration), as the couple make their way, sometimes together, sometimes apart (and apart when they’re together), from one separate segment to another. The bracing hospital sequence gives way to Lidia’s solo–and risky–daytime wandering, seeking some life sparks in the streets, alleys and vacant lots beneath the looming edifices of ‘success’. This gives way to a dutiful book-signing appearance with Giovanni on autopilot, then to a sinuous act in a nightclub, whose overt sensuality contrasts with the dead zone of the couple’s love life. Finally, ennui and need coalesce and collide in an all-night lawn party at the lavish mansion of a business tycoon. There they peel off to accepted and empty liaisons, hers with a playboy, his with their host’s vibrant (yet lost) daughter ‘Valentina’ (Monica Vitti, 29, and at the time the director’s lover).
Mastroianni, 36 and Moreau, 32, were both the rage in ’61; he from La Dolce Vita and the same year’s Divorce Italian Style, her from The Lovers and The 400 Blows. Framed against and hemmed in by the cold modern architecture of the city, and the stifling indulgence and false gaiety of the party, both actor’s natural ebullience is restricted to brief flashes, as the main theme of bored suffering forces them to downshift into gloom. Moreau’s even given an unflattering hairstyle to reduce her soft beauty to a whispered plainness. As effective as both of their performances are, conveying crushing pain through minute inflections, neither were particularly enamored of their experience with the director.*
“My husband’s having a particularly bad day.”
Antonioni makes the severe modernistic look of 60s Milan’s skyscrapers look even less inviting than contemporary Brazil’s human-sparse monolith of its then-futuristic capital of Brasilia, hewed out of the jungle to look like something dropped in from Jupiter. The glamorous—and soulless—party at the villa was filmed in some ostentatious bourgeoisie layout in Sesto San Giovanni (ironically a place known for its heavy Communist politics); the settings in the story—and how they’re shot—amount to virtual characters, with maybe more to say about sapped spirit than the husk-shucked humans. For many viewers the austere visual stylization and abstract dissection of cool chic and dead weight is a marvel of raw yet clinical observation, for others it has too many whiffs of glibness posing as depth. That’s also true of the dialogue, which varies between rich and flat. Like so many films that rely on subtitles for non-natives, the condition leaves room to muse how much is literally lost in translation. From the first shot on, many moments vibrate with impact, but the finale, with the focus duo starting to make love in a sand trap on a golf course, comes off pretentious, ridiculous.
Whether you find the movie intellectually stimulating or a redundant bore may depend to a degree on your mood and state of mind when you watch: both camps have their points. For certain, the splendid black & white camerawork from Gianni Di Venanzo is a huge plus. The use of sound is very effective and there is a sparse, strange and dissonant score by Giorgio Gaslini. Not a date movie, unless you’re into out-bumming suicidal depressives. When I finally found the right passage of patience to watch (and learn, feeling it was a chore or duty), prepared to be numbed into glum, I was quite taken for the most part, and the effect lingered after.
“I no longer have inspirations, only recollections.”
122 unhappy and obtuse yet dazzling and affecting minutes, with Gitt Magrini (the airily confident party hostess), Vincenzo Corbella (her brazenly confident industrialist husband), Giorgio Negro (Lidia’s potential fling), and Maria Pia Luzi (spooky and pathetic as the out-of-control hospital patient). Novelist Umberto Eco has an unbilled bit as one of the party guests. Bernhard Wicki, who has the strong deathbed scene opener, was a German actor and screenwriter who also directed such films as The Bridge, The Longest Day and Morituri.
La Notte is the second part of Antonioni’s unofficial “Incomunicability Trilogy” following L’Avventura (1960) and preceding L’Eclisse (1962). He co-wrote the screenplay with Ennio Flaiano (La Strada, La Dolce Vita, 8½) and Tonino Guerra (L’Avventura, Marriage Italian Style, Blow-Up).
* Marcello: “I was a little bit disappointed because I felt that the character, this writer suffering a crisis, was a little bit conventional. Perhaps I would have preferred him to be more angry, more cynical, but then I probably wouldn’t have been able to play him anyway….So there was a sort of incomprehension between me and the director. As I went along I lost of that joy, that enthusiasm I had felt which had made me want to do the film. This was the state of mind I was while I was making the film. I would liked to be closer to Antonioni but it wasn’t possible.”
Jeanne: “He was a whole different experience. He doesn’t speak at all to the actors.”