By Alessandra Rizzo
Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, whose depiction of alienation made him a symbol of art-house cinema with movies such as "Blow-Up" and "L'Avventura," has died, officials and news reports said Tuesday. He was 94.
The ANSA news agency said that Antonioni died at his home on Monday evening.
"With Antonioni dies not only one of the greatest directors but also a master of modernity," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said in a statement.
Antonioni depicted alienation in the modern world through sparse dialogue and long takes. Along with Federico Fellini, he helped turn post-war Italian film away from the Neorealism movement and toward a personal cinema of imagination.
In 1995, Hollywood honored his career work — about 25 films and several screenplays — with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. By then Antonioni was a physically frail but mentally sharp 82, unable to speak but a few words because of a stroke but still translating his vision into film. The Oscar was stolen from Antonioni's home in 1996, together with several other film prizes.
His slow-moving camera never became synonymous with box-office success, but some of his movies such "Blow-Up," "Red Desert" and "The Passenger" reached enduring fame.
His exploration of such intellectual themes as alienation and existential malaise led Halliwell's Film Guide to say that "L'Avventura," Antonioni's first critical success, made him "a hero of the highbrows."
The critics loved that film, but the audience hissed when "L'Avventura" was presented at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. The barest of plots, which wanders through a love affair of a couple, frustrated many viewers for its lack of action and dialogue, characteristically Antonioni.
In one point in the black-and-white film, the camera lingers and lingers on Monica Vitti, one of Antonioni's favorite actresses, as she plays a blond, restless jet-setter.
"In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting," Jack Nicholson said in presenting Antonioni with the career Oscar. Nicholson starred in the director's 1975 film "The Passenger."
Antonioni was born on Sept. 29, 1912, in the affluent northern city of Ferrara. He received a university degree in economics and soon began writing critiques for cinema magazines.
Antonioni's first feature film, "Story of a Love Affair" (1950) was a tale of two lovers unable to cope with the ties binding them to their private lives.
But Antonioni grew more interested in depicting his characters' internal turmoil rather than their daily, down-to-earth troubles. The shift induced critics to call his cinema "internal Neorealism."
After the international critical acclaim of "L'Avventura," which became part of a trilogy with "The Night" (1961) and "Eclipse" (1962), Antonioni's style was established. He steadily co-wrote his films and directed them with the recognizable touch of a painter. His signature was a unique look into people's frustrating inability to communicate and assert themselves in society.
On Oscar award night, his wife, Enrica Fico, 41 years his junior, and "translator" for him since his 1985 stroke, said: "Michelangelo always went beyond words, to meet silence, the mystery and power of silence."
The first success at the box office came in 1966 with "Blow Up," about London in the swinging '60s and a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film.
But Antonioni with his hard-to-fathom films generally found it hard to convince Italian producers to back him. By the end of the 1960s, he was looking abroad for funds. American backing helped produce "Zabriskie Point" (1970), shot in the bleakly carved landscape of Death Valley, California.
Asked by an Italian magazine in 1980, "For whom do you make films" Antonioni replied: "I do it for it an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public. Frankly, I can't do it, even if so many directors do so. And then, what public? Italian? American? Japanese? French? British? Australian? They're all different from each other."
Using sometimes a notepad, sometimes the good communication he had with his wife and sometimes just his very expressive blue eyes, Antonioni astonished the film world in 1994 to make "Beyond the Clouds," when ailing and hampered by the effects of the stroke.
With an international cast — John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Irene Jacob, and Fanny Ardant — the movie wove together three episodes based on Antonioni's book of short stories "Quel Bowling sul Tevere" ("Bowling on the Tiber") to explore the usual Antonioni themes.
Worried that Antonioni would be too frail to finish the movie, investors had German director Wim Wenders follow the work, ready to step in if the Italian "maestro" couldn't go on. But Wenders wound up watching in awe and letting Antonioni put his vision on film.
Antonioni is survived by his wife. He had no children. ANSA said that a funeral would be held Thursday in Antonioni's hometown of Ferrara in northern Italy.
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