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Italian movie director Michelangelo Antonioni dies

entertainment Updated: Jul 31, 2007 18:49 IST
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Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who depicted alienation in the modern world with movies like Blow-Up and L'Avventura, has died, the mayor of Rome said Tuesday. He was 94.

The ANSA news agency said that Antonioni died at his home in Rome on Monday evening.

Antonioni depicted alienation 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.

"With Antonioni dies not only one of the greatest directors but also a master of modernity," Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said in a statement.

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 more than 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 like 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 "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. When he was 30, he began work on his first film, a documentary about the tough life of river people, but by the time

Gente del Po

(People of the Po) was done, it was 1947 and directors were working in a new and vigorous artistic movement called Neorealism. Films like

Rome Open City

by Roberto Rossellini and

Bicycle Thief

by Vittorio De Sica were depicting with ground-breaking vividness the rawness of Italian society in the aftermath of World War II.

Antonioni's first feature film, Story of a Love Affair (1950), reflected that influence in the 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.

"If I hadn't become a director," Antonioni once said, "I would have been an architect, or maybe a painter. In other words, I think I'm someone who has things to show rather than things to say." 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 and 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 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? Austrialian? 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" couut g inni gmennioe.