by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
In my earlier writings on the film scene in Sri Lanka before launching the ‘Spotlight’ column, there were two things I emphasised as being necessary for the upliftment of serious cinema in the island – one was the need to establish a fully-fledged Film Institute; the other was about holding an international film festival on a regular basis in Colombo.
The second of my dreams – namely, an international film festival in Colombo – became a reality last week thanks to the efforts of a committed group of filmmakers, film personalities, film enthusiasts and generous sponsors in Sri Lanka and abroad.
The festival was conducted by the International Film Festival Colombo (IFFCOLOMBO) in association with the Okinawa International movie festival and the Film Directors Guild of Sri Lanka from 2 to 7 September in the metropolis. It was a grand success and my only regret is that I was not in Colombo at the time.
A better future for cinema
Well-known Film Director Asoka Handagama who was responsible for much of the spadework in the film festival project and served as the director of the film festival summed it up well at the closing ceremony: “The films screened at this festival were different from what the Sri Lankan audience usually watch in the theatres. A certain amount of patience, discipline and intuition is necessary to enjoy these types of art films. Hence, the crowds that flooded the cinemas this past week are not the average who conform easily to the mainstream but unique viewers who have the potential to swim against the current. This gives us much hope. Things that are seemingly unchangeable can be changed if we approach them differently”.
“This festival shattered the myths about the audience’s capacity and willingness to appreciate cinema. This festival helped renew the decaying hope for a better future for our cinema. We chased behind an unreachable target. It was a challenge. I take this opportunity to thank all those who joined hands with us to achieve this.”
Antonioni in the spotlight
Among the highlights of the Colombo festival was the screening of two retrospectives. One was the films of French actress Juliette Binoche in the contemporary category while the other new wave category had films by Italian Film Director Michelangelo Antonioni, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 94.
The movie making art of Michelangelo Antonioni is of particular interest to me and it is the Italian maestro who will be the focus of ‘Spotlight’ this week. Had I been in Colombo I would definitely have made it a point to see all of Antonioni’s films, in addition of course to the movies made by renowned Mexican Director Carlos Reygadas.
Six of Antonioni’s creations were screened at the Goethe Institut and NFC cinema during the festival. There was his first feature film ‘Cronaca di un amore’ (Story of a Love Affair) made in 1950. There was his 1960 breakthrough film ‘L’Avventura’ (The Adventure), which earned him the Jury prize at the prestigious Cannes film festival. Then there was his first colour film ‘Red Desert’ (Il Deserto Rosso), which in 1964 won the golden lion at the Venice festival. Antonioni’s 1972 documentary on the lives of the Chinese working class ‘Chung Kuo, Cina’ was also screened in Colombo. There were also two of his later films ‘Il mistero di Oberwald’ (The Mystery of Oberwald) and ‘Identificazione di una donna’ (Identification of a Woman) made in 1981 and 1982 respectively.
Qualms about IFFCOLOMBO decision
Much as I respected and admired the movies of Michelangelo Antonioni I did have qualms about the decision made by the Colombo festival organisers in choosing his films for a retrospective.
The film art of Antonioni both in style and substance are not easily appreciated or understood by the average film goer. When his path-breaking ‘L’Avventura’ was screened in 1960 at the Cannes film festival, a section of the elite audience began booing and hissing. The film however competed closely with fellow Italian Federico Fellini’s ‘La Dolce Vita’ for the Golden Palm award and eventually won the Cannes Jury prize. Today cineastes and serious students of cinema regard it as a milestone in the evolution of cinema.
What I was concerned about was whether Antonioni’s unique art of film making would be received well by a typical Sri Lankan audience. Antonioni may be praised by film writers such as Jason Ankeny as the man who “redefined the concept of narrative cinema, challenging the accepted notions at the heart of storytelling, realism, drama, and the world at large,” but there were other reviewers such as Pauline Kael who criticised him in her famous essay ‘The Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick Soul-Of-Europe-Parties’ and said she had begun to detest Antonioni. The same Pauline Kael had championed the Italian auteur at one time and declared his ‘L’Avventura’ the best film of 1960.
Though Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up,’ his first film made in English, turned out to be a blockbuster, there was a growing segment of film fans who failed to be entertained by his movies. The underlying themes of his movies showing alienation, ennui and existential melancholy through empty aimless, purposeless characters did not prove to be universally popular. So too was the response in some quarters to his filming techniques such as excessive long takes, the camera’s lingering gaze on images, the framing of empty spaces, etc. These tended to make viewers regard Antonioni as boring, slow and repetitive.
Antonioni’s art of projecting mood through contemplation and images as opposed to action and story line was described by those who appreciated him as the “cinema of possibilities” but to those who did not, the art of Antonioni was “impossible”. Some even described his films in lighter vein as “Antoniennui”.
Learning about “good cinema”
I too may have thought that this “full glass of pure water was an empty glass,” but for the chance to learn and study Michelangelo Antonioni through a dedicated teacher in the film studies sphere.
Many years ago when I was a recipient of a Nieman fellowship for Journalism at Harvard University, I had the opportunity of following courses conducted by Prof. Vladimir Petric on great cinema directors of the West. Vlada, as he was known, hailed from Serbia in the then Yugoslavia. Vlada Petric breathed “good cinema” and lived for “good cinema”. I consider myself very fortunate to have learnt about “good cinema” from Vlada in the lecture halls of Carpenter Centre.
Though I had seen a few films by some of these directors, it was through Petric and another of his associates – Visual Studies Professor Linda Podheiser – that I really learnt to comprehend and appreciate these masters and their artistic craft. Bergman, Godard, Truffaut, Bressler, Visconti, Fellini, Pasolini, Bunuel, Jansco, Herzog, Fassbinder, Wenders, Malick and of course Antonioni were some of these greats with whose work I became familiar in an enlightened manner through Vlada Petric. I have continued to watch their films and read about them whenever possible, though most of them are no more now.
It is against this backdrop that I wondered about the choice of an Antonioni retrospective of films for the Colombo festival. I was not sure that the younger generation of film goers would like to see an Antonioni movie. Furthermore, I was doubtful whether “rasikas” used to different genres of movies in the present day would savour the vintage films of Antonioni with relish. The way in which movies are made now and the technology available is vastly different to the situation that prevailed in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s of the 20th century.
IFFCOLOMBO audience reaction
So I wrote to Film Director Asoka Handagama who was the moving force behind the film festival and queried about how Antonioni was received. His reply humbled me with happiness. My fears about the reaction of a Sri Lankan audience to an Antonioni film had proved to be liars. Here are relevant excerpts from Asoka’s reply:
“The first IFFCOLOMBO has been a great success. The films shown in the festival, including Antonioni’s were difficult films for the general audience. Although I was confident about their capacity, I had some doubts also. Believe me, all the screenings were over flowing and they patiently stayed till the end of screening and even for Q&A after that. Carlos Reygadas, the Mexican Director, was the highlight”.
“Antonioni was a trendsetter in cinema. We had two choices for retrospectives, as you know. One is of Binoche’s from the contemporary cinema, and other from the new wave in films. Antonioni’s screenings were mostly attended by elderly audiences with some young film enthusiasts who are practitioners in cinema. I met a person who had attended all of Antonioni’s screenings. Unfortunately we could not have a Q&A on his films.”
‘L’Avventura’ or ‘The Adventure’
The finest among Michelangelo’s films is said to be ‘L’Avventura’ or ‘The Adventure’. Released in 1960, it is regarded along with ‘La notte’ (1961) and ‘L’eclisse’ (1962)as part of a loose trilogy of films by Antonioni concerned with the “post-war existential themes of alienation, non-communication, and the failure to find meaning in a world of obsolete values”.
‘L’Avventura’ was Antonioni’s sixth feature film. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes and catapulted Antonioni to fame. The film is a model that inspired many filmmakers. ‘L’Avventura’ was screened at the Colombo International Film Festival. It was the jewel in the Antonioni retrospective crown.
Michelangelo Antonioni is a man who usually does not talk about his films preferring to let the films make the statement. Yet Antonioni made a famous statement at Cannes about ‘L’Avventura’. An excerpt from that statement reproduced below provides an insight into the movie makers mind about ‘L’Avventura’:
“The tragedy in L’Avventura stems directly from an erotic impulse of this type: unhappy, miserable, futile. To be critically aware of the vulgarity and the futility of such an overwhelming erotic impulse, as is the case with the protagonist in L’Avventura, is not enough or serves no purpose. And here we witness the crumbling of a myth, which proclaims it is enough for us to know, to be critically conscious of ourselves, to analyse ourselves, in all our complexities and in every facet of our personality. The fact that matters is that such an examination is not enough. It is only a preliminary step. Every day, every emotional encounter gives rise to a new adventure. For even though we know that the ancient codes of morality are decrepit and no longer tenable, we persist, with a sense of perversity that I would only ironically define as pathetic, in remaining loyal to them. Thus, the moral man who has no fear of the scientific unknown is today afraid of the moral unknown. Starting out from this point of fear and frustration, his adventure can only end in a stalemate.”
Why is ‘L’Avventura’ praised as a cinematic masterpiece? Why is it considered to be the greatest work of a great master? This is what noted film writer and educator Gene Youngblood, the author of ‘Expanded Cinema,’ wrote about the film:
“Many films are called ‘classic,’ but few qualify as turning points in the evolution of cinematic language, films that opened the way to a more mature art form. Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’ (The Adventure) is such a work. It divided film history into that which came before and that which was possible after its epochal appearance. It expanded our knowledge of what a film could be and do. It is more than a classic, it’s an historical milestone.
“Antonioni’s great achievement was to put the burden of narration almost entirely on the image itself, that is, on the characters’ actions and on the visual surface of their environment. He uses natural or manmade settings to evoke his characters’ state of mind, their emotions, their life circumstances. We learn more about them by watching what they do than by hearing what they say. We follow the story more by reading images than we do by listening to dialogue. The settings are not symbolic or metaphoric—they are extensions, manifestations, of the characters’ psyches. Physical landscape and mental landscape become one.
“This is as ‘pure’ as narrative cinema gets. And it is why ‘L’Avventura’ is so perfectly suited to the laserdisc medium. If ever a film demanded the still frame, variable speed, and random access capabilities of the CAV laserdisc format, it is ‘L’Avventura’. Every frame requires the same contemplation and reflection that we give to the work of our greatest still photographers or painters—and each frame can be studied in its original wide-screen format. A great medium suits a great master’s greatest work.”
‘The man who set film free’
Finally I come to the reaction of a serious film aficionado to ‘L’Avventura’. I myself saw the film for the first time almost 25 years after it was made. By this time the cinema sphere had undergone many changes and the film to me was of historical importance in helping to understand the evolution of cinema.
What is of interest here is the reaction of the serious cinema goer to the film under the prevailing conditions of 1960. Seeing an Antonioni film in the present age of digital photography and computer graphics is vastly different to that of the time it was first released.
So what kind of impact did it make on the cineaste at that time?
A brilliant answer to that was provided by famous American director Martin Scorsese in an article written by him when Michelangelo Antonioni died. The article was published in the New York Times on 12 August 2007 under the heading ‘The man who set film free’. In that article Scorsese writes about the impact ‘L’Avventura’ had on him when he first saw it as an 18-year-old in the USA. I conclude with relevant extracts from that illuminating piece about Michelangelo Antonioni:
“Where did I see it? Was it at the Art Theatre on Eighth Street? Or was it the Beekman? I don’t remember, but I do remember the charge that ran through me the first time I heard that opening musical theme — ominous, staccato, plucked out on strings, so simple, so stark, like the horns that announce the next tercio during a bullfight. And then, the movie. A Mediterranean cruise, bright sunshine, in black and white widescreen images unlike anything I’d ever seen – so precisely composed, accentuating and expressing …… what? A very strange type of discomfort. The characters were rich, beautiful in one way but, you might say, spiritually ugly. Who were they to me? Who would I be to them?
“They arrived on an island. They split up, spread out, sunned themselves, bickered. And then, suddenly, the woman played by Lea Massari, who seemed to be the heroine, disappeared. From the lives of her fellow characters, and from the movie itself. Another great director did almost exactly the same thing around that time, in a very different kind of movie. But while Hitchcock showed us what happened to Janet Leigh in ‘Psycho,’ Michelangelo Antonioni never explained what had happened to Massari’s Anna. Had she drowned? Had she fallen on the rocks? Had she escaped from her friends and begun a new life? We never found out.
“Instead the film’s attention shifted to Anna’s friend Claudia, played by Monica Vitti, and her boyfriend Sandro, played by Gabriele Ferzetti. They started to search for Anna, and the picture seemed to become a kind of detective story. But right away our attention was drawn away from the mechanics of the search, by the camera and the way it moved. You never knew where it was going to go, who or what it was going to follow. In the same way the attentions of the characters drifted: toward the light, the heat, the sense of place. And then toward one another.
“So it became a love story. But that dissolved too. Antonioni made us aware of something quite strange and uncomfortable, something that had never been seen in movies. His characters floated through life, from impulse to impulse, and everything was eventually revealed as a pretext: the search was a pretext for being together, and being together was another kind of pretext, something that shaped their lives and gave them a kind of meaning.
“The more I saw ‘L’Avventura’ – and I went back many times – the more I realised that Antonioni’s visual language was keeping us focused on the rhythm of the world: the visual rhythms of light and dark, of architectural forms, of people positioned as figures in a landscape that always seemed terrifyingly vast. And there was also the tempo, which seemed to be in sync with the rhythm of time, moving slowly, inexorably, allowing what I eventually realised were the emotional shortcomings of the characters – Sandro’s frustration, Claudia’s self-deprecation – quietly to overwhelm them and push them into another ‘adventure,’ and then another and another. Just like that opening theme, which kept climaxing and dissipating, climaxing and dissipating. Endlessly.
“Where almost every other movie I’d seen wound things up, ‘L’Avventura’ wound them down. The characters lacked either the will or the capacity for real self-awareness. They only had what passed for self-awareness, cloaking a flightiness and lethargy that was both childish and very real. And in the final scene, so desolate, so eloquent, one of the most haunting passages in all of cinema, Antonioni realised something extraordinary: the pain of simply being alive. And the mystery.”
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org