– by JD Westfall, VW’s movie connoisseur –
A while ago, I wrote an article about Citizen Kane, and I tried to do my part to defend its title as the greatest film of all time. I still stand by what I wrote. While that may greatest individual film ever made, however, I believe there is a film trilogy that, when taken together, blows everything else ever made out of the water. It is collectively known as the Incommunicability Trilogy.
The Incommunicability Trilogy was the mastermind of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who gave us classics such as Blowup and The Passenger. This trilogy is an earlier work, dating from 1960 – 1962. While sharing none of the same characters, the films are connected through their themes, namely despair caused by the modern world. You could alternatively call it existentialism, malaise, or even first world problems. While I admit that rich Europeans moping about their lot in life doesn’t sound enjoyable, let’s focus on how the film expresses these themes, and you’ll begin to see what makes this trilogy such an important and revolutionary work.
The plot for the introductory film in the Incommunicability Trilogy is very simple. During a boating holiday to visit a sequence of islands, a woman named Anna goes missing from the ship. This sparks an investigation by the other tourists to locate her. However, the film’s focus soon shifts entirely away from the search, as Anna’s boyfriend begins developing a relationship with Anna’s best friend.
Simple stuff. What makes it so great?
The director opted for the only purely cinematic style possible: Showing, not telling. Many very important points are expressed not through what the characters say to one another, but through the visual cues. The way they react to something or their facial expressions, or through other images the film gives us. In this way, Antonioni has given us a film that commands our attention. If we don’t keep focused, likely we won’t pick up on the details of what’s happening.
He continued this method with …
La Notte (1961)
Where L’Avventura took us on a journey through the Mediterranean, offering countless scenic vistas in Italy, La Notte minimizes the scope to two parties and the neighborhoods they’re being held in. Marcello Mastroianni stars as a writer celebrating the release of a new book, though privately he’s struggling with his professional life. The incredible and incomparable Jeanne Moreau (likely one of the greatest actresses in history) stars as Mastroianni’s long suffering wife who is dealing with the illness and impending death of a close friend. These two drift further apart from one another as they drift through the parties, especially when Mastroianni’s character meets and befriends the young daughter of a party host.
Once again, director Michelangelo Antonioni highlights the visual element to every encounter as opposed to the dialog. He gives us a sequence wherein two characters have a pleasant, friendly conversation, but then a detail as subtle as the way one of them looks in a mirror afterward forces us to understand that she didn’t mean a thing she just said, rather putting up a front to maintain the happy atmosphere at the party.
Building on what he’d accomplished in those two films, Antonioni then busted out …
The initial release of L’Avventura in 1960 didn’t go as well as it should have. The audience’s hostile reaction to what they were seeing led Antonioni and the film’s star Monica Vitti to flee the theater. In less than two years, however, the film’s reception had improved greatly, to the point that most were beginning to understand that what Antonioni was doing was not stale and lifeless, but rather he was inventing a new cinematic language. (Side point: while Antonioni was doing this in Italy, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were likewise revolutionizing French cinema in a totally different way. What a time to have been alive!) Thankfully, due to this improved critical standing, by time L’Eclisse was scheduled to be released, anticipation had reached a fever pitch. And boy did Antonioni deliver!
Once again collaborating with Monica Vitti, they unveiled what is my single favorite film. Let me take you through it step by step.
The film opens with a sustained sequence of Monica Vitti and actor Francisco Rabal walking around a room, going about their day, but with an obvious tension between them. Interestingly, the film does not allow the reason to be known. We’re given no dialogue to explain what is going on. Admittedly, the first time I watched this movie the sequence seemed highly boring for the first minute or so, until I realized what was happening. The film is making you experience the tension these characters are feeling, but by not letting you know what’s happening, you can’t take sides and begin forming opinions about what caused the tension. You’re made to simply sit there with them and feel just as uncomfortable as they are. This feeling of unease grows and grows until they finally speak again. And the film accomplishes that without a word being uttered until the mood is strongly established.
As the plot develops into a love story between an idealistic young woman and an ambitious stockbroker dialogue is a little scarce, but the film offers up all the tricks Antonioni mastered in his earlier films. The scenic vistas and broad city shots from L’Avventura appear in force (always highlighting an unspoken feeling between characters), and the intimate details of facial expressions reappear from La Notte.
In L’Eclisse we have a shot of the two leads talking a slow romantic walk through the city. There are no other pedestrians or traffic. The film doesn’t highlight this or draw your attention to it, but once you notice it, it really stands out. What is the purpose of this? If you’re having a slow romantic walk with the object of your affection, how much will you be noticing besides that person? Nothing. So the film isolates any other possible distraction so you feel the way the young lovers are feeling, like no one and nothing else exists, and you probably won’t even realize the film is doing this.
L’Eclisse offers countless little details like this. When you see the film, give it your full attention. No other movie has ever planted so many tiny little seeds throughout the shots and given them so little focus. They’re there for you to find on your own. I can’t even begin to describe them all to you. (I’ll give you this one: when Monica Vitti snaps a twig and drops it in a barrel, pay careful attention. That’s one of the most important details in the whole film.) By the time the ending rolls around, the series of events play out without a word of explanation, and yet make perfect sense thanks to the subtle details peppered throughout.
Additionally, the film has a seven-minute ending sequence that frankly seems out of place, to the point that some distributors simply cut that piece off during initial distribution. Do not miss it. If you see it and don’t understand it, watch the film again.
Summary: Why is all this so important?
This was a question posed to me by someone who had heard my entire rant about this trilogy. What’s the big deal about giving more attention to the visual details than the script?
Simply put, the Incommunicability Trilogy is the first cinematic work that is truly and uniquely cinematic. Even the greatest films of all time, ones that came before these three, would’ve still been great as novels or plays. But Antonioni’s trilogy defines cinema. It defines everything that movies can be. It defines what sets them apart from all other forms of entertainment. It defines what makes cinema art, a legitimate form of art. No other film, not even Citizen Kane, is quite capable of that. These films had an impact unlike any other in history. According to an obituary for Antonioni, the trilogy “systematically subverted the filmic codes, practices and structures in currency at its time.” In other words, it changed the game. It took the rulebook, threw it out the window, and started over from scratch. Art in general thrives on innovation, and rarely has any art medium been so dramatically and effectively shaken up.
A commonly stated idea is that a picture is worth a thousand words. A film is typically made up of 24 pictures or images every single second. So in theory, an average 90-minute film should be worthy of around 130 million words. Unfortunately, I cannot think of a single film that truly is. Maybe someday one will be made, but for now, there’s nothing. However, if I had to name a film or group of films that comes closest to deserving that prestige, it is without a doubt the Incommunicability Trilogy.