"People disappear every day," we're told in the director's last English-language film, The Passenger (1975, screening Jan. 29 and 30). "Every time they leave the room." The disappearance of the human in a modern life in which everyone's a stranger is Antonioni's great theme, one explored in works like The Passenger, L'Avventura (1960, screening this Tuesday and also on Feb. 4), and the director's greatest international hit, Blowup (1966, screening this Saturday). People disappear in each of these films, and these stories, in their different ways, deal with the ever-more-baffling search for them.
But what makes Antonioni a great artist is not his ideas (at times woolly and vague, as in Blowup and the much-mocked student rebellion film Zabriskie Point) but the beautiful way he uses his medium -- the motion picture -- to convey them. This is as true of his great films as it is of the underrated Zabriskie Point (1970, screening Jan. 31), which if nothing else is a wonderful film to look at. Antonioni has a tremendous eye for imagery: In L'Avventura, wandering around on an island looking for a missing individual, groups of people block and unblock each other's views so we can't see their faces. And objects assume an importance equal to that of the people whose lives they inhabit. The painful end of an affair in Eclipse (1961, screening Jan. 28 and Feb. 1) is demonstrated by a couple's imprisonment in the man's bric-a-brac and the whine of his electric fan; at the end of the movie everyone disappears and we are left with 10 minutes of buildings, trees, and a streetlight pitilessly illuminating a corner where a meeting doesn't occur.
Even Antonioni's earliest films display his talent for the ambiguous imagery of loss and absence. His first short film, Gente del Po (1943, screening with a program of shorts on Sunday and again on Feb. 3), a documentary about people who live near the Po River, shows us a woman's face and comments, "Someone in the fields who is watching may be thinking about happiness." Again and again Antonioni is drawn to observing women's faces, using them as indices of unnameable social anguish. In the short Suicide Attempt (1953) all the real-life would-be suicides who tell their stories are women. His great star is the marvelously expressive Monica Vitti in the four features from L'Avventura through Red Desert (1965, screening Sunday). In them we can watch the actress' tremendous life force gradually turning in on itself.
Outstanding early features like Story of a Love Affair (1950) and The Girlfriends (1955, both screening this Friday) -- or the excellent The Lady Without Camellias (1953, screening Monday) -- employ the same strategy, using such fine players as Alida Valli and Lucia Bose (heartbreaking as a talentless film star in Camellias).
At his heart Antonioni can be thought of as cinema's great cultural anthropologist, whether he's peering at Po River peasants, the miserable rich, 1960s-era hippies, or the Hindu pilgrims he photographed in 1977 for the short Kumbha Mela. (Antonioni's rarely screened documentary about Mao's China, Chung Kuo China, screening next Wednesday, assumedly follows the same pattern). We are all alone, he seems to be saying. Why are we all alone?, he seems to be asking. And like a good modernist artist, he doesn't claim to know the answer. We leave the theater with as many questions as when we went in.
-- Gregg Rickman
"Modernist Master: Michelangelo Antonioni" runs Jan. 22 through Feb. 4 at the Castro, 429 Castro (at Market), S.F. Admission is $7; call 621-6120 or see Reps Etc. on Page 71 for a complete schedule.