The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni – The Eclipse (1962)

dvisible magazine | Exploring our Creative World » Archive » The Architectural Vision of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Eclipse (1962).

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When a film by the late Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni comes to mind, I think of a quiet, contemplative place full of bold, mysterious, almost overwhelming images. Not since the silent era has a director placed such dependence on the image to convey his vision. His films, in fact, indicate a clear lack of faith in words and dramaturgy, which he felt only served to conceal the truths he sought to discover. If he failed then as a “conventional” dramatist, he succeeded in so many other ways: as a photographer for his exquisite fragmented compositions, a poet for his dedication to divulging the essence of a moment, and a painter for his feeling for light and texture. But perhaps, above all else, Antonioni’s vision, like Jacque Tati, is that of an architect.

Antonioni once said, “The subject of my films is always born of a landscape, of a site, of a place I want to explore.” This sounds more like the words of an architect than a filmmaker, but then Antonioni is both. In the third film of his so-called alienation trilogy, he created his boldest and most architectural work, The Eclipse or L’Eclisse, which focuses on the Roman suburb of Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR).

EUR came as result of Italy’s miraculous economic boom in the post-WWII period when the country’s landscape was forever changed as man-made structures began to dominate, cities expanded and rural areas became suburbs. Although EUR was commissioned by Benito Mussolini in 1935, it was not completed until the 1950s. Italians found its rather odd geometric shapes and sterile surfaces inconsistent with the sensuousness of their culture. Antonioni, on the other hand, was inspired. He was curious about what psychological effects this environment could have on people.

In The Eclipse, Antonioni transforms EUR into a sci-fi-esque backdrop for the existential anguish of Vittoria (Monica Vitti), a young bourgeoisie woman and translator. For much of the film, Vittoria wanders around EUR puzzled by its apathetic residents and bland modernist architectural design. It’s as if she is living on a distant alien planet at odds with human feeling. After her miserable break-up with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal), she becomes reluctant to start a new relationship with Piero (Alain Delon), a materialistic stockbroker. She doubts whether genuine love is even possible in a place like EUR.

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To address this issue, Antonioni creates a mise en scène in the form of a maze that confines and constricts the feelings of his characters. He separates Vittoria and Piero through various man-made barriers, like a large marble pillar at the stock exchange when they first meet, and, when Piero calls on Vittoria at her apartment, a steel balustrade near the sidewalk and a wooden balcony fence, which creates a large empty gap between them. They couldn’t reach each other with a ten foot pole. Furthermore, bars are utilized to signal doomed or lost love. As Riccardo tries to rekindle his relationship with Vittoria, he is framed through the bars of her apartment window. Later on after she promises to see Piero again, we now see Vittoria imprisoned through diagonally crossing bars, foreshadowing the end of their relationship.

Antonioni also isolates his characters within the geometric lines of doorways, crosswalks, curbs, and rails. This further complicates his mise en scène and, metaphorically speaking, leaves the characters emotionally dazed. It is during these instances when the future of Vittoria and Piero’s relationship is at its most uncertain. On the other hand, even when the characters are freed from these constrictions in spacious wide shots, the modernist structures of EUR overwhelm them, so that by comparison they look like little toy figures. Here Antonioni emphasizes how man has been outsized by his own creations.

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The Eclipse concludes with a chilling seven minute abstract sequence that brings the incompatible relationship between Vittoria and Piero and to their surroundings full circle. After they make love and promise to see each other again that night at their meeting place, Antonioni’s camera lingers on the iconography of EUR, which he had established in the first two acts of the film – the rows of housing complexes, the mushroom-shaped water tower, the white lines of the crosswalk, a wooden stick that Vittoria put in a barrel of water, a horse-drawn carriage passing by, etc. He intersperses these images with varying angles of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting place – both from ones we have seen before and newer ones, including wide shots connecting the half-built housing project, a metaphor for the incompleteness of their relationship, with the contours of the intersection.

The difference this time is that Antonioni almost completely vacates the environment. Our focus instead turns toward its geometric lines, spaces and objects, while we contemplate the glaring absence of Vittoria and Piero, who, for some reason, have not showed up at their agreed upon time and place. In this way, Antonioni metamorphoses EUR into an architectural model to re-examine and investigate how its architectural and spatial design serves the characters. Although it may conform with Piero’s unfeeling material existence, its cold modernist rationality conspires against the earthier Vittoria. So when night falls and the blinding light of the street lamp fills the screen and fades to black, human feeling and Vittoria and Piero’s relationship have been obliterated.

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Coupled with the mushroom-shaped water tower, the nuclear imagery here is quite frightening yet appropriate. The astounding advances of scientific man (i.e. the A-bomb and, in general, his modern designs) have been so great that his capacity to work out his problems on a moral level (i.e. the US and Soviet Union conflict during the Cold War) cannot measure up. Antonioni, thus, foregrounds The Eclipse’s undertones of science fiction and presents a nightmare scenario. The problem lies not with man’s designs, but with moral man. Moral man must somehow adjust to the modern environment and advance forward or he will cease to be human or, in the worst case scenario, face extinction.

>Written by d/visible contributor Kevin Hogan.

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