Conversation (June 1985)
Having seen your films, especially Red Desert, the show of “Enchanted Mountains” didn’t surprise me at all. I know you have always been a painter. Do you think there is a close relationship between painting and cinema?
No, I think that cinema is very close to all forms of art – in a sense, it is the culmination of them all. It is a richer, fuller medium. Through cinema it is possible to tell what is true and what isn’t, what is beautiful and what isn’t – everything, truth and lies. The only thing that matters is to be convincing on screen. At that point there is no longer any true or false; all that’s left is cinema on a blank screen, and that is extraordinary.
How did you come to painting?
I painted when I was young and I kept it up as a student; I enjoyed it. I did portraits (of my mother and father, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin), I did architectural drawings. But I never had any artistic ambitions. Then, when I was working on Red Desert, I took up my brushes again in order to refamiliarize myself with color. And in the last few years I have gone back to painting again, taking advantage of the fact that I could not make films, since my inner rhythm is different from what the film industry requires. But I suppose it was really curiosity that brought me back to painting. I began with abstract things. One day I was putting together the bits of a painting that had been ripped to pieces, and I realized that they were mountains. Such fun! One of those paintings, looked at under a magnifying glass, gave me a really odd feeling – I was fascinated by the material. And since I had always wanted to explore the hidden side of what appears to the naked eye, I decided to photograph it and enlarge it, using a procedure similar to what I used for Blow-Up. Photographic enlargement modifies some effects, changes certain relationships with the object, gives colors a different tonality. It’s a bit like putting a piece of pottery into a kiln: you never know what’s going to come out of it. Naturally, experience is a big help; more and more, you get to anticipate what the transformation will be. But there’s never any lack of surprises! What strikes me most is that in this way one really comes to grips with the materials of the painting.
Your original paintings are ‘very small, about the size of a postcard. Why is that?
Because my studio isn’t very big! And besides, I don’t like painting at an easel. Moreover, I like working with small sizes. It only increases the surprise when you come to enlarging them. I’m not a painter – more a filmmaker who paints. The finished work is not the postcard-sized piece, but the enlargement of it.
In that case, it was almost an accident that you came to work on mountains.
I love mountains, so probably my choice was instinctive. But certainly, enlargements are a long and delicate process: you have to go through a whole lot of tests in the lab before you get to the finished thing. That’s why it’s not possible for me to paint while I’m working on a film – I can’t do two things at once. It’s strange that for those little “dabblings” I got better reviews than for my films! By the way, I’ve also done some “enchanted valleys” which I personally prefer to my mountains (I was born in a city in the Po Valley) – but I’m not going to bore you with Antonioni’s different “periods”!
Are there any painters who have particularly influenced you?
Well, I do like painting, but I can honestly say that I haven’t been influenced by anyone painter in particular. The same goes for the cinema too. Perhaps, at a certain time, I was influenced by one of Robert Bresson’s films, though just one – Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne – but not by any others. When I start on a film, I try to forget everything that I’ve read or seen. As Wittgenstein used to say, it is very hard to see what we have in front of us. What we have to do, therefore, is to forget everything and follow what we have inside us.
That is the same advice you gave to students at film schools last March when you were at the Cinematheque of the Palais de Chaillot. Without meaning to, you astonished everybody.
They kept talking about citations, as if cinema was something that you could learn how to do by looking at other films. “What citations do you need?,” I asked. “You take the camera, you go down into the street, and you just start shooting! You can go to school later, after you’ve found out whether or not you have any talent.” What other advice could I give to students? I was honest with them, but I don’t know if they really understood what I was saying. Certainly, all of us have to acquire a certain amount of cultural cross references but that’s not what really counts. As far as I’m concerned, if I see a film I like I try and forget about it as quickly as possible so that I’m not influenced by it. For an artist, imitation is death.
You photograph your miniature paintings and then enlarge them, so one could almost say that the process is in some way akin to cinema. Not even with your stories in That Bowling Alley on the Tiber did you really abandon the style of the cinema.
That’s true. The stories are rough drafts of film scripts, which in my mind took the form of narratives – so I suppose you could say that they are “films in writing.” Anyway, neither painting nor writing are activities which I would consider extraneous to filmmaking. Those stories aren’t that old: I began publishing them in Corriere della Sera four years ago. I wrote “Four men at Sea” – the subject of The Crew – while driving from Tehran to Chiraz. In the desert we ran into an incredible snowstorm, but there I was, sitting quietly and writing a story about the sea!
In that story you recall the influence of Conrad
Conrad is certainly one of the writers whom I most admire. In my life I have had several literary love-affairs – with Gide, Camus, Pavese, Faulkner, Eliot. My passion for Conrad was among the most intense; Gide on the other hand is a lost love. I think many modern writers owe a lot to Conrad, especially Faulkner. Conrad has an extraordinarily subtle psychological insight, a very poetic style of writing, never overbearing, always quite low-key. But I loved Faulkner, too. I have to say that American literature has given me a lot. Recently I read a brilliant book by Joan Didion, a sort of documentary about El Salvador. It’s called Democracy, and its an excellent book, somewhere between Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein in terms of style.
In your book, you cite just one French author: Roland Barthes.
We were good friends. He wrote a short piece, “Dear Antonioni,” which is perhaps the best thing that’s ever been written about me. He was an incredibly sweet and sensitive person. Barthes was not just a very cultured man, he was a real artist, too. His essays are full of truly poetic insights. And that was actually his problem, the inability to be just an essayist. For a while I thought I might use some passages out of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments for a film about jealousy, based on a story by Italo Calvino. It wasn’t going to be a film with a normal plot, but something more literary: the characters were simultaneously aware of their discussions about love and of what love is in the real world, and from this a sort of comparison of the two emerged. However, I never completed that project, and it was partially my fault. I would have needed Roland Barthes’s help, but he had just recently died.
You wrote in one of your stories: ” I rarely think about my youth.” Is that true?
It’s the future I’m really interested in. Kierkegaard wrote somewhere: “When you want to understand life, you look at the past; when you want to live, you look to the future.” At my age, you’ve only got one option: the days to come must be better than those that have gone before, otherwise you’ll just go crazy.
Much has been said about Antonioni’s “sadness” and “‘anxiety.” Now that I know you better, it doesn’t seem that you are either sad or despairing.
Well, I may not be a manic-depressive, but I certainly do have my little problems! In any case, my last film, Identification of a Woman, isn’t despairing. The fact of describing in one’s works the frailty of human sentiments, the supposed “alienation” and tragedy of human existence doesn’t necessarily mean that the author himself is despairing or “alienated” from the human race. On the contrary, whenever people talk about alienation, they forget that there are many forms of it. There is the one that Marx talked about, then Freud’s version of it, and also Hegel’s. As for me, alienation is not an essay topic. In my films I don’t want to prove a thesis, just tell a story, and the meaning of these stories is something that comes afterwards, at the end of the film. While I am making a film I try not to think, otherwise I would feel so strongly inhibited that I would never achieve anything.
How do you start off making a film?
From my observations of real life. This sort of observation becomes a kind of spiritual nourishment, food for thought. To create a work of art doesn’t mean to invent things out of nothing, but rather to transform what already exists according to your own nature, your own personal style.
Are you against adaptations of literary works?
I don’t think it matters where the idea for a film comes from: it can come from a book, from a conversation with a friend, from a short story. The fact that a film is based on a novel may help initially but after a while it becomes an obstacle. I realized this when I was working on The Girlfriends. “Among Women Alone,” the story by Pavese that inspired this film was very literary. Pavese’s images are all connected to words and I had great difficulty in translating those literary images into cinematic graphic images.
Sometimes you have been criticized for not making films with a social or political message.
It’s true that I’ve never had any social or political commitments. I think people are the most important thing in the world. Naturally, living in this society, I am partly influenced by what happens around me. But I do try to avoid being conditioned by it. Borges writes that “time is the material of eternity.” On another level, you could say that men, individuals, are the material of society. One of the reasons why I do not particularly love political films is that they are made up of just “moments of strength”; I mean, events are presented one after the other with such insistence that in the end they don’t seem real. Life is also made up of pauses, transitions, silences. And in political films no space is given to such moments as these. Without the “transitional moments,” which as far as I can see are the most authentic part of human experience, a story loses its interest.
I know that you often go to the cinema. Which current directors do you prefer?
My tastes are very fickle. And anyway, it’s the films that interest me more than the directors. (Even “great” directors can make a bad film, every now and then). Let’s say – and this isn’t an exhaustive list – that I’m interested in Bergman, Altman, Fellini, Woody Allen. I thought, for example, that Fellini’s latest film, And the Ship Sails On, was absolutely splendid. It’s the work of a director who knows what he wants and how to achieve it on film. Apparently, nothing extraordinary happens on board that ship; after all, nothing really unusual can happen on a ship. In the space of a few days the passengers get to know each other. And yet, of course, there are all sorts of things going on – from individual existential crises to conflict between social classes to political conspiracies to war. In that film you see all life represented; it caught my attention right from the beginning. It’s a very perceptive work, conducted with great intelligence and “discretion,” without any of the pompousness that Fellini doesn’t always manage to avoid. You feel that the filmmaker is looking at the world with a great deal of respect. After 8 1/2 it’s my favorite film by Fellini.
You’re not like those critics who, if they admire Antonioni, seem to almost hate Fellini.
Fellini is an outstanding filmmaker. Very few people work with as much skill as he does.
Even though, unlike Fellini, you never talk about your personal memories, the name of your native city, Ferrara, does occur often in your stories of That Bowling Alley on the Tiber.
Ferrara is a very funny city, beautiful and mysterious at the same time. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it was one of the liveliest places in Europe. The Este Court played host to [Ludovico] Ariosto, [Torquato] Tasso, and [Pietro] Bembo (a famous poet and scholar), and to other very important architects and painters (there was a very original style of Ferrarese painting, the school of Cosme Tura, Federico del Cossa, Ercole de’ Roberti, and Dosso Dossi). It was also quite an irreligious place: in the famous Renaissance palace of Schifanoia, where – as the name suggests people went to get away from boredom – there are several paintings in which knights are shown with their hands up ladies’ dresses and that sort of thing. It’s a city with a very important artistic tradition. In the twentieth century, painters like [Filippo] De Pisis and [Giorgio] De Chirico, Futurists like [Achille] Funi and [Fortunato] Depero lived there. Strangely, under fascism, this tremendous cultural ferment died away, and almost nothing was left. There were three or four of us left, Giorgio Bassani, Lanfranco Caretti, and myself, who made up a sort of “literary salon.” During our meetings – we were students back then – we used to read aloud what we wrote. I have to say that at the time, Bassani (who later went on to write The Garden of the Finzi-Continis) didn’t write at all well. It used to make me mad, because I was responsible for the literary page of the local newspaper and he used to send me articles that were written in such a contorted style that I had to correct them myself. Then he became a real writer and I got sidetracked with cinema!
Caretti, one of the members of the group you just mentioned, told me that in those days you were famous for your “silences.” “Everybody talked about Antonioni’s silences,” he said. But silences are also important in your films.
Yes, that’s true. I really like keeping quiet and watching the world go by, and in films I like the moments when, apparently, nothing is happening. I also wrote a story, “Silence,” in which an entire film was based on silence. It’s the story of a husband and wife who tell each other just a few very intimate things, at the beginning, and after that they have nothing left to say to each other.
Reading the first story in your book, “The Horizon of Buents, ” one notices a great curiosity for science. I really like that story.
I like it too. Yes, I have a great passion for science, pure science. Although it is very exact and concrete, science always carries with it an extraordinary element of uncertainty. One never knows anything definitively, you can never say you’ve “understood,” there’s never any end to it; every time you start to get somewhere, there’s always something new, another horizon, that presents itself to you.
You also have a great passion for science fiction, I believe. Some years ago, you were supposed to be making a science fiction film in the Soviet Union, L’aquilone [The Kite}.
I’m working on another one, with Ponti and Sophia Loren. The film is based on a beautiful story by an America writer, Jack Finley, and is called Destination Verna. It’s the story of a middle-aged woman who doesn’t expect anything more out of life. And then, one fine day, they say to her: “There’s a seat in a spaceship going to the planet Verna, a marvelous place, a sort of earthly Paradise.” And she asks: “But how do you get there?” The planet Verna is outside the solar system and the distance is such that the woman decides not to go. It is the last big opportunity of her life, but she lets it go by because it would be a one-way trip and she’s afraid of burning her boats behind her. It’s a very understandable reaction. If you asked the average man: “What are you doing here? Wouldn’t you like to go to a Heaven-like place? This is a golden opportunity for you” – very few would have the courage to confront the unknown and drop everything, even though they might complain about their condition down here on Earth. They prefer to live with despair down here rather than confront the unknown. That’s a very human feeling.
Do you keep abreast of the latest scientific developments?
I try to, whenever I have enough time left over from making films to read. Because the problem is, every time you finish a film, you always have another one in mind. And in that case, the more you read the more confused you become. That’s the way it goes.
“When I begin a film, another one always pops into my mind” You wrote that in your book of short stories.
It’s very true.
How many projects do you have in hand at the moment?
Four! Destination Verna, The Crew, Two Telegrams (its plot is taken from a story in That Bowling Alley on the Tiber – in the story there is just the basic situation, but in the film there will be a complete narrative with characters). And then I’m also working on a film for Italian TV about St. Francis of Assisi.
It’s difficult to imagine how a layman such as yourself can make a film about the saint of ” The Flowers.”
On the contrary, maybe a layman such as myself has a more detached view of the man and of that period of history, and for this reason is able to be more objective and interesting to the public. In any case, real Franciscans don’t like “The Flowers” because they think they are too saccharine, too romantic – in short, not authentic. Instead, I have followed some of their suggestions and have stuck closely to documented facts. (I made an in-depth study before I wrote the screenplay). Those same Franciscans appreciate that I have represented the character of Francis in opposition to the corruption of the Middle Ages and the atmosphere of violence on which it fed. Those were the years of the wars between Perugia and Assisi. Francis, too, had taken part in one of those battles. The Perugian knights were on the Pope’s side, and went into battle with beautiful golden armor, while the others were on the side of the poor people. In those days, corruption was widespread, even at the highest levels of the Church. For example, there were wandering nuns, women who, under the pretense of preaching the faith, practically became “prostitutes for God.”
The Pope had enormous power, but either he was incapable of exercising it thoroughly or others prevented him from doing so. For that reason, the provincial areas of his territory were out of his control. Added to that, there was the conflict between the spiritual power and the temporal one (dukes and princes). Speaking of which, there is a very picturesque episode in the film. Pope Innocent III, a man of great intelligence and sharp political acumen, happened to die while he was on a journey and his body lay in state in Perugia Cathedral. His body was covered with jewels and precious stones, but during the night thieves stole them all. In the morning, Francis arrived at the cathedral to pay his respect to the Pope who was his friend – completely naked. Francis preached total poverty, rigorous asceticism, and there were few who could follow him; most couldn’t stay the course. His philosophy was born out of opposition to the cruelty, the evil, and the corruption of the times, but also in opposition to the thirst for power and glory. Everybody then aspired to become a knight. To be part of that class was a sign of great distinction. In an age that had completely lost sight of Christ’s teachings, Francis was so strict that even the Pope had his doubts about supporting him. And so he obtained approval for his order only in the year of his death, at age forty-four.
What is your opinion of Francis as a man?
Francis interests me as an historical figure rather than as a man. He was incredibly tough and, in a sense, almost harsh. He really was a “fanatic,” It’s not true that he loved nature, as people say. That old story about preaching to the birds just isn’t true! And on the same note, I would remind you of a very famous episode. During a journey to Rome, his companions stopped to look at the view, a meadow full of flowers, and Francis told them off, shouting: “Come on! Hurry up! Get back on the road!”
“Francis of Assisi” is your only Italian project; the other three are American. What do you think of the crisis in Italian cinema?
You can’t get the money to do anything worthwhile in Italy at the moment. The last interesting film that I saw was Rosi’s Carmen, a French production. I think Rosi had a good idea in setting the movie on the streets in order to add a touch of verisimilitude to a story that is, of itself, rather ridiculous. The only serious film currently in production here is Fellini’s Ginger and Fred, a satire about TV. The others are just light entertainment with minuscule budgets, with [Adriano] Celentano, [Massimo] Troisi, [Roberto] Benigni, Monica Vitti – all good actors, but they’re bound to making people laugh at any cost. In short – the crisis is serious. And now, very late in the day, the politicians are working on a bill-the so-called “bitter law” – which was supposed to solve a bunch of problems in the cinema, but which has already been so emasculated that there is little left of its original intentions. Cinema has never interested our politicians. On the contrary, it scares them; they think it’s just a tool of undermining the political process. First it was the Christian Democrats, who thought so because of neorealism; today the Socialists think that cinema controlled by directors is dangerous, and so they try to strangle it, destroy it. Today it is practically impossible to market any quality films in Italy.
After the success of Blow-Up, you received some fantastic offers.
An American producer wanted me to shoot a fairy tale, Peter Pan. Can you see me doing Peter Pan? He called me into his office, and on the one side there was Mia Farrow, who was to take the lead role, on the other side was the composer and the artistic director (the music and scenery were all ready), and in front of me there was this producer with his check book out, offering one million and three hundred thousand dollars. And then I just asked: “Since everything is ready, what do you need me for?” Those guys never understood why I turned them down. So many of my colleagues would have accepted. I have to say that sacrifices of a material kind have never really affected me much. The sacrifices that matter have to do with our view of life, they are of the moral kind. It’s when you lie to yourself, when you compromise, that you really pay for it.
You have shot a feature film and a few shorts on video: how did you find that experience?
It was a very interesting experience, even if at the time, in 198o, the techniques of transferring videotape to film weren’t highly developed. The copy – on tape – of The Mistery of Oberwald is very beautiful. I don’t understand why the French television didn’t distribute it more widely. In America, the commercial I shot for the Renault 9 was judged the best commercial of the year. It cost eight hundred million lire to make. For the video I shot for the rock singer Gianna Nannini (the song is called “Fotoromanza”), I only had forty million lire to work with – and in fact I don’t much like the end result. To make intelligent videos you need serious money. I think video is the future of cinema. To shoot on video has so many advantages. To begin with, you have total control over color. The important thing is to work with a good group of technicians. Video reproduces what you put in front of the camera with almost total fidelity. The range of effects you can achieve is not even comparable to cinema. In the lab, you always have to compromise. On video, in contrast, you have complete control – you always know where you are because you can play it back at any stage, and if you don’t like it you can redo it.
To turn to the subject of documentaries, everyone always talks – perhaps wrongly – about your relationship to the neorealist movement. My impression is that you don’t actually have much in common with that whole “movement” – Which, in any case, wasn’t a real movement.
Antonioni the neorealist had a very brief career, limited to a few documentaries. When I shot my first medium-length film, People of the Po Valley, neorealism hadn’t yet been born. While I was shooting it, in 1943, Visconti was not far away shooting Ossessione, the film that marks the beginning of neorealism. It was the first time in an Italian documentary that people got to see reality, poor people. I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think I can safely say that I discovered neorealism on my own.
In your feature films you have departed from the external, social realities to concentrate instead on the study of psychology.
Well, the situation was changing. In the immediate aftermath of the war, some problems were such burning issues that the problems of the individual were relegated to the back burner. For example, it wasn’t very important to know what the factory worker in The Bicycle Thief was actually thinking when you were coming to grips with more urgent matters, such as finding work and surviving. In the 1950s, I thought it was more interesting to study the individual and assess the psychological, ideological, and emotional consequences of the transformations brought about by the war. Besides, in my documentaries there had already been a tendency towards narrative, an opening out towards the intimate problems of the individual. In short, elements of storytelling were already present in my work.
Even when you are doing documentaries, you don’t seek realism for the sake of realism.
No. I’m convinced that if you want to express your own poetic world you have to transcend reality.
You were the first European director to make use of the technique of long takes. I presume, therefore. that you knew The Magnificient Ambersons?
No, I saw it afterwards. I don’t remember thinking of any fIlm in particular when I shot my fIrst long take. I remember getting up onto the dolly and following the actors around, filming them without cutting until the end of the scene. It was instinctive. Though you might not think so at first, it is more difficult to do a long take than to shoot and edit in the traditional way. When two characters are talking it’s constantly necessary to move the camera and the actors, too, and sometimes this movement can become mechanical and artificial; to make it look natural and fluent requires a certain skill. However, I’ve never wanted to be associated with one technique in particular; every film has its own style. In the scene of the Stock Exchange in The Eclipse, for example, it was impossible to do any long takes. If I feel the need to do short takes, I don’t see why I shouldn’t. Some directors such as [Rainer W.] Fassbinder, do long takes and then make cuts and insert other sequences. With that method, how ever, you run the risk of having variations in light, as there were in Berlin Alexanderplatz.
Unless I’m mistaken, you personally oversee the editing of your films.
Yes, I’ve always worked with the editor from the first cut to the last for all my films. For Blow-Up, I was in charge of the whole process; after two weeks my colleague, Eraldo Da Roma, had to leave for London and so I had to manage by myself, with the help of the assistant director. For Identification ofa Woman I also decided to give myself the editing credit because, practically, I had done it with just the help of two assistants. Identification of a Woman is a film which is completely based on editing, a very nervous sort of editing with cuts that are sometimes very bold but do reflect the content of the film.
One could almost say that in this film, the editing is more important than the camera work and the relationship between people and their environment, which up until then had been the hallmark of your style.
In Identification of a Woman I didn’t worry about the visual side of things; indeed, I tried to avoid anything aesthetically pleasing. I felt a need to remain inside the characters. It’s very easy to create visual beauty, you can find that anywhere, even in the films of inexperienced directors. And I know that some films are entirely based on aesthetic beauty. For example, in Paris, Texas, there is some extraordinary imagery, sometimes it’s almost too beautiful, considering the context.
What do you think of recent German cinema? I think that Wim Wenders owes a lot to The Cry, to La notte, and to Zabriskie Point.
German cinema has given a healthy shock to the old continent. It has woken us from our stupor. Among the young directors, Wenders and Herzog seem to me the best. Wenders has his feet on the ground while Herzog is more “inspired,” in the sense that he is also slightly “mad.” Just think of the types of stories he comes up with, his way of portraying certain characters who are always a little strange, on a knife-edge between reality and surrealism.
And recent Italian cinema, which has been so widely criticized?
Faliero Rosati and Peter del Monte seem to me to have their own style, which is something that other directors haven’t yet found.
While you were shooting Identification of a Woman, you said it would be the last “Antonionian”film. What did you mean by that?
Just that I wanted to put an end to a certain kind of cinematic discourse. I want to get away from “sentimentalism” and concentrate on “facts.” Contrary to what many people think, I am quite a violent person, and I want to free myself of this violence by making action films in which the facts speak for themselves. However, my next film, Two Telegrams, will still be about feelings.
From Positif 292, June 1985.