||| La Notte

Lawrence Russell

La Notte (1961) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni writ. Antonioni, Ennio Flaiano, Tonino Guerra cine. Gianni de Venanzo edt. Eraldo da Roma music. Giorgio Gaslini art/design. Piero Zuffi production. Paolo Frasca produced. Emanuele Cassuto

star. Marcello Mastroianni (Giovanni), Jeanne Moreau (Lidia), Monica Vitti (Valentina), Bernhardt Wicki (Tomasso), Vincenzo Corbello (Gherardini), Maria Ra Luzi (crazy patient), Rosy Mazzacurati (Resy), Giorgio Negri (Roberto), Ugo Fortunato (Cesarino)

Nepi Film/Sofitedip/Silver Film 115 mins b & w

chance, form & dimension

|| It's a world of reflections... of dimensions, where the past and present coexist in the architecture, inhabited by ghosts and dreamers. Windows become murals, and murals become windows. The place? Milan in the summer of 1960, in the boom of its post-war reconstruction.

The camera gently descends the black glass facade of a new tower as if you're in an external elevator, can see the panorama of the city, the reconstruction zones between established buildings, the railway tracks entering the modernist Stazione Centrale like a demarcation between the old and the new. Reflections, imagery... chance, form & dimension. As space becomes hallucinatory, banality becomes art.

Antonioni's La Notte La Notte

Cut To: a hospital patient awakening in agony. This is Tomasso (Bernhardt Wicki), a writer who is dying of cancer. A Doctor and a nurse arrive, inject him with morphine. He moans, says, "What am I going to do?" He rolls to his right, stares through the window at the building across the street, as if some sort of transcendental escape is possible. The doctor picks up a novel from the bedside table, examines the jacket....

Cut To: the street outside the hospital. A small Alfa Romeo approaches, carefully navigating a construction zone, avoiding a demolition bucket, then turns into a small parking area. Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) get out, enter the hospital, take the elevator to Room 103. As the doors open, you see a woman spying from her room just across from the elevator. She slips out and calls to Giovanni, asks him for a light. There's a craziness in her dark eyes, a tuberculin sexual hunger. Giovanni obliges. She says, "My phone is out of order, I wonder if you...." A nurse appears, and she scurries back into her room. Giovanni and Lidia continue to Room 103.

The visit with Tomasso is a strange interlude, conducted in "real time" -- as indeed all of the action to this point and thereafter appears to be -- with all the tension you would expect in an encounter with the dying. The sound is ambient... modulated conversation, a passing helicopter, the pop of a champagne cork as they drink in honor of their doomed colleague. Tomasso's mother arrives, sits quietly in the corner as her son and his friends reminisce. Tomasso has a copy of Giovanni's latest book, "La Stagione" -- he says he's read 50 pages, feels it's some of Giovanni's best writing. Speaking of himself, he says, "The advantage of premature death: you escape success."

Tomasso is full of gallows humor, nervous desperation, impeccable manners. Giovanni meanwhile is like a sleepwalker... he murmurs, he defers... almost as if he is viewing a double-figure in the bed, a dream version of himself. In fact, Tomasso's self-doubt is a direct mirror of the malaise that you come to recognize in Giovanni as the film progresses. Says Tomasso: "I regret that my presence has spoiled so many delightful evenings... I wonder if I've ever done anything useful... I lacked the courage to probe deeply... probably I never had enough intelligence anyway."

The self-doubt of a doomed animal is to be expected, yet the impotence within the despair is typical of the European intellectual in the mid-twentieth century. Alienation and the paranoid Self. The characters are awake in the existential moment, yet wander through the action as sleepwalkers.

La Notte La Notte

Antonioni used two scriptwriters to help him develop the scenario for La Notte -- Ennio Flaiano and Tonino Guerra -- and you wonder if they based this scene on the death of Curzio Malaparte who died in a Rome hospital in 1957 from lung cancer. Certainly Malaparte would've enjoyed the surrealism in the following scene when Giovanni, on leaving Tomasso's room, is lured into the nymphomaniac's room and molested. Again, because of his passivity and the absurd contrast to his visit with Tomasso, the action is dream-like, despite the documentary style of the direction. She becomes a reincarnation of Tomasso, a Freudian personification. Because the cine is black and white, and the characters and settings filmed on location, the naturalism associated with Italian neo-realism subverts the whole idea of fiction... just as the superb cinematography with its art school geometrics and metaphysical symbolisms subverts the whole idea of documentary.

Giovanni rejoins Lidia, who, overcome with sentiment, left Tomasso's room earlier. There is a sense that she and Tomasso shared a special relationship, although its exact nature remains circumspect. Giovanni immediately confesses the incident with the crazy woman. Lidia dismisses it, says, "You were taken by surprise. Let's forget about it." But Giovanni still feels the need to justify what happened. Lidia, sotto, says, "Good story material. I'd call it The Living & The Dead." This dead-pan witticism draws into focus the sub-text behind the incident. The madwoman with her nympho desire is an existential trigger, a proof of life. Yet despite the primal drama, resurrection eludes him.

They drive to the offices of his publisher [the famous Bompiani company] where the book launch for his latest novel is underway. As Giovanni chats and signs copies, Lidia lingers on the periphery, leans against a pillar, watches. All attention is on Giovanni, even though he drifts through the ceremony like an afterthought, connected yet disconnected. Lidia slips away unnoticed, starts walking through the streets. Men appear... in offices, on the street... various classes of workers, sexual possibilities, or accidental witnesses to her aimless stroll. There's a similarity here to the sequence in Antonioni's previous film L'Avventura (where Claudia leaves her hotel in a small southern town, goes for a walk). In fact there are so many similarities in this and other sequences that many critics dismiss La Notte as a reprise of the controversial L'Avventura. The similarities are in the psychology of the characters and in Antonioni's painterly style. And while both films are travelogues of the soul, L'Avventura is rural whereas La Notte is urban.

distant tracks arrive in the present

Lidia's amble takes her to a suburb where she and her husband started out. She witnesses a fight between two punks on a waste lot. She watches some young men firing model rockets in a field. As dusk approaches, she has a drink in a small bar, then phones Giovanni, who has long ago returned to their chic apartment and is now prowling the darkened rooms. He drives to their old district, and they engage in some mutual sentimentality about the area. Lidia is either watching him or waiting for something to happen. Consciously or unconsciously she has drawn her husband here to rekindle their early affection and intimacy. You see them beside a old wall and a stretch of overgrown railway tracks, another setting which suggests much more than mere documentary. Antonioni is a symbolist, his imagery metaphysical. [his protagonists are always suffering from disengagement, represented by disappearing women, and intimidation by the supernatural] Here, the past is almost obscured, the track abandoned... and yet you might recollect the opening of the film where the distant tracks arrive in the present.

Jeanne Moreau: La Notte Monica Vitti: La Notte

They return home. Lidia takes a bath, puts on a new dress. The banality of it, the pure quotidian -- the stuff that would remain off-stage for most dramatists -- continues. Montage is not an option for Antonioni. His real-time action is an extension of live theatre, just as his sophisticated cinematography is an extension of theatre set-design... itself an extension of mural/fresco painting.

They stop at a night club, watch some erotic choreography by a couple of African dancers. This scene is reminiscent of one in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), filmed the previous year with Marcello Mastroianni in the lead. But not only do Fellini and Antonioni share a leading man, they also share a script writer: Ennio Flaiano. It's Flaiano's sophisticated dialogue with its dry edginess and Pirandelloesque sub-text that make their films of this period appear to be the work of a single auteur.

As usual, the night-club scene is masturbatory, suggests decadence through ennui. Faintly narcotic, definitely cynical, it's the reinvention of a song-and-dance interlude in live theatre. The choreography is ancient, although the spin is modern. Again, Giovanni fails to be aroused. It's now late in the evening and they proceed to the party which is somewhere on the outskirts of Milan in a huge contemporary villa owned by a millionaire industrialist. Perhaps you sense that Lidia is steering her husband into situations that might draw them closer together... but of course every time they enter a crowd, they move further apart.

Antonioni and crowds: Dwight MacDonald, who wrote better than anyone on the films of this period when they first appeared, says, "He is the Veronese of films, a master of calculated composition. His groupings are, like Veronese's, both austere and luxurious, classical in design but baroque in surface and texture. He is able to show a complicated scene without any cluttered effect." (Antonioni: A Position Paper) Nowhere do you see this talent for dramatizing large groupings better than in the villa sequences, although the Stock Exchange sequences in his next film L'Eclisse (1962) are also very good. Dramatically, the choreography in both instances is for the same purpose, that is, the point-of-view of an outsider looking in.

In L'Eclisse, the Monica Vitti character hangs around the fringes of the stock exchange floor watching her mother trade. In La Notte, Jeanne Moreau drifts through the edges of the party watching her husband socialize and flirt. In both dramas, there is a failure to engage and a longing for love. The naturalism is as impressive as the alienation is modern. No one in contemporary film has ever matched Antonioni in showing loneliness in the social context of a large gathering.

do you still hang around with intellectuals

When they enter Gherardini's villa, no one seems to be around. "Are they all dead?" says Giovanni as he and Lidia pass through the empty rooms. Appropriately, he sees a copy of The Sleep Walkers, wonders who here would read it. While this is a setup for his later encounter with Valentina (Monica Vitti), the daughter of the Gherardinis, it's also a metaphor for the milieu he inhabits. This is reinforced when they step outside, and Lidia meets an old friend from her schooldays who says, "Do you still hang around with intellectuals?"

Giovanni meanwhile encounters a blonde woman -- Signorina Resy -- who says, "I'm your greatest admirer in Italy... I'd like a novel about a woman who loves a man... but the man doesn't love her. But he does admire her intelligence and her character. They live together... but how could such a story end?" Giovanni says politely, "It could end many ways." You wonder if he recognizes the analogy here to his own relationship. You certainly do, as by now you are also wondering how this story can end. Will another mad woman step out of the shadows and seduce him... and would anyone care. Still, the voyeurism sustains us, replete as it is with post-modern irony and ambiguous visual realities.


Once again Antonioni explores the use of reflection as a means of visual sub-text by using the extensive glass surfaces that make up the walls of Gherardini's designer villa. Despite the rationalist architecture of glass, steel and concrete, the irrational functions as a supernatural counterpoint. When Giovanni watches Valentina amusing herself with a game of solo bocci (shuffleboard) on the patterned tile floor you see him as a reflection in the plate glass. And what you see, really, is a spacializing of the past and the present, as there is a Renaissance landscape mural on the wall. This natural multiple exposure has about it the stuff of spirits, the sense of passing from one world to another... of romanticism and idealization. Symbols abound. In the garden the patrician Gherardini admires his roses, and a cat is transfixed by the disembodied head of a statue on the grass. It's indeed fitting that Lidia slips away, phones the hospital, finds out that Tomasso has died.

It's now raining heavily. Disheartened, Lidia allows herself to be spirited away by Roberto, a lead-footed Cassanova in a coupe. They drive through the night, an impressionistic blur in the downpour. They stop for the lights at a level-crossing, get out of the car, dally. A passenger train glides past. Roberto attempts to kiss her but Lidia disengages, abandons the Hemingway rain, gets back in the car. Roberto returns her to the party.

She knows Giovanni is making love to Valentina. She knows this because she gave him to her. She knows Valentina is reading The Sleepwalkers, is vulnerable. But despite all the head-talk and a couple of half-hearted kisses, nothing comes of it. Instinctively, Valentina knows he's a dead soul. Although she won her "game" (of bocci) with Giovanni, she says sadly, "At least I'm clever enough not to break up a marriage." She adds, "Now you can spend the rest of the evening with your wife." Giovanni protests, then concludes, "It's so dark. How can I find her?" Thus Giovanni is left with his own reflection in the rain-streaked glass.

a melancholy shuffle of weariness

Excluding death, it becomes obvious that the action can only be resolved by metaphor... and when it comes, it better be good. First, Giovanni refuses Gherardini's offer of an executive position in his company. While he doesn't need it, this becomes another example of the artist's inability to commit. There's a verbal confrontation between Lidia and Valentina, but quickly they decide they actually like one another. As the dawn breaks, Lidia tells Giovanni that Tomasso is dead. As they walk away from the villa, the jazz combo is still playing in the garden, a slow and melancholy shuffle of weariness as if the cruise ship has left without them. Signorina Resy, rejected by all the men, consoles herself with a woman on a bench. So it goes. The surrealism is in the muted light and the banality of the lateral events.

Giovanni and Lidia walk onto the private golf course, keep going until they reach a sandtrap. Lidia takes a typed page from her purse, reads what is a de facto love rhapsody, then weeps. Moved, Giovanni says, "Who wrote that?" and Lidia replies, "You did." Finally, after a long day's journey into night and beyond, Giovanni is aroused. He embraces his wife, pushes her to the ground, she protesting. He climbs on top of her, and they roll in the sand. Up music and exeunt on the long view.

Mastroianni's restrained performance as Giovanni has been criticized in the past, even though passivity and creative frustration is what defines his character. This passivity is often a sign of the child-man, a role Mastroianni plays to perfection. Here he looks like a boy in a man's suit, and he relates to his wife Lidia with the affectionate indifference of a boy to his mother. As an intellectual, his role is anti-dramatic, lacks physicality. This isn't just a question of a bourgeois type in Antonioni's films, as the mechanic played by the American actor Steve Cochrane in Il Grido (1957) exhibits a similar sort of passivity. Women become detached from the Antonioni "hero" -- just like mothers relinquishing their sons. The sociology begs analysis, such as the modern secular male detaching from the maternalism of Catholicism... or the childless bourgeois artist in a hopeless search for fulfillment. Still, while Giovanni's condition is a fact, its true nature remains as provocative as the symbolism of Tomasso's death.

An obvious comparison is to be found in Mastroianni's previous role, that of a playboy gossip journalist in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. Here again he plays a child-man, but a man of action, even if that action is trifling. As "Marcello", Mastroianni again finds himself as a man who is unable to commit, a man of talent unrealized. As Giovanni, he finds his talent realized, and yet it brings him nothing. Both characters are left on the edge of a spiritual abyss, studies in the infantile self.

While the success or failure of La Notte should rest only on a viewing of the film itself (regardless of production politics), it will come as no surprise to fellow voyeurs that Mastroianni thought it was a failure. "I didn't like the script of La Notte. I never believed in the crises of my character," he says. Despite his disenchantment with Antonioni [who was having an affair with Monica Vitti], he says he agreed to do the film "Because at the beginning I had the impression that the writer character was someone at the very edge of the conventional. He reminded me of my writer friend Ennio Flaiano. But that wasn't Antonioni's idea at all." As a consequence, Mastroianni got into a heavy dispute with the other screenwriter Tonino Guerra. These quotes come from Donald Dewey's book Marcello Mastroianni: His Life & Art, and while it all sounds like typical gossip from a movie shoot, the detail about Ennio Flaiano should not be overlooked.

Ennio Flaiano (1920-72) was a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, theatre critic... editor of Il Mondo... author of the superb novel Short Cut (1948) about Italy's Ethiopian war, filmed in 1991 by Guiliano Montaldo as Time To Kill starring Nicolas Cage. Without question, Flaiano is the significant intellectual force behind Antonioni's La Notte... and, as it happens, many of Fellini's best: La Strada, La Dolce Vita, Otto e Mezzo [8½]. Alberto Moravia, Flaiano's famous contemporary, says about him: "Flaiano was a little man, originally from the Abruzzo, dark and stubby, with a core of pessimism, of negativeness. He was witty, and he knew he was, with keen intelligence.... As a writer, he oscillated between surrealism and a British black humor." [as quoted in Life of Moravia].

It must be said that Monica Vitti's role as Valentina is intriguing, if a bit indulgent. She seems far too clever for an eighteen year old, too full of world weary wisdom even if she is the sophisticated daughter of a millionaire. As for Jeanne Moreau, her screen presence is perfect for the mystery within her character. But of course she too didn't like her character or La Notte.

© LR 3/06


Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2006