«« Film Court

story of a love affair cronaca di un amore


Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un Amore) 1950 | dir Michelangelo Antonioni | writ Antonioni, Citto Maselli, Daniele D"Anza. Silvio Giovenetti, Piero Tellini | cine Enzo Serafin | edt Eraldo Da Roma, Raffaello Vianello, Antonioni | score Giovanni Fusco (sax Marcel Male, piano Arnando Renzi) | production design Piero Filippone costume design Ferdinando Sarmi prod Franco Villani

Cast: Lucia Bose (Paola) Massimo Girotti (Guido) Ferdinando Sarmi (Enrico Fontana) Marika Rovsky (Joy) Gino Rossi (Carloni), Anita Ferrara, Bobi d'Alma, Carlo Gazzapini, Nordo Remediotti, Renatto Burrini, Vittoria Mondello (Matilde), Franco Fabrizi (fashion presenter)

as the crimes are not directly witnessed by the camera, they are circumstantial, symbolic and fated

Although Antonioni's first feature film The Story of an Affair (Cronaca di un Amore 1950) looks as if it comes from the prevailing Italian neo-realism of the period, it actually owes more to American film noir. The black & white documentary landscapes of neo-realism are there, of course, and the atmosphere is driven by the bleak industrial edges that sit in the floating fog of the Milanese winter. There are plenty of shadows, though -- literally and figuratively -- and the core action is driven by a beautiful femme fatale who is as wilful and impulsive as her beauty allows. And there is the gumshoe element, the use of a private investigator who provides us with those details of the past that help us understand the present.

Typically for such narratives, the present is a montage of parallel Time scenes in which events seem predestined, especially when viewed in the light of the past. Antonioni always understood the poetic freedom of film montage, and used it subversively even in these days of post-war realism. Despite the classicism implicit in the Italian settings -- some of the action is in Ferrara, that walled city of Renaissance dream palaces and wide ethereal streets -- Antonioni is already a modernist on the edge of expressionism. Milan is modern among Italian cities, and Antonioni loved its new straight-line architecture, even the fouled irrigation canals with their distant vanishing points.

Atmosphere is everything, that pure barometer of instinct and psychology. Consider the score by Giovanni Fusco, a minimalist atonal dithyramb for piano and sax, which haunts the scenes like the cries of a deranged burlesque performer. Even as the credits roll, and we watch Paola Fontana pull away and enter the traffic flow in her silver coupe followed by the private investigator Carloni in a black saloon, we hear the grim staggering of the saxophone, beautiful yet tormented, rational, yet irrational. The idea of crazy love in the urban world is established immediately, despite the documentary scenes and the casual conversations of the bit players that follow.

Antonioni: Story of a Love Affair

Paola & Guido

The sex-triangle plot seems simple enough, although the circumstances make it psychological rather than venal, so that by the end everything is more complex, more ambiguous. Money does matter in this story, yet money is not the primary motivation. The two principals -- Paola (Lucia Bose) and her lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) -- are fated rather than devious. Guido is a victim, although it would be superficial to say he is Paola's victim. Even though Carloni wonders at one point if Guido is guilty of murder, he just drifts, bumped along by the current. The bigger scheme of life is at work here, lovers as elegant automatons, prisoners of an invisible order. This isn't an Italian Catholic thing either, as religion plays no part in this drama, despite the fleeting view of the Domm de Milan (Milan Cathedral) in the first few frames.

Initially Paola is a reinvention of herself, fast moving and existential, disguised and hiding in the moment; as the film progresses and the past catches up, she is exposed, although this unmasking is psychological rather than criminal even though what happens is criminal.

The daughter of a "professor", Paola was raised and educated in Ferrara, the once famous principality of the Borgias, and it's there that Carloni the investigator discovers her "secret". For some reason her husband -- the wealthy Milanese fabric manufacturer Enrico Fontana -- has decided to check her past (on a "whim" according to the detective agency) as they were married after a very swift courtship.

He found some photos -- Paola alone, Paola with girlfriends, Paola with a boy, or part of a boy, mostly out-of-frame, yet just enough to make him jealous. Many families were shattered by the war, and reinvention of who or what a person used to be was probably common. Fontana himself had done well despite (or because of) the war, become part of the nouveau riche, making his wealth in the fabric industry... and while he might've just picked her up in a bar or at a party, we fill in the dots, suppose that Paola was a model, or perhaps wanted to be a model -- even then Milan was a nascent fashion hub -- came into contact with Fontana in March 1943, married him within 2 months. She was 20, recently a school girl, so masquerading as her "uncle" the first place Carloni checks is her old school.

There Carloni learns about her friendship with two girls, and the sudden death of one, Giovanna, two days before she was to be married to a student called Guido. Carloni visits the other girl, Matilde, now living in stressed circumstances with a cynical professor ["Like Petronius, I rise late"]. This time Carloni poses as a "colleague" of Paola's father, now deceased, hoping to pass along some letters of "a spiritual nature". Matilde isn't home but no matter, her husband knows all about Paola and how she stole Giovanna's boyfriend Guido. Love at first sight, apparently. Then the accident... following which Paola disappeared, surfaced in Milan, married to wealth. When Matilde arrives home, she's immediately suspicious of Carloni, and he quickly makes his exit. Matilde then sits down, writes a cautionary letter to Guido, now a car salesman somewhere in Milan.

the 1948 Bellentani affair

According to the Assistant Director Francesco (Citto) Maselli, The Story of a Love Affair took its inspiration from the 1948 Bellentani murder case, which thrilled Italy at the time, including Antonioni. The similarities between fact and fiction are fewer than we might expect -- the high society Milanese setting is the same and Pia Bellentani's lover was a silk merchant but that's about it.

Paola is a different type altogether, a voltaic social climber from the middle class with no apparent artistic inclinations except for looking good and staying warm. Pia Bellentani was a mother, a poet and a pianist, and there was nothing ambiguous about her crime. Pia was confined in an asylum for ten years and we can imagine a similar fate for Paola.

the illusion of flesh & blood

As with all the scenes involving Carloni the private investigator, there is a subtle humor here. The dialogue is sharp, moves the action, reveals information and character. The professor wears a dressing gown, hangs around the apartment as an eloquent unemployed layabout, and Matilde wears a black masculine suit, like a nun forced to do business outside the convent. "(Matilde) came to see me once," says Paola later. "She was boring, badly dressed. Then she vanished." Matilde's distrustful manner and her pale, haunted look raise questions, suspicions about her part in what happened between the three girls in 1943, although she never reappears in another scene. Perhaps she too was in love with Guido.

The story is now set. Carloni continues his investigations, and the Master Scene now assumes the primary action, that is Paola, now 7 years married to Enrico Fontana, a man who often wears his overcoat as a cape and smokes heavily as per the fashion of the day. Moustache, slight build, walks quickly with short steps, as if the appearance of speed equates with efficiency. In this sense, he and Paola are a match, as she moves impatiently through her scenes, elegantly dressed in the latest fashions, smoking and chattering like a model from a glossy fashion magazine. Paola is a pure femme fatale, with her dark eyes and pale complexion, tall and slender like a ghost woman whose reality depends entirely on the vagaries of light & shadow and the exotic clothes that sustain the illusion of flesh & blood.

A trophy wife for Fontana? Without doubt, for his is the world of high fashion, business deals and parties, where image and social exclusivity mean everything. "Luciani made me a business proposal," he says. "Let's hear it," says Paola. "It involves you," he says. "He said I'll buy your wife for 300 million lira." Paola is sitting at her dresser, doing her face. "Only 300?" she says. "You know what an Eastern Prince would have said...." "What?" "You can have my wife for free... then I'll kill you." Fontana is sitting nearby in an armchair. "Maybe he would," he says. "But a Milanese industrialist, for free...? Hmm, he'd say, Give me the money, you can have her... then I'll kill you." Fontana then adds the raison d'etre: "He earns the money, avenges the insult, gets rid of the wife."

It's of interest that Fontana was played by an Italian aristocrat, Count Ferdinando Sarmi, a designer of high fashion clothing, and it's his dramatic haute couture that Paola and others wear in the film. This use of clothing as art fits well with Antonioni's predilection for using landscape as art, or art itself as landscape in his films. Despite the prevailing neo-realist credo of harsh documentary settings, Antonioni is able to psychologize both the landscape and his characters by using art. This method becomes the de rigueur Antonioni style by the time of La Notte, where it becomes more difficult to distinguish the internal from the external landscape. For some, this dissembling of conventional story narrative in favor of a personal expressionism is troubling... but here, in his first feature, there is no such difficult abstraction.

Paola is always dressed as if she has just left a fashion runway and is often seen dragging her tresses through the rough streets and gutters. There's an absurdity to it, although the upper classes -- especially the nouveau riche -- have always indulged in the absurd. We first see her emerging from an opera house (probably the famous La Scala) just after midnight, a glittering Cinderella in a shimmering white coat and white fur, stepping onto the pavement of the arched portico.

It's here that she sees Guido watching her from across the street, the first sighting in seven years. She hurries off to catch up with her husband and their friends. Guido phones later that evening, says it's important that they meet. She agrees and the next day picks him up at a kid's rugby practice and they drive to a nearby lake (probably Lake Como). Many scenes are pivotal in terms of the plot, and some, like this one, are remarkable for their judicious choice of locale. Set on a descending terrace beside the gray water, the steps extend straight to an off-screen infinity like the risers of a vast theatre. The location is real, yet the modernism is theatrical. It's anti-romantic, yet there's something fantastically romantic about this setting, this troubled rendezvous.

Guido shows her Matilde's letter warning him about Carloni's investigations. Paola is concerned, and her anxiety seems incriminating even though it's unclear whether Giovanna's fall down the elevator shaft was accidental or something else. The complicity of Guido & Paola in the tragic event is clear, yet the nature of this complicity isn't. Were they accessories to a murder or a suicide or a clumsy accident? At the time of her death, Giovanna was to have married Guido within two days. Yet Guido was now in love with Paola. Motive, desire, and opportunity are all there, yet in what was to become a signature motif in the Antonioni style, all this becomes part of a deliberate mysticism.

Now, on the terrace by the lake, their old intimacy returns as they sit side by side, share the histories of their past seven years. She notes that he smokes the same old cheap Nazionale cigarettes. They ponder what to do about Carloni. It isn't long before their affair is resumed, fated, as it were, by Fontana's ill-advised probe into his wife's past. Guido goes to Ferrara, finds out Carloni has visited Giovanna's old apartment building, examined the elevator. His anxiety is compounded by the fact that's he broke, that he hasn't been able to do anything significant with his life following the war. Paola offers him money, but he declines out of pride. She has an idea, suggests that he sell her husband an expensive car as he'd promised to buy her something special for her 27th birthday.

This seems like a practical idea, if dangerous. Fontana can't know that she knows Guido or even who Guido is. Guido has an associate, Valerio, who can acquire a new model Maserati, and they can work through him. The subterfuge requires a chance meeting, and they arrange to do this at a charity clothes auction to be held in a club called Esperia. Valerio's mistress is a blonde model called Joy who will be working at the auction, and who already knows "Mrs. Fontana" from client modelling jobs at a Milan clothing store.

But just like the machinations of the lovers in Double Indemnity -- the Noir classic that probably had some influence on Antonioni -- things do not go exactly or easily to plan. Paola is jealous when she sees Guido dancing with Joy, is convinced there's something between them, and indeed we wonder if she's right. Paola outbids all for the dress Joy is modelling and when the leggy model peels it off (in a very sexy choreography) and presents it to her, Paola throws it back, snaps, "Keep it." Meanwhile she ignores Valerio, despite the agreed need for an occasion to introduce him to Fontana. In an angry encounter near the washrooms, Guido snarls, "What's wrong with you, stupid?" Paola tries to slap him but he grabs her wrist. "I don't get you," she says angrily. "A deal so you can go with a tramp?" It's all a jealous misunderstanding, of course, but unlike the Countess Pia Bellentani, Paola doesn't take her husband's gun and shoot her lover.

Story of a Love Affair

Antonioni: Cronaca di un Amore 1950

Paola & Guido

Cut To:

...a bleak winter road in the country with two giant liquor bottles on either side, billboard facsimiles on a long straightaway. A Maserati A 6 slopeback races past as the camera draws away to reveal the familiar Fontana sedan parked on the shoulder, Paola and Guido kissing passionately in the back seat. Fast cars, fast women -- life on the edge. When the Maserati returns, it goes into a dangerous skid as a feral dog unexpectedly runs across the road. The screech interrupts the lovers, who disengage reluctantly. Guido gets out, straightens his overcoat as the Maserati pulls up and Fontana and Valerio get out. Shaken yet cool, Fontana says, "You can be dead before you know it in a car like this... unsuitable for a lady." We laugh, of course, but perhaps uneasily. The analogue between the car and the woman is easily recognizable, yet it might not be the only symbolism in this incident.

So the car deal goes south... and Guido remains the victim as he is always responding to rather than initiating events. Although Antonioni -- speaking about this film at the time -- says "I abolished 'the victim', 'the hero', 'the good man' and 'the bad man'" the fact is the creation isn't always what you intend. In the same interview he also says "(The) environment always stayed in the background. And it's this, I think, which distinguishes Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair) from other Italian neo-realist films in which the environment is in close-up and the characters are nothing more than an excuse to show that environment."

While his balance between subject and setting is superb in this film, he did allow himself to diminish story and character in some later films in his pursuit of post-modern abstraction. Here, in Cronaca, while there are no lingering landscape transitions, there are landscapes whose judicious geometrics do prefigure the mindscapes of his later work.

Paola does get her birthday present nonetheless, a snappy little Alfa Romeo 6 C coupe, the sort of "barchetta" model that was popular with Italian coachmakers at the time. When the keys are delivered, she immediately skips outside, dismisses the chauffeur, drops behind the wheel, drives off. From down the street, Carloni the P.I. pulls out in his black saloon, follows.

This appears to be the commencement of the opening sequence in the film (which is used to introduce the title credits), when we see this tailing from an overhead view. Paola knows she is being followed, and when she parks downtown, she ably loses her stalker by slipping into a department store. She then doubles back, crosses the street, enters a building for a showing of some new dresses. Once again she encounters Joy, the blonde she thinks is her rival for Guido's affections. Paola is already rattled by Carloni's snooping, and now, seeing the shapely Joy modelling the new dresses, she is even more rattled.

She paces, she smokes, she looks through the window at her car in the street below and the baffled Carloni on the corner. She slips away, meets Guido in a hotel room, where they discuss Giovanna's death. Paola is distressed, seems to suggest her friend's death was an accident which they allowed to happen, an opportunity seized by passive duplicity. Paola's guilt is both sexual and religious, the hunger and the sickness. "Giovanna separated us in life and in death," says Paola. The irony here is heavy, as Fontana's investigation has driven them together again, as if Fate is the Hunter.

symbolism of the elevator

This sense of determinism, of their fate being the consequence of linked events, is reinforced by the symbolism of the elevator. In order to avoid Fontana, Guido and Paola are forced to retreat up a grand set of stairs that spiral around the hotel elevator. Emotional and fearful, the lovers argue in chorus to the ascent & descent of the elevator cage, as if they are part of a guilty dream concerning the death of Giovanna. Does desire kill? Is desire a spirit form? Is one person's desire/spirit stolen from another's? Etc. Ancient personifications, ancient questions scroll.

This psychology, this sense of the unconscious controlling their lives is also apparent in the role of Joy, who later tracks down Guido, tells him that she's finished with Valerio, and that she merely used Guido in an unsuccessful attempt to make Valerio jealous... so we can see that she has been acting as an unconscious agent of destiny. Her part is pretty effective for a write-in, a character created to satisfy the desire of the film's major financial backer to help a young woman (Marika Rovsky) who was "special to him".

As in all serious film noir sex triangle scenarios, the time must come when the femme fatale will suggest to her lover that they must kill her husband in order to be free. This moment comes after Paola and Guido make love in his rented room. Guido suggests that they run away together. "I feel like a new man with you," he says. Paola is more realistic. "With me you'd come to a standstill." (he's been complaining that he's achieved nothing since leaving the army after the war)

Then Paola says, "You ever think deep down what it would be like if he died?" It isn't long before they're out in the country, scouting a bridge as the best place to shoot Fontana on his way home from work. The bridge crosses an irrigation canal, is approached by a long straight section of road running parallel to the canal, so all drivers must slow down to cross. Again, we are reminded of Antonioni's fascination with straight lines, the sense of infinity implicit in the existential now.

The ending of this film is a classic of the sort of ambiguity that Antonioni was/is to explore time and time again in his later films. He is like a magician who is dissatisfied with his disappearing act and continuously tries to improve upon the trick architecture of his cabinet. Compare, for example, the ending of Cronaca with that of The Passenger or Blowup. Mentalism, metaphysics, and mysticism.

Count Ferdinando Sarmi as Fontana

Just after the release of the film, Count Ferdinando Sarmi who played Enrico Fontana moved to New York where he became the head designer for Elizabeth Arden, abandoned acting even though he appears to have been a natural. Of possible interest is that his character's surname "Fontana" is the same as that of the Fontana sisters, a trio of Italian designers who became popular with movie stars & the aristocracy.

Paola & Guido in elevator stairwell

having ascertained the intimacy between Garroni and the subject

One night Guido Garroni waits for Fontana at the bridge, whom he knows will return home by this route to join his wife. But as it happens, Carloni has delivered his report, and Fontana has read it. Disturbed, Fontana stuffs it in his briefcase, leaves his office. In an eerie sequence we see the Gateman roll back the factory gate on its rails, and Fontana's car passing through, bumping over the puddles as it vanishes into the darkness. His assassin awaits... but is it Guido Garroni? Some might consider what happens next to be an unbelievable coincidence, a crude exercise in authorial intrusion. Yet the action is inevitable, especially when linked to the ambiguous death of Giovanna.

There is no question that Guido has set out to shoot Fontana. He has cycled to the bridge and is waiting with his automatic in his right pocket. Dogs bark, typical sounds in the deep ambient reverb of the rural countryside at night. In the distance, a car is accelerating, the engine tuned to a racing snarl. Guido is briefly illuminated by the headlights of a passing car heading the other direction... then he hears two bangs, which could be shots or backfires... startled, he takes out a cigarette, then hears two more. He looks down the road, sees two headlights, gets on his bike, rides that way.

A car is overturned and burning in the irrigation canal, and a man's body lies on the embankment. Another man -- perhaps the driver of the car that just passed Guido -- is reading the victim's license or identity paper: "Enrico Fontana... etc." Another man appears, and they lift Fontana's body onto the shoulder as Guido arrives. "Look at that," says one. We don't know it at the time, but he's referring to a hole in Fontana's throat.

What is this? A self-inflicted wound? An assassin's bullet hole? A wound from the crash? We never find out, and the hole becomes a mysterious stigmata in a mysterious finale.

Technically this is the climax of the film, not the ending. There is an epilogue, where Paola, fearful and desperate, dressed in a long cocktail dress and swathed in fur, meets Guido on a dingy back street, tells him the police are looking for her. Guido tells her she's mistaken, that her husband is dead, but not by his hand. They get into her taxi, and he delivers her to the doorway of her mansion before continuing to the railway station alone. Abandoned on the steps, Paola writhes in despair like an inmate waiting admission to the asylum, beautiful and mad -- a widow by both accident and design. As Guido's taxi disappears down the street, perhaps we notice a figure emerge from a parked car. Who is it? Was this scripted or is it just an event at the location? The credits roll, and the action closes on black.

in the architecture of all things real & unreal

The film is non-judgemental, is as objective as the narrative allows, although we all know that an edited event must proclaim some sort of bias. Religion plays no part in this film, as it would, say, in a Fellini drama. The action is entirely modern, although guilt drives the principals. The psychology of Paola suggests a child dressed up, although she has no obvious Freudian modus operandi. The fact that Lucia Bose was just 19 when she played the part supports this impression. As for Guido, he appears absolutely normal, and Italy was probably full of similar young war vets struggling to get by in the late forties. Neither devious nor greedy, he just drifts like someone whose potential was stymied by the war, and when he sees Paola again, it's like winding the clock back to the days before the death of Giovanna. Unfortunately Paola is fatal for him, although not so fatal that he can't disappear into the night. This isn't Double Indemnity, where everybody must die.

The sociology of time and place is very interesting in this film, delivered as it is by the neo-realist locations and the modernist action. It is the world as Antonioni found it in Milan, Italy, in 1949. A little shabby, still hungover from the war, still in the emotional winter, yet with a fantasy class living in their upper floor world of fantasy fashion and endless parties. The underclass is there, represented by Valerio the car dealer and his mistress Joy, the Professor and Matilde, Guido and even Paola, as she is a fugitive hiding in the nouveau riche. The middle class is trying to reestablish itself, edge closer to that luxury that Enrico Fontana represents -- nights at La Scala, drinks at the "Little Bar", cigarettes and cinzano, Maseratis and Alfas.

In the architecture of all things real and unreal, there is nothing like the aristocracy, a living symbolism of the way it can be for all Italians. While neo-realism's signature is the face of the underclass, drama has historically dealt with the affairs of kings and queens, the aristocracy and those we elevate as heroes. In the 1920s, European expressionist drama was full of ideology and modernism, and frequently dealt with the industrial classes high and low. Industry is a fantasy of the future, identifiable as it is with an easier way of living, playboys and playgirls and their toys, their romances, their tragedies. These are the people who can afford art, and live as if they're living in an art gallery, a sensibility Antonioni established very clearly in many of his later films, including La Notte, Blowup and even Zabrieski Point.

This gallery consciousness isn't exclusive to Italian post-war directors, as it is a lingering legacy of live theatre set design, and even Hollywood exploited landscapes in this manner with its film noir cities and geological westerns. All film has sociology, yes, but Antonioni also has style, and the balance of his style, his personalism, against or within the rigors of documentary neo-realism is impressive.

© Lawrence Russell / Dec 08

«« Film Court

Guido (Massimo Girotti)

Antonioni: Story of a Love Affair

A digitally remastered version of Cronaca di un Amore (Story of a Love Affair) was released on DVD by NoShame films in 2005. This version of Antonioni's first dramatic feature is the one restored by the Cine Citta Studio lab in Rome. The DVD package contains a booklet with the complete details of this restoration process, plus an interview with Antonioni excerpted from the Italian magazine Cinema, April 1950.

All Antonioni quotes in this feature were taken from this interview.

Culture Court © Lawrence Russell 1998-2009