In the early-1960s, director Michelangelo Antonioni made four revolutionary movies with actress Monica Vitti. All of them now have cult status on the arthouse circuit.
Much has been written about Antonioni’s films, but almost all of it takes the form of reviews and critical appraisals. It casts no light on his relationship with Monica Vitti. What’s clear nevertheless is that for him she was both muse and lover. In that sense their relationship is reminiscent of that of Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, their counterparts in France.
And while there’s plenty of material available about Anna Karina, there seems to be almost nothing published in English about Monica Vitti. Searches of the Internet (beyond Wikipedia) and even the British Library prove pretty much fruitless. For the time being at least, she remains for the most part something of a beautiful enigma – unless you can read Italian.
So what can we glean about her to provide a backdrop to the photos showcased here? Well, she was a superbly versatile actress, equally adept at playing the angst-ridden roles in which Antonioni cast her and turning her hand to comedy. Let’s take a look at her through the lens of her career.
Monica Vitti grows up and becomes an actress
Born in Rome in 1931 and christened Maria Luisa Ceciarelli, she has an unhappy childhood, her attention-seeking belittled by her family, her relationship with her mother strained. As the only daughter, she feels she’s treated very differently from her brothers: “I had very strict parents. My two brothers were power and freedom. I was powerlessness and seclusion.” Her experiences as a child will mark her for life – she will never want to have a family and will be wary of marriage.
She makes her stage debut age 14 and acting becomes a form of escapism:
When at fourteen-and-a-half I had almost decided I had had enough of life, I realized that I could act, carry on just pretending to be someone else, and making people laugh as much as possible on the stage and screen; in life it was much more difficult.
When Monica is 18 years old, her family – brothers as well as parents – emigrates to the US. She stays behind and at some point soon after graduating from Rome’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1953, she assumes the stage name Monica Vitti (her mother’s birth name was Vittiglia). Her early career is unremarkable. She tours Germany with an Italian acting troupe and has a role in a stage production of Niccolò Machiavelli’s La Mandragola in Rome. For a few years she’s a struggling actress, combining theatre work with appearances in a miscellany of made-for-TV movies and series.
Monica collaborates with Michelangelo Antonioni
Then, in 1957, Michelangelo Antonioni sees her in a Feydeau farce and invites her to dub the voice of reporter Dorian Gray in his forthcoming film Il Grido (The Cry). One day, working in the dubbing studio, Monica is unaware that he has come in and is standing behind her, watching her. After a while, he says, “You have a beautiful neck. You could be in the movies.” Turning point in her life.
His background and situation are very different from hers. He has fond memories of his childhood and is on his way to establishing himself as a film director, having started out writing screenplays and making documentaries. He is intellectual, aloof, meticulous.
Both Michelangelo and Monica are passionate about their work and fall for each other, professionally and personally. Their first collaboration takes two years to come to fruition and produces L’avventura. According to Monica, “Nobody wanted to take a chance on it and on me, an unknown.” The night that it is shown at the 1960 Cannes International Film Festival turns out to be the inflexion point for both their careers. Its screening provokes boos, whistles and catcalls. But the following morning the tables are turned. A group of highly regarded filmmakers and critics, led by Roberto Rossellini, issue a strongly worded statement:
Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, “L’Avventura,” and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their admiration for the maker of this film.
L’Avventura goes on to win the Festival’s Special Jury Prize. The following year, in a poll for British film magazine Sight and Sound, 70 critics from around the world nominate it as the second-greatest film ever made, after Citizen Kane. For her performance, Monica Vitti wins the Golden Globe Award for Best Breakthrough Actress in 1961.
So what’s all the fuss about? L’avventura is arguably Antonioni’s first masterpiece. He’s utterly uncompromising in the way he throws down the gauntlet to his audience: no real narrative, minimal tension, almost glacial tempo, desolate landscapes – both physical and emotional. His characters are wrapped up in themselves, incapable of forming relationships, dying of ennui rather than living their lives. It’s an extended meditation on the malaise of privileged contemporary society and the pointlessness of some people’s lives.
It could be dire but it’s not – at least not to the afficionados of the art house cinemas, who relish its sheer audaciousness as well as the wonderful acting, sets and cinematography. At the centre of L’avventura is Monica Vitti. Often she’s sphinx-like, challenging us to make out what’s going through her mind, how she’s feeling. But she can also be mercurial – from time to time emotions flit across her face as her mood lightens and darkens. It’s a mesmerizing performance, bang in line with what Antonioni is looking for:
What happens to the characters in my films is not important. I could have them do one thing, or another thing. People think that the events in a film are what the film is about. Not true. A film is about the characters, about changes going on inside them. The experiences they have during the course of the film are simply things that “happen to happen” to characters who do not begin and end when the film does.
L’avventura is the film that puts Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti in the international limelight. It is the first of four they make together over the space of just a few years. The others are La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962) and Il deserto rosso (1964) – all absolute classics.
With her earnings from L’avventura, Monica buys an apartment in Rome. Michelangelo moves into the apartment directly above hers, with an inside staircase connecting the two flats. Like Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard, Monica Vitti and Michelangelo Antonioni are also lovers – their affair lasts a decade before the couple part ways. But before that, Monica does a complete U-turn with her career.
Monica turns to comedy… and tragedy
As Monica Vitti’s fame as an actress grows, offers come rolling in. She’s not interested in going to Hollywood but she’s afraid of getting typecast. So in the mid-1960s she switches from Antonioni’s angst-ridden arthouse films to comedy. In her own words (translated):
I realized I had a talent for comedy when I recited tragic roles in a way that made my friends at the Academy laugh. I understood only later what an extraordinary gift it was.
In 1960s Italy, commedia all’italiana is all the rage. It’s a movie genre that combines straightforward comedy with biting social satire – Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961) is an early example. Monica is the first woman to establish herself in this genre, which up to now has been dominated by men. Two of her big successes are in La ragazza con la pistola (The Girl with a Pistol, 1968) and Dramma della gelosia: tutti i particolari in cronaca (The Pizza Triangle, 1970).
During the remainder of the 1960s and through the 1970s she also works with a number of international film directors including Luis Buñuel – Le Fantôme de la Liberté (The Phantom of Liberty, 1974). But outside of Italy and of the arthouse circuit, she’s probably best remembered as the eponymous heroine of Modesty Blaise (1966), in which the criminal-mastermind-turned-secret-agent she plays is the antithesis of the characters she assumed for Antonioni.
In the 1980s she makes a few more films, including a last one with Antonioni, before returning to the theatre both as actress and teacher. She also has an unsuccessful go at writing and directing as her career gradually winds down. In 1995 she marries Roberto Russo, with whom she has been living for ten years, and soon after that she is diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.
Monica Vitti died on 2 February 2022.
Want to know more about Monica Vitti?
If you can get hold of a copy, The Continental Actress – European Film Stars of the Postwar Era by Kerry Segrave and Linda Martin has a brief chapter on Monica Vitti.
Online, as well as Wikipedia there are a few articles worth reading:
- Monica Vitti compie 85 anni, ecco i dieci motivi per amare quest’attrice unica by Arianna Finos for la Reppublica.
- Monica Vitti compie 87 anni, ma lei non può festeggiare: ultime notizie at Virgilio.
- L’eclisse: Antonioni and Vitti by Gilberto Perez for The Criterion Collection.
- Monica Vitti – Icon, Diva, Comedian! at arsenal.
- Monica Vitti Alian Elkann interview.
- A Note on Comedy Vitti Style (2015) by Pasquale Iannone at Necsus.
Russian Information Network promises much but doesn’t seem reliable.