There’s an old expression that is often considered a classic feature of the Italian character: “dolce far niente", the sweetness of doing nothing. Whoever coined the term had clearly never seen a film by Michelangelo Antonioni. The director’s world is full of chic, aimless characters that often seem to have no particular occupation beyond languid conversation and solitary ennui. This is no truer than in his trilogy of alienation. 1960’s landmark “L’Avventura” and 1962’s “L’Eclisse” are masterpieces of the fragmentation of human relationships, quietly dismantling life and love on the windswept coasts of Sicily or the eerily modernist EUR district of Rome.
“La Notte” (1961), despite Monty Python’s best efforts, has gotten comparatively less attention over the years. Perhaps that will change now that this neglected middle child is finally joining the Criterion Collection on an absolutely beautiful new disc, which makes up for its relative lack of extras with its stunning presentation of the film itself. Enmeshed in the high society of Milan, it has neither the elemental grandeur of “L’Avventura” nor the nuclear suggestion of the final scene of “L’Eclisse.” On the surface, therefore, it might seem less universal and more essentially “Italian.” Yet when you look closer, it’s about as nationally contained as Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low,” which is to say not at all. The Milan through which Antonioni guides the beautiful, broken married couple at the center of his film is a Dantean, biblically evocative landscape of high rise buildings and even more heightened sexual tension.
Marcello Mastroianni is Giovanni Pontano, a successful novelist who inevitably seems to lack both direction and self-confidence. Jeanne Moreau is his wife, the stoic Lidia. That their love has fallen away is obvious to everyone but themselves. This is a cliché, of course, but it’s more interesting here because both Giovanni and Lidia are constant observers. He is more like the dashing but impotent Italian journalist archetype, which had its greatest moment in Mastroianni’s own La Dolce Vita but continues as the central lens in films like Paolo Sorrentino’s new The Great Beauty. He sees everything, and presumably writes about it, but is somehow simultaneously helpless and naïve.
Moreau’s Lidia is more, well, French. She is wiser to the decay of her marriage, and wanders Milan in search of more thrilling images. A particularly heated moment comes when she stumbles upon a brawl in an empty lot in a bad part of town, between the least convincingly violent gangs since “West Side Story.” The knives and the shirtlessness give her pause, though she ends up rejecting the advances of the triumphant thug. Still, hints of a bourgeois French wife that would become “Belle de Jour” lurk just off-screen.
In fact, lurid affairs are not in the cards for Lidia and Giovanni. Such a blunt way to break up a marriage would be too easy for Antonioni and much too brusque a gesture in this particular film. The real action here is in the settings around them. Like “High and Low” it is a 1960s grafting of heaven and hell onto an urban landscape, carrying the social and cultural implications of class along a sweeping journey through the life of a city.
The opening shot, under the credits, is a descent along the side of a skyscraper accompanied by metallic, alienating music. “La Notte” begins in a high rise hospital, at the deathbed of Tommaso, Lidia and Giovanni’s real friend. Milan’s sterility is the central character of this whitewashed home for the ill. “Hospitals are becoming like nightclubs,” Tommaso says, “people want to enjoy themselves even to the end.” Yet the champagne he serves to his friends falls flat, and the shut-in nymphomaniac down the hall only underlines how little fun is really happening in this towering monument to modernity.
And then Lidia and Giovanni go to an actual nightclub, fleeing from the boredom of their apartment (also up in the air). Raw sexuality in this film is on the ground, or beneath it. Lidia’s visit to gangland took place on the flattened ground, and this particular club could very well be beneath it. Antonioni’s use of a striptease performed by black dancers is a rough, and likely reprehensible use of exoticism and orientalism, but at least it makes its meaning pretty clear. Giovanni and Lidia want to be turned on but don’t entirely know how to express it, making awkward conversation around the spectacle in front of them while trying to use its energy to restore their sensual connection.
When they leave the club, however, it is still early. They have an entire night to pass, and they will do it at the modernist villa of Signore Gherardini, a wealthy tycoon interested in Giovanni’s work. The party scene is somewhat divorced from reality, which Antonioni accomplishes with the gradual accumulation of strange details. A cat stares into the eyes of a broken statue, as if determined to make it speak. A crowd of people gather to faun around an unseen character, though Gherardini’s wife urges them all to leave him alone and let him go to bed. One expects it to be a child, but it turns out to be a horse. The jazz musicians in the backyard play the whole night, and into the morning. A sudden rainstorm turns a muted affair into a sudden bacchanal.
The whole scene is weird, and almost troubling. There is constant chatter, like in the party scenes that populate Fellini’s movies, but here the guests seem comparatively faceless. Antonioni’s eccentricities are darker, more alienated from themselves. This is the backdrop against which Giovanni encounters Gherardini’s daughter, played by Monica Vitti, the director’s great muse. Here is the grand opportunity for infidelity, for a final break. Lidia will be given a similar chance, though her man is afforded much less screen time. Vitti’s erotically-tinged whimsy, which in someone else’s hands might even verge on twee, is the centerpiece of this morality-free social landscape.
Is this hell? If that were the case, that sterile hospital scene would be something like heaven. Instead, Antonioni is introducing these allusions to deconstruct them. The cosmology of Italian society, with its towering modern architecture, its violent underbelly and its sexually decadent dolce far niente upper class, is about as coherent as a hall of mirrors. However, there is more to “La Notte” than a reading of Italian society. The final stroke raises the film up to the level of “L’Avventura” and “L’Eclisse” as one of the most interesting interrogations of modernity and its victims. Lidia and Giovanni find themselves in the Garden of Eden.
When the sun rises, the couple reunites, at least physically. Is their marriage intact, or have they only reconnected because they need to take the same car home? The film certainly refuses to accept the positive implications of daylight, making sure to keep the figures of Lidia and Giovanni completely shadowed as they move to exit the villa. Then, after passing the still-jamming jazz band on the lawn, they wander into the expansive grounds of the Gherardini estate. Husband and wife, they are alone in the natural world for the first time.
Their conversation, weighted by the entire film that precedes it, is both fleeting and of monumental importance. After about 100 minutes in the full context of Milanese society, they have returned to the origins of their marriage and perhaps the origins of marriage itself. Of Antonioni’s trilogy, “La Notte” is the only one that ends with words. Lidia and Giovanni are given the chance to find closure, a luxury that “L’Avventura” obscures at a distance and that “L’Eclisse” will not even allow to happen. Yet there is no more resolution here. The alienation and emptiness of modern life continues to haunt Antonioni’s characters, but here there is no potentially infuriating ellipsis. In a way this is the director’s most devastating conclusion, even if it is also his most human. And for that, it may very well be the most interesting film in the trilogy.