La Dolce Vitti

A tribute to Monica Vitti and the film that made her a star

In May 1960, the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival was awarded to a film that, as the jury members themselves proclaimed, “invented a new language of cinema.” The film was Michelangelo Antonioni’s deeply provocative and challenging work, L’Avventura: a slow, meditative piece of filmmaking that ushers its audience through a landscape of solitude and isolation. L’Avventura has little regard for plot. It focuses on mentality, character relationships and the profound loneliness of the individuals on-screen. It moves at a deeply methodical pace and is beautifully communicated through carefully orchestrated compositions. It systematically turned cinematic language on its head, challenged the filmic norm and subverted audiences’ expectations; tearing up the rule book with bravado and style.

But, during the premiere of L’Avventura, it was almost universally reviled. Booing and hissing famously echoed throughout the Cannes theatre, causing Antonioni himself to flee the auditorium. It was seen as too daring; too bold. Setting up a mystery but failing (or, rather, not bothering) to have it solved in 145 minutes infuriated cinema-goers. The intrepid Antonioni denied audiences any sort of conventional denouement—he simply wasn’t interested. Instead, he focused on the interactions between the characters, concentrating on their own internal lack of resolve rather than that of the plot’s. To Antonioni, a lingering camera capturing everyday life is more stimulating than an edit; a facial gesture more powerful than a plot point. Nevertheless, despite the initial vitriol, a second screening allowed for re-evaluation. As a result, the film subsequently went on to rightly garner critical success and reap numerous awards internationally. It is now considered one of the greatest works in all of cinema. Of all of its indelible imagery, however, the most memorable of all is the ravishing face of its leading lady. For at the 13th annual Cannes Film Festival, the world was introduced to the face, talent and majesty of one of Italian cinema’s most formidable stars—Monica Vitta.

Monica Vitti was born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome 1931 and trained at its National Theatre of Dramatic Arts. Whilst there, she developed a flair for comedic versatility that would characterise much of her later career. But she was advised by one of her teachers, Sergio Tofano, to consider changing her name to something weightier and more “artistic.” She took Tofano’s advice and decided to take the first half of her mother’s maiden name “Vittiglia.” She decided on the name “Monica” almost on a whim as she thought it sounded better than Maria. Upon graduation, she promptly began a career on stage and in 1954 she made her first appearance on film in Ettore Scola’s Ridere Ridere Ridere. But her transition from stage to screen wasn’t immediately prodigious. In the late ‘50s, Vitti’s early film appearances were largely inconsequential, concerning minor comedic roles in rather insubstantial films. That is, however, until she caught the eye of Michelangelo Antonioni.

European cinema in the early ‘60s was among the world’s most formatively inventive and creatively ambitious. Godard and Truffaut were at the crest of the Nouvelle Vague, challenging form and style with Breathless and Jules et Jim; Fellini was breaking new ground with his lively masterpieces La Dolce Vita and 8 ½; Buñuel was incensing the Vatican with Viridiana and Bergman was addressing God and faith in Winter Light. However, arguably at the forefront of European arthouse cinema at this time was Michelangelo Antonioni—Antonioni and, of course, the extraordinary, hypnotic face of his new modernist cinema, Monica Vitti. Their collaboration helped birth a new golden age of the Italian silver screen. European cinema had suddenly found a new star, and Vitti’s remarkable beauty, impassive demeanour and detached sensuality made her an immediate screen icon.

Vitti’s collaboration with Antonioni sparked a seminal string of artistic projects that are often dubbed the “tetralogy of alienation.” Her wide-eyed appearance meant that her staring into the camera enabled the viewer to stare straight back into her—allowing for the immaculate communication of sadness and disillusionment. But the fullness of her performance made the emptiness of her expression all the more moving. Whether she is the tormented Claudia in L’Avventura, the sensual Valentina in La Notte, the mysterious, melancholic Victoria in L’Eclisse or the neurotic Giuliana in Red Desert, her face captivates us in a way in which so few actors’ do. If Nietzsche had had the good fortune to witness a performance by Vitti in an Antonioni picture, he may well have reassessed his famous maxim and said, “If you stare into Monica Vitti, Monica Vitti stares back into you.”

And you know what? He’d have been absolutely right, too.

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