An internationally recognized director of the period, Michelangelo Anto-nioni made his first mark as a cineaste writing film criticism for Cinema, the official film journal of the Italian Fascist government. Antonioni also attended the Italian national film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cine-matografia, and then worked as a co-screenwriter on Roberto Rossellini’s early film Una Pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns, 1942), and traveled to France to work with director Marcel Carné on his film Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil’s Envoys, 1942) as the official representative of Mussolini’s government. He also began making short documentaries around this time; his first short, Gente del Po (People of the Po River), took only a brief time to shoot, but lack of funds and facilities postponed the completion of the film until 1943. In 1948, he made another short, Nettezza urbana, a k a N.U., about a day in the life of Rome’s street sweepers, and in 1950 directed his first feature film, Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair), a slight project that nevertheless recouped its small investment.
It also contained the germ of Antonioni’s later, distanced style, which would come to full flower in the 1960s, and set the stage for his 1955 film Le Amiche(The Girlfriends), with a script by Antonioni, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, and Alba De Cespedes from a short story by Cesare Pavese, whose bleak fascination with the despair of modern life perfectly matched Antonioni’s own outlook. The title The Girlfriends is deeply ironic, for in Antonioni’s world, friendship simply does not exist; all is expediency. People are used and then dropped. When Clelia (Eleonora Rossi-Drago) opens up a fashion salon in her hometown of Turin, she falls in with a fast set of “friends” whose meaningless pursuits of pleasure are merely a way to waste time. The members of the group, not surprisingly, are unprepared for the romantic vicissitudes of the real world, and the film ends with the “friends” turning on one another, with tragic consequences.
Antonioni’s uncompromisingly alienated view of modern life would later find expression in his masterpiece LAvventura (The Adventure, 1960), in which a group of friends sail to an uninhabited island and are forced to confront their own attitudes toward life when one of their group, a young woman named Anna (Lea Massari), mysteriously vanishes after a fight with her boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Though the group searches for her, they never find her, and as the day goes on Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), finds herself becoming involved with Sandro, effectively replacing the missing Anna in his life. The film ends with-
out an explanation for Anna’s disappearance. Is it murder? Suicide? Or was she ever really there? Antonioni, as in his other films, plays with illusion and emotion to create a landscape of desolation and loss in which nothing is permanent, and everything, as well as everyone, remains a mystery.
Luchino Visconti’s three films of the decade—Bellissima (1951), Senso (a k a Livia, 1954), and Le Notti bianche (White Nights, 1957)—all display the director’s highly theatrical style. Bellissima is an unflinching and tragic dissection of the Italian film industry, as a mother sacrifices everything she has in the quest to make her daughter a star. Senso is a stunningly designed film shot in sumptuous color detailing the love affair between an Austrian military officer (played by American Farley Granger) and an Italian countess (Alida Valli, most famous for her role in Carol Reed’s The Third Man ). White Nights is an even more controlled film, signaling Visconti’s final break with the Neorealist school, in a love story of deception and betrayal shot entirely on elegantly stylized sets—a complete departure from Neorealism’s insistence on actual locations and nonprofessional actors. Visconti’s most noted films, however, were still to come in the 1960s and 1970s. Another important Italian film of the era was Vittorio De Sica’s Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan, 1951), a satirical fantasy that marked a departure from his Neorealist roots, from a screenplay by frequent De Sica collaborator Cesare Zavattini, who had written the screenplay for De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief. An allegorical tale of a young man’s picaresque voyage through life, Miracle in Milan ultimately emerges as a more positive and hopeful film than The Bicycle Thief, or the director’s gloomy Umberto D., although it was not well received when first released.