Criterion // 1982 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // November 14th, 2011
"I do not believe in autobiography, but every feature film is also, more or less, a documentary." -- Michaelangelo Antonioni
In another time and place, Michelangelo Antonioni would have directed horror films. It happened that he came up during the flowering of Italian Neorealism, with its focus on the everyday life of the disenfranchised and displaced. However, his films are so full of existential dread and a certain kind of paranoia that it's easy to imagine that had he grown up in the same situation as someone like Roman Polanski he might have been part of the flowering of so-called modern horror in the late '60s and early '70s. Instead, we have a legacy of strange films that don't always fit neatly into any genre, but typically focus on a male protagonist adrift in a world he doesn't understand, unable to connect with those around him, especially the women. Identification of a Woman fits into Antonioni's body of work quite well, and as his last feature film does a fine job cementing his reputation. Criterion's excellent Blu-ray release, while light on the supplements, gives the film a gorgeous presentation.
Niccolo (Tomas Milian, Traffic) is an important Italian film director, and he's having an affair with a rich society woman ( Daniela Silverio, Oriana) after his wife leaves him. When she disappears mysteriously, he takes up with a young actress (Christine Boisson, Sorceress) while thinking about making a movie about women and their relationships.
Identification of a Woman is so terribly out of step with its time that it's almost laughable. 1982 was a year firmly entrenched in the blockbuster mindset after Jaws and Star Wars. Heaven's Gate had just recently put the nail in the coffin of the American auteurs of the so-called New Hollywood, and E.T. made aliens cuddly for everyone. Against this backdrop, Michelangelo Antonioni released Identification of a Woman. It's long (two hours and ten minutes), in a foreign language (Italian), without major stars, and lacking a significantly speedy plot. It's easy to see how the film might have been ignored when it was released almost thirty years before this Blu-ray.
However, since 1982, Antonioni has increasingly found himself (until his death in 2007) at the center of film history in the '60s and '70s, joining the pantheon of great art house directors. Inevitably, his later works would receive a re-evaluation, and Identification of a Woman looks a lot better thirty years on that most of its contemporaries. Though Blow-Up is still unquestionably his masterpiece, and some of his other films might be more visually interesting, Identification of a Woman finds the director mining the same material he's worked with for a couple of decades.
For the uninitiated, that means that Identification doesn't have a strong plot. We follow Niccolo as he has a kind of mid-life crisis. He's working on a film, having an affair with an aristocrat, and being menaced by an unknown man. In a Woody Allen film, this would be the comic story of a neurotic guy, but for Antonioni every aspect is cause for angst. For instance, the film opens with a long scene of Niccolo trying to get into his apartment and failing due to a problem with the alarm. When he does arrive in the apartment, he receives a mysterious call asking for a meeting. When the meeting happens, a stranger tells Niccolo to be careful, implying a threat. They're relatively straightforward scenes, but Antonioni gives them a pace and a presentation that makes them menacing, like something bad is waiting just around the corner for Niccolo, and, by extension, the audience. Ultimately, it's that sense of menace and dread that makes watching an Antonioni film an interesting experience. There's always a feeling that nothing is happening and yet everything is significant.
Another hallmark of Antonioni's cinema is his willingness to make film the subject of his film. Although it's hardly as self-reflexive as Fellini's 8 1/2, Identification of a Woman is about a director trying to come to grips with his relationships with women by making a film about them. It's hard to find an analog between the middle-aged Niccolo and the already-seventy Antonioni, but hovering behind the film is always the feeling that the material is autobiographical in a way that seems fresh for the director.
Finally, speaking of Niccolo, Antonioni knew how to cast his film. Tomas Milian, despite playing a character who doesn't open up much, is surprisingly sympathetic. Daniela Silverio is wonderfully mysterious as Mavi, giving her a puckish quality that's attractive while still maintaining her distance from Niccolo and us. Christine Boisson does an equally good job playing the fresh-faced actress.
Though some might complain that other Antonioni films need the attention more (hello, Blow-Up!), Identification of a Woman has been given the thorough Criterion treatment on Blu-ray. The 1.85:1 AVC-encoded transfer is pretty stunning. Detail is strong throughout, and colors are perfectly saturated. Grain is handled well, with skin tones looking especially good. The print is in excellent shape, with only a few specks and occasional softness around the edges. Overall, this is a really great presentation. The uncompressed Italian audio is fine, though not amazing. It's generally pretty clean and well-balanced in the center channel, but lacks real presence. There are definitely a few places where a bit of noise creeps in, but overall the track is listenable.
This is Criterion's fourth Antonioni film, and two of the previous three were two disc special editions. I suspect that the vault has run a little bit dry, because the only supplement on the disc is the film's Italian trailer. We still get the usual Criterion booklet that includes some excellent material on the film (including both an essay and an interview with Antonioni), but fans hoping for the usual deluxe Criterion treatment may be a bit disappointed by what's here.
Some might say that the world doesn't need yet another film where some guy gets all angsty over his affairs with women. Certainly if you're looking for a film that's female-oriented, then this one might not be for you. It's also a film that doesn't have a strong narrative drive, so an appreciation of slower narratives is necessary as well.
Identification of a Woman is a solid little piece of European art house fare. It's not a film for everyone, but fans of that era, and of Antonioni especially, will find something to enjoy in its sumptuous imagery and atmosphere. This isn't the usual deluxe Criterion edition, but this Blu-ray does feature an amazing transfer and solid audio, so the disc is easy to recommend for rental or purchase.
I'm not sure anything gets identified, but this Blu-ray is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Rated R