Judge Gordon Sullivan finds the broke can be alienated too.
"An indelible illustration of romantic and social deterioration."
Michelangelo Antonioni labored as a director in Italy throughout the 1950s with little in the way of international recognition. Not a part of the neorealist tradition of Rossellini and not yet in the full flower of his own elliptical style, Antonioni perfected his eye before rising to international prominence with L'Avventura in 1960. This was the heady era of the art-house cinema, when film festivals like Cannes could make or break international reputations, and Antonioni didn't wait long to prove that L'Avventura wasn't a fluke. In 1961, he released La Notte, the second in what would become a trilogy of films examining the Italian upper class as they wasted away in the postwar years amidst affluence and alienation. Criterion has brought the film out in hi-def with a beautiful transfer and a handful of interesting supplements.
Facts of the Case
La Notte—literally The Night—takes us through a day in the life of an affluent couple in Italy. He (Marcello Mastroianni, 8 1/2) is a successful writer, while she (Jeanne Moreau, Jules and Jim), and the pair go through a day in their life that culminates in a party full of their rich acquaintances.
No plot summary can ever really do justice to an Antonioni film (with the possible exception of Blow-Up). La Notte doesn't have a plot so much as it has an excuse to unfold a series of events that convey mood, reveal character, and point out the absolute vacuity of a particular lifestyle. It's obvious from the consistency of Antonioni's films, especially in the wake of L'Avventura, that he's the driving force behind a view of the affluent Italian jet-set, obsessed with slowing his films down and removing as much of conventional plot as he can.
Antonioni, however, is aided by his excellent casting choices. Mastroianni is one of the great actors of the art-house era. He's handsome, charming, sly, and always seems to be hiding something. In brief looks and small smiles, he conveys the sense that he's always in the middle of a complicated seduction. When called out on his infidelities, he's able to muster an indignation that's palpable. No matter the age of his character, he always conveys a certain adolescent enthusiasm as well. His opposite here is Jeanne Moreau, who has a fresh-faced innocence to her that is belied by her world-weariness. She plays the game as much as Mastroianni, but unlike him, she can mask her emotions even more subtly. In some ways, La Notte is a film about their faces, hidden in shadows or framed by car windows, offering us glimpses of a life we'll never get to lead.
Even though black-and-white film is used today, the last gasp of great black-and-white films produced as a group or movement was probably the art-house boom of the late 1950s and early '60s. Color was an option (at least theoretically), but director after director chose to shoot in black-and-white, from Bergman to Godard. Antonioni is no exception, and by enlisting Gianni Di Venanzo, who would go on to lens Antonioni's follow-up L'Eclisse as well as Fellini's 8½. Here, he makes the cinematography another character, with the rich blacks and beautiful gray midtones conveying something of the darkness and ambiguity of the Milanese lifestyle. We're watching gorgeous people live their gorgeous lives, but it doesn't have the impact if we subtract Venanzo's beautiful imagery. Beyond the colors, the sense of framing is exquisite, whether it's our main characters trapped in the too-small car they share, where the windshield forms its own frame within a frame. The use of depth and movement are similarly impressive, ensuring that even when the "plot" isn't riveting, we're always watching something beautiful.
La Notte (Blu-ray) from Criterion highlights everything wonderful about the film. It starts with a near-perfect 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. Print damage isn't an issue, and detail is surprisingly strong throughout. Grain is handled naturally, with no artificial softening, while contrast is kept even and appropriate throughout. Black levels are deep and consistent, and no compression artefacts crop up. The worst the film looks are in a few of the opening shots, where grain visible in the background of shots showing distance buildings can look slightly noisy. It's a very, very minor quibble that pales in comparison to the overall quality of the presentation (not to mention the sacrifices that would have to be made to "improve" those shots). I've seen screencaps from other editions of the film, and this Criterion Blu-ray is better in every respect, from detail through the colors. The film's audio is presented in an LPCM 1.0 mono mix that preserves the quality of the original recordings. The Italian dialogue is always clear and well balanced with the film's jazzy score. Distortion isn't a problem, and hiss only crops up occasionally if you listen for it.
Extras start with a pair of interviews. The first runs about half an hour and is a discussion between film critic Adriano Apra and film historian Carlo di Carlo where the pair discuss the structure and themes of La Notte along with its place in Italian film history and Antonioni's work more generally. The second interview is with Guiliana Bruno, a film professor, discussing the look of the film, especially its relationship to architecture. On the disc, the film's trailer is also included. Inside the case we get the usual Criterion booklet, this time featuring an appreciation by critic Richard Brody, along with a short article by Antonioni.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, Antonioni's cinema in general, and La Notte in particular, fails to give viewers much to hold onto in terms of action or plot. This is a film about the major emotional devastation wrought by minor actions. At two hours, it might test the patience of viewers not accustomed to art-house cinema.
With the La Notte (Blu-ray) release, Criterion have plugged the hole in their Antonioni lineup. Finally, fans can rejoice that all three films in Antonioni's famous Alienation Trilogy have been released in decent North American editions (though fans can still pine for hi-def upgrades of the other two). This is a no-brainer release for fans of Antonioni, any of the actors, or art-house cinema more generally. Thanks to an excellent audiovisual presentation and the willingness to create new supplements for the release, Criterion has produced a Blu-ray that fans can purchase with confidence.
Moody, but not guilty.
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