A film bursting with scenes of explicit adulterous activities, naughty innuendo, and gratuitous nudity. Or not, says Judge Jesse Ataide.
"A great artist is always ahead of his time."
Before Michelangelo Antonioni became Michelangelo Antonioni, director of ground-breaking masterpieces like L'Avventura and Blow-Up, he was simply a young filmmaker with several well received short documentaries under his belt. All of that changed with Story of a Love Affair (or Cronaca di un amore, as it is also known), Antonioni's first fictional feature film. Though failing to gather much critical or popular response at the time of its release, Story of a Love Affair is the film that kicked off one of the most renowned careers in cinema. That it's a wonderful film besides is just icing on the cake.
Facts of the Case
It's an inversion of the familiar plot contrivance: instead of a two lovers being found out by a private detective hired by the woman's resentful husband, Story of a Love Affair deals with a former couple who are reunited because the woman's curious husband employs a snoop to fill in the details of his young wife's past. The woman, Paola (played by a luminous Lucia Bosé), married her millionaire husband on the spur of the moment during a period of wartime frenzy. Several years down the road, he (Ferdinando Sarmi) realizes he knows nothing about his wife's former life, and sets out to remedy the situation.
After a former schoolmate of Paola's tips them off, Paola reunites with Guido (prolific Italian actor Massimo Girotti) to discuss an event in their past that seemingly implicates them in the death of a mutual friend (who also happens to be Guido's former fiancée and Paola's best friend). They quickly realize that their feelings for one another have not changed in the years they had been apart, and together they embark on a love affair as they attempt to keep Paola's husband from finding out about the dubious event in their shared past.
What makes Story of a Love Affair so fascinating, and ultimately essential to the Antonioni canon, is that it demonstrates that even at the beginning of his career Antonioni was breaking with convention and forging his own signature style. In 1950, the Italian film industry was almost completely focused on neo-realism, with masters such as Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City), Vittorio De Sica (The Bicycle Thief), and Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema) gaining international attention for their hyper-realistic mode of filmmaking. While Antonioni's film is undeniably influenced by neo-realism, inspiration for Story of a Love Affair also comes from unexpected sources: Double Indemnity, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and gritty film noir like The Naked City. This odd amalgamation of influences makes Story of a Love Affair a rather bizarre concoction, yet somehow the film does manage to pull it all off, becoming an unexpected, almost magical blend of neo-realism, film noir and traditional Hollywood melodrama.
The characters in the film are a good demonstration of Antonioni's unorthodox combination of disparate styles. Throughout the film's entire running time, peripheral characters (housekeepers, schoolmasters, shop girls) appear like they just stepped out of a frame of The Bicycle Thief. On the other hand, the two leads, Massimo Girotti and Lucia Bosé, seem more akin to the attractive couples of Hollywood films at this time. It is telling that Antonioni had originally wanted Gene Tierney (the breathtaking star of classics like Laura and Leave Her to Heaven) to play the central female character, but in Bosé he did manage to find a young actress who embodied the glamour and refinement integral to the role of Paola.
Interestingly enough, Antonioni used the casting techniques of his neo-realist contemporaries when casting Bosé. A recent Miss Italy turned actress, her middle class origins made her ideally suited to play a character of modest means who suddenly finds herself inhabiting the rarified world of the super wealthy. Bosé, who had appeared in just one film prior to Story of a Love Affair, would find herself transformed into an Italian film icon within the decade. Many insist this film was her finest hour as a dramatic actress, and that her beauty was never more lovingly showcased than when she appeared swathed in the fabulous wardrobe designed by Fernando Sarmi (who actually plays Paola's jealous husband) that would have made many a classic Hollywood star green with envy.
While Story of a Love Affair lacks the distinctive, almost detached style that marked Antonioni's later films, starting seven years later with Il Grido and reaching its height in films like L'Avventura and L'Eclisse in the early 60s, it does feature many of the elements that would preoccupy him throughout his entire career: class structure, social conventions, sexual relationships, and the enigmatic qualities of beautiful women. These are the themes that Antonioni has based numerous masterpieces upon, and Story of a Love Affair proves that they were points of focus from the very beginning.
But perhaps the chief pleasure of watching Story of a Love Affair today is its undiminished sense of modernity. Despite being over half a century old, the film's simplicity, spare elegance, and frank portrayal of an adulterous sexual relationship allows it to perhaps play better today than it did even at the time of its release over 55 years ago.
Story of a Love Affair, while occasionally appearing on Italian television over the years, has never been available in the United States. This in itself is enough to make it one of the year's most important DVD releases—but what's more, it has received a superb restoration and given the two-disc Special Edition treatment that it more than deserves. In a seeming attempt to out-Criterion Criterion, NoShame Films has provided several valuable featurettes that not only demonstrate the rigorous restoration that had to be undertaken, but also give critical insight and context in terms of Antonioni's career as a filmmaker, Italian cinema and the neo-realist movement, and international cinema in general.
On Disc One, the eight minute "Restoring of a Masterpiece" explains how in the absence of the original negative (lost in a fire—which seems to be the fate of the negatives for numerous great films), restoration had to take place on a Kodak "lavendar," a print that had been made long after the original negative had already suffered damage and surface wear. Other extras on the first disc include a poster gallery and a still gallery, which features original artwork, stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs that serve as further testament to Bosé's glowing beauty.
The extras on Disc Two includes three featurettes. "Identification of a Masterpiece," which at 114 minutes is actually sixteen minutes longer than the film itself, contains five interviews; one with the assistant director of the film, the other four with prominent Italian film critics. And while it is admirable that so much information and discourse is provided, almost two hours of talking heads is a trial to get though even for the most avid Antonioni devotee. That said, one can't help but admire and appreciate the effort put into offering such rich additional content. "Story of a Peculiar Night" is an almost avant-garde attempt to document the screening of the restored print in Rome, and offers the only glimpses of Antonioni and Bosé to be found in the extras. And finally, in "Fragments of a Love Affair" Antonioni's assistant director escorts the viewer to several locations that played key roles in the film's development.
All of this bonus material is wonderful, but it pales in comparison to the breathtaking print of the film. Though slight image defects can still be found, the black and white photography seems to radiate in monochromatic shades, with the deep blacks and stark whites beautifully contrasted. Though the audio isn't quite up to the same high standard, it is still quite good. English subtitles are provided (newly translated); an English dub is also provided, though the quality is markedly inferior to the original Italian track.
While it would have been nice to have Antonioni say a few words or Martin Scorsese rhapsodizing about the film (it is apparently one of his personal favorites), there's not much that one can say negatively regarding this release. NoShame Films has done cinema buffs a favor by making this film available for the first time—for even if it doesn't possess the same impact and magnitude of a film like Citizen Kane, Story of a Love Affair is one of the finest directorial debuts this reviewer has ever had the pleasure of seeing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: NoShame Films
• "Restoring a Masterpiece" Feature
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