– Spring/Summer 2001

Caro Antonioni

Peter Wollen

The Russian film historian Naum Kleiman once wrote that the test of a great filmmaker was not the single film, but the trilogy. Only through a trilogy could the formative idea behind a filmmaker's work be fully understood. He was thinking of Eisenstein, I imagine, and his unfinished trilogy of Ivan the Terrible. By that same token, however, Antonioni is doubly remarkable, because, miraculously, he successfully made two of cinema's great trilogies. First, of course, there were the three films that brought him obloquy at first and then lasting international fame:

L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse, the Italian trilogy, in black and white. Then, only a few years later, came his second trilogy, this time cosmopolitan and in colour: Blow-Up, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger, the MGM trilogy, set in the great cities of London, Los Angeles and Barcelona, port cities, but with two telling side-trips inland into the desert, first to Death Valley and then into the Sahara.

L'Avventura was the first Antonioni film I saw, at a time when it was still a scandal, and since then I have seen every one as it was first screened. Over the years my view of them has changed a great deal. At first, I saw them through a kind of critical filter: in terms of the great debates of the early sixties on the subject of alienation, the change within the neo-realist movement to a neo-realism of psychological interiority, the belated arrival of modernism in the hitherto populist world of film. Now I see them rather differently. I don't think that seeing through a 'critical filter' was necessarily all that bad. Indeed, Antonioni himself began his work