Helmer depicted alienation of modern world

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, who became an icon of arthouse cinema with films such as “L’avventura” and “Blowup,” died Monday in Rome. He was 94.

The enigmatic British-made drama “Blowup” (1966) took the Palme d’Or in Cannes, was Oscar-nommed for director and original screenplay and became a surprise international hit.

A striking visual stylist who excelled at depicting the alienation of modern life through sparse dialogue and long takes, Antonioni enjoyed a greater following with critics and intellectuals than with general audiences. Along with Federico Fellini, he helped turn postwar Italian film away from neorealism and toward a personal cinema of imagination.

In 1995, Hollywood honored his career work — about 25 films and several screenplays — with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement. By then, Antonioni was a physically frail but mentally sharp 82, unable to speak but a few words because of a stroke but still translating his vision into film. (The Oscar was stolen from Antonioni’s home in 1996, together with several other film prizes.)

On Oscar night, his wife, Enrica Fico, 41 years his junior and “translator” for him since his 1985 stroke, said, “Michelangelo always went beyond words to meet silence, the mystery and power of silence.”

Born in Ferrara, Italy, Antonioni did not set out to be a filmmaker. His studies at the U. of Bologna were centered on business and economics. But on the side, he experimented with 16mm films and wrote criticism for a local newspaper. For a time he wrote for Cinema, the official film magazine of the Fascist party that was edited by Mussolini’s son, but was reportedly fired for his left-of-center opinions.

In 1940, he briefly attended the renowned Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia. Two years later, he got his first professional jobs collaborating on Roberto Rossellini’s “Un pilota ritorna” and Enrico Fulchignoni’s “I due foscari,” on which he also served as assistant director. Soon thereafter, he worked with French director Marcel Carne on “Les Visiteurs du soir” and began his first film, “Gente del Po,” a short documentary about the Po River fishermen, which he did not complete until after the war.

In the late 1940s, he directed several other docu shorts and collaborated on the screenplay of the fictional saga “Caccia Tragica.” In 1950, he directed his first feature film, “Story of a Love Affair,” and spent the next 10 years developing a fluid, cinematic language to demonstrate the wounding aftermath of love affairs in such films as “I Vinti,” “The Lady Without Camelias” and “Il Grido.” He also collaborated with Fellini on the script for the latter’s “The White Sheik.”

In 1960, Antonioni had his international breakthrough with “L’Avventura,” a mysterious tale of a woman’s disappearance that is merely an excuse to study “the human condition at the higher social and economic levels — a study of adjusted compromising modern man, afflicted by short memory, thin remorse and the capacity for easy betrayal,” according to critic Pauline Kael.

“L’Avventura” remains one of the masterpieces of world cinema and regularly appears on lists of the best movies ever made, although the audience hissed when it was first presented at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

It also served as the first installment in a trilogy of films about contemporary postwar Italian middle-class society and the ennui and existential unrest that afflicted it. “La Notte” and “Eclipse” followed; all starred Monica Vitti as a troubled, introspective heroine caught naked by the camera‘s unrelenting gaze.

“Red Desert” (1964), starring Vitti and Richard Harris, was Antonioni’s bold first attempt at filming in color; sets and industrial exteriors were painted different hues to convey the character’s psychological states. Pic won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

The boldness of his use of color influenced an entire generation of filmmakers, as did his next film, “Blowup,” a rather circumspect take on London’s swinging mod generation. Again the sets were painted, and the camera revealed as much as it concealed — which worked perfectly with the plot concerning a photographer who does or does not inadvertently capture a real murder. It was the closest Antonioni ever came to a film with genuine humor.

“Zabriskie Point,” funded in 1970 by MGM, tried to comment on American materialism and the youth culture in the same way that “Blowup” had addressed contemporary England. Magnificently photographed, “Zabriskie Point” was perplexing and obtuse, and it failed as dramatically as “Blowup” had succeeded.

After the documentary “Chung Kuo,” made in 1972, Antonioni recaptured his reputation, at least with critics, with “The Passenger,” starring Jack Nicholson, a beautifully conceived and realized melodrama about a man who gets in over his head after stealing another’s identity.

During the 1980s, he made “Identification of a Woman” and, following his recovery from a stroke, was set to direct “The Crew,” from a script by “The Last Emperor” screenwriter Mark Peploe, but was unable to begin production. In 1993, Antonioni traveled to the U.S. for a retrospective of his films.

Despite failing health, he went on to make “Beyond the Clouds,” with John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, Irene Jacob and Fanny Ardant, in 1994, using a notepad to communicate. Worried that Antonioni would be too frail to finish the movie, investors had German director Wim Wenders shadow the director, ready to step in if the Italian maestro couldn’t go on. But Wenders wound up watching in awe and letting Antonioni put his vision on film.

His last work was a segment of the three-parter “Eros” in 2004, to which Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-wai also contributed.

Antonioni is survived by his wife, Enrica.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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