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Monica Vitti, Star of Antonioni Masterpieces, Dies at 90

Monica Vitti Dead
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Italian actress Monica Vitti, best known internationally for starring in Michelangelo Antonioni’s breakthrough cinematic trilogy “L’Avventura,” “La Notte” and “L’Eclisse,” as well as in the director’s “Red Desert,” has died. She was 90.

The news of her death was tweeted by former Rome mayor and film critic Walter Veltroni on Wednesday.

(Roberto Russo, her companion in these years, asks me to communicate that Monica Vitti is no more. I do so with great grief, affection, and nostalgia)

Vitti, known for her enigmatic, distant beauty — the All Movie Guide termed her the “high priestess of frosty sensuality” — had been retired for more than a decade due to Alzheimer’s.

Vitti and Antonioni had certainly enjoyed a fruitful collaboration, but in an essay for the Criterion Collection, Gilberto Perez argued that it was fundamentally different from most such relationships: “In her films with him, Vitti is as much beholding as beheld, identified with the director, whose gaze she doubles. Other male directors have adopted the point of view of a female character, but none has made a woman his surrogate in the way that Antonioni has Monica Vitti.”

Even if Vitti had appeared only in Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960), she would have a place in film history considering the importance of the work and her focal point in it. Gene Youngblood, in an essay about the film for the Criterion Collection, declared that few movies “qualify as turning points in the evolution of cinematic language, films that opened the way to a more mature art form.” “L’Avventura” is “such a work.” (At the time of the film’s release, there were certainly critics with no patience for Antonioni’s efforts, and one coined the derisive term “Antoniennui.”)

The title of the film means adventure in Italian with a sexual connotation, and the characters in the film pursue such diversion, including Vitti’s Claudia. Nominally the film is about the search for Claudia’s friend Anna (Lea Massari), who goes missing from an island off the coast of Sicily during a pleasure cruise in the area; in the wake of the disappearance, Claudia has an affair with Anna’s boyfriend, but that troubled relationship as well as the central mystery are never resolved. But it is only Vitti’s Claudia who is aware that something fundamental — far more than the fate of her friend — is amiss. The actress powerfully communicates the ennui that is the plague of the modern era, with its alienation and misplaced values. In that sense, the title of the film can refer to Claudia’s spiritual journey.

Antonioni’s film is visually oriented, with the dialogue sparse and unimportant, making the viewer concentrate all the more on the expressions on Vitti’s face.

Despite the fact that “L’Avventura” neither offered a conventionally satisfying narrative nor yielded its meanings easily, it was successful at the box office around the world. Vitti’s image later appeared on an Italian postage stamp commemorating the film.

In 1961’s “La Notte” Vitti had more of a supporting role, although she makes a big impression as a sexy, exuberant socialite who tempts the central figure, played by Marcello Mastroianni, at a party given by her industrialist father, who offers a job to Mastroianni’s character, a writer. But the industrialist and his daughter symbolize just about all that is wrong with society, together with the massive urban landscapes that threaten to envelop the Mastroianni character’s wife, played with effective sourness by Jeanne Moreau. Their marriage is dying over the course of the movie, while the eroticism represented by Nitti is empty.

Completing the so-called Trilogy  of Alienation, “L’Eclisse” (which means “The Eclipse”) follows Vitti’s Vittoria. A fiance did not make her happy; relationships with her family do not satisfy or complete her; she seeks a bond with a stock broker, played by Alain Delon, but he is interested only in a transient affair and is unwilling to satisfy the needs she is incapable of articulating. To every question she responds, “I do not know.”

In 1965’s “Red Desert,” Antonioni’s first film in color, the director continued with themes addressed in the alienation trilogy by exploring the industrial world’s inevitable ruination of the natural landscape and analogous toll on the human psyche as seen from the point of view of Vitti’s Guiliana, the wife of the manager of an industrial plant and the mother of a small child. She has everything that contemporary society can offer her — material success, a family, beauty — but is bereft of happiness and overwhelmed by uncertainty. Guiliana intuits the emptiness of her world, and Antonioni suggests that in a more vibrant setting, she might be creatively expressive — she wants to open a ceramic shop — but she feels increasingly unable to withstand her literally and figuratively toxic environment, while others continue unaware of the reality she perceives. “My hair hurts” is Vitti’s most memorable line from the film.

The actress also notably appeared in Luis Bunuel’s “The Phantom of Liberty,” but despite her performances in the works of auteurs, she actually spent most of her career acting in Italian comedies that weren’t released abroad. It is hard to describe her contribution to “The Phantom of Liberty,” which, while earning an extremely enthusiastic review in the New York Times in 1974, was particularly inscrutable even for surrealist Bunuel; the film seems devoted to depicting and eliciting paradoxical reactions. In one scene, the parents of two small children are shocked by postcards given the tykes by a man in the park, but they are revealed to be ordinary images of French landmarks — which doesn’t prevent the mother, played by Vitti, from being simultaneously disapproving and sexually excited by them.

Vitti’s many other films included Ettore Scola’s 1970 comedy “Dramma della gelosia” (“The Pizza Triangle”), in which the actress played a florist who becomes involved with a married construction worker played by Mastroianni and with a pizza cook played by Giancarlo Giannini. The film won Mastroianni the best actor award at Cannes. She starred with Alberto Sordi in his 1973 film “Polvere di stelle,” directed by Sordi, for which she won the David di Donatello award for best actress.

She appeared in English-language films only twice: the first time in the mediocre 1966 spy spoof “Modesty Blaise,” with Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde, the second in Michael Ritchie’s 1979 romantic comedy “An Almost Perfect Affair,” set (and shot) at the Cannes Film Festival, in which Vitti played a former Italian actress who falls in love with Keith Carradine’s filmmaker character.

Born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome, she appeared in amateur theatrical productions while a teen, then attended Rome’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which she graduated in 1953.

As a member of an Italian acting troupe she toured Germany, and she made her first stage appearance in Rome in a production of Niccolo Machiavelli’s “La Mandragola.” She made some appearances on Italian television and did some uncredited film work during the ’50s. Her first significant film role was in Mario Amendola’s 1958 “Le dritte.” Antonioni directed her onstage before casting the fairly inexperienced actress in “L’Avventura,” and they were romantically involved for much of the 1960s.

Her last bigscreen project was “Secret Scandal,” which Vitti directed herself and starred in alongside Elliott Gould. The film unspooled in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, and Vitti received the David di Donatello Award for best new director. “Secret Scandal” concerned a woman, played by Vitti, who receives a movie camera from a film director, played by Gould, and the camera, left on accidentally, records her husband in an indiscretion; the director decides that these circumstances are interesting enough to make an actual movie about.

She made one more appearance, in a 1992 Italian TV movie, romancer “Ma tu mi vuoi bene?” (“Do You Love Me?”) before retiring.

The actress won a career Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.

After living with Roberto Russo for 27 years, she married him in 1995. He survives her.