There’s no room for accidents in Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. In perfecting some of the most deliberate mise‐en‐scene of all time, he gives objects and backdrops unprecedented purpose, to the extent that their presence conveys more meaning than the storyline. In 1955’s Le Amiche, he staged a beach scene whose fabulously god’s eye deep focus anticipated the landscape desolation of L’Avventura; otherwise he’s confined by the screenplay to incident-heavy urban drama. 1957’s Il Grido, on the other hand, is relatively plotless, which allows Antonioni to make an artistic breakthrough that anticipates – if not equals – the masterpieces of his next decade.
For the first time, Antonioni had Hollywood players, Americans pretending to be Italian: stolid Steve Cochran, normally a leering bad guy (see White Heat and a number of B-movies that followed), and Gene Kelly’s then-wife Betsy Blair (fresh off an Oscar nom for Marty). Connotations are everything: their dubbed performances are as succinct a way of suggesting alienation from self and surroundings as any. Cochran is Aldo, a confused, lovelorn, stoic nomad who’s been having an affair with Alida Valli (of Third Man fame) for seven years. Now her husband’s dead, which means the end of the affair. She has someone else she loves (never seen), so Cochran grabs their daughter and hits the road. That, as such, is the plot.
The Po Valley setting tells us as much as Cochran’s deliberately uninflected performance. Antonioni had already shot a short documentary there (1947’s People of the Po Valley) which he’d wanted but never been able to turn into a feature. In returning to the area, he drew on Visconti’s Ossessione (another tale of doomed love and aimless wandering) and Rossellini’s Paisan, the final segment of which has Allied American forces fighting their way through the Valley. In one of their outside arguments, Cochran is staged with the valley behind him, while Valli is set against her rural house, still standing despite wartime ravages. They’re both playing Italian, but it’s hard not to see the dubbed Cochran as both alienated and simply alien, a man who came up during the war and never really integrated, his origins always showing through.
With so many displaced nationals on hand, Il Grido’s people have less presence than the buildings around them. Blair was driven crazy by Antononi’s determination to treat actors merely as so many compositional elements. Post‐war Italian cinema was acutely sensitive to how architecture transforms not just physical but psychic landscapes. Le Amiche paid careful attention to Turin’s juxtapositions of old buildings; one of the women drags a friend to the large, dusty block of her youth, which stands in stark contrast to the richer, under‐construction sites ushering Italy into a sleek ’60s modernism. Ermanno Olmi played with a similar old ruralism vs. new urbanism divide in 1961’s Il Posto, where a young man’s journey from outlying buildings into under‐construction Naples introduces him to a brave new world of glass and steel.
Il Grido’s world, half-collapsing and half-rebuilt, is a physical manifestation of the characters’ instability. Before he started offering only opaque suggestions, Antonioni could sometimes be too on the nose: in Le Amiche, one character’s speech about everyone needing a purpose or thing to work on is double‐underlined by a nun’s background appearance, and here Valli’s worrying about whether she’s doing the right thing for her daughter and potential future children means a baby photo as she whines “maybe I shouldn’t think of only myself.”
That’s an outdated concern irrelevant to Antonioni’s larger project; he would claim he changed his focus from L’Avventura onwards strictly to the upper classes because they had more time to wallow in modern problems endemic to everyone, but even here people are already troubled by things they don’t have a vocabulary for. “Say, I’ve met some odd types,” one woman complains to Cochran, “but never a moody one like you.” He’s a new type of man, as foreign to the landscape as the oil refinery whose building site he works on. The refinery, however, permanently transforms the valley, while Cochran is a sulking shadow unable to find his way. It’s all he can do to climb to the top of the refinery tower to gain a vantage point, setting up a climax whose sudden, tragic force is offset by a lingering mystery: was it an accident?
Vadim Rizov is a freelance film writer based in Brooklyn. His work regularly appears in Sight & Sound, the LA Weekly and the AV Club, among others.
Acknowledgment: A few of the screen captures accompanying this article were found at The Film Sufi.