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Auteur Michelangelo Antonioni; Depicted Bourgeois Despair

In 1975, Mr. Antonioni worked with Jack Nicholson on
In 1975, Mr. Antonioni worked with Jack Nicholson on "Professione: Reporter," also known as "The Passenger," which was to many critics a powerful return to form after a commercial and critical flop. (Associated Press)

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni, 94, an Italian director who chronicled the isolation, world-weariness and betrayals of the modern educated class in such films as "L'Avventura," "Blow-Up" and "The Passenger," died July 30 at his home in Rome. No cause of death was disclosed.

He died the same day as Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish writer-director also regarded as a master portrayer of human alienation.

Mr. Antonioni was a recipient in 1995 of an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement. In his 20 feature films, he was known for a contemplative moviemaking style rich in sensuality and silence.

Plots could focus on murder, sexual couplings and switched identities, but they were always secondary to the somber mood and the inner life of his weak-willed spiritual searchers. Exquisitely photographed, the movies depended on the stark landscape to evoke the sterile emotions of his characters.

He was a controversial filmmaker with his deliberate, sometimes excruciatingly slow pacing. Critics and the public alike were rigidly divided between those who found him either intolerably pretentious or terribly profound.

Film historian Peter Cowie found Mr. Antonioni's movies "elegant and pitiless," while others were agitated by the cryptic storytelling; one jokingly complained that it seemed several reels were always missing from his work. Critic Vincent Canby wrote a satirical essay in the New York Times in 1966, saying that Mr. Antonioni's films "have been based on the premise that since God is Boredom, Salvation can only be found through Ennui."

Film historian and critic Andrew Sarris said yesterday that Mr. Antonioni's films could be "massively alienating" but that his exploration of the "crisis of human communication" and his visual virtuosity as a filmmaker were undisputed.

Sarris placed the director among the giants of Italian cinema of his generation, including Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti.

Mr. Antonioni emerged from the Italian neorealist movement of the 1940s, a socially conscious tradition that used nonprofessional actors and filmed on actual locations to convey immediacy and truth. Yet from the start, Mr. Antonioni, a member of the leisure class, expressed other artistic concerns.

His most popular film was the sexually explicit "Blow-Up" (1966), which focused on a swinging London fashion photographer (played by David Hemmings) who might have accidentally uncovered a murder in one of his pictures. (Years later, Brian de Palma's "Blow Out" paid homage to the film.) The story follows the orgies and other passions of the photographer, but the protagonist is too "morally impotent," as Sarris once wrote, to do anything about the possible crime.

Although "Blow-Up" won a wide audience and earned him an Oscar nomination for directing, his first film of international importance was "L'Avventura" (The Adventure, 1960). It was the first in a series of movies in which he intended to explore what he called "the spiritual aridity" and "moral coldness" of modern Italian life.

The film begins with a group of friends who go yachting and mysteriously lose one of their own on a deserted island. The missing woman's fiance and her best friend -- played by Mr. Antonioni's companion and frequent star, Monica Vitti -- conduct a long, fruitless search and become lovers.


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