Saturday, July 28, 2012

Michelangelo Antonioni's I VINTI (1953)

The last thing you expect from an Antonioni film is a moralistic lecture about the corrupting effects of pop culture on youth around the world. But that's how his international anthology opens and closes. What's wrong with kids today? About sixty years ago, the narrator's answer, spoken over a montage of newspaper headlines in many languages, is that they have an egotistical craving for notoriety, for easy money, or just for kicks. So I vinti ("the vanquished") is Antonioni's j.d. picture, the stuff of American B pictures, albeit with much more style and something of a subtext. It consists of three episodes, with French, Italian and English actors each speaking their own language, though all were dubbed into Italian for the film's original home release. In the opening French episode, an unlikely gang of teenagers, with a kid sister in tow, go on a merry outing to a ruined chateau, where one of their number is to be killed. Antonioni heads home for the middle episode, where a young man is involved in a cigarette-smuggling operation and suffers a mortal injury, mortality catching up with him only gradually as he heads anywhere but home. In the closing English episode (13 years before the director's more famous Channel crossing for Blow-Up and oddly scored to "Danny Boy") an aspiring poet turns his discovery of a corpse into a media payday, but his craving for fame and fortune threatens to incriminate him further. He can't help seeming to observe his own trial as a spectator rather than a defendant.

The bracketing narration invites us to deplore these young paragons of depravity, and they're a dubious lot, to be sure. The Italian protagonist seems the most sympathetic of the group, since he's simply desperate for opportunity, while the English would-be poet (Peter Reynolds) is an absolute creep, and the French kids are almost stereotypically indifferent to the enormity of their scheme. Theirs is a banal evil, while the Englishman is a pretentious psycho and the Italian comes closer to noir. Yet the common thread linking their stories isn't necessarily youth itself -- Reynolds hardly comes across as a juvenile -- but the cluelessness of the older generation. Each of the troubled protagonists lives with his parents or with other elders -- the Englishman lives with a grandmother. None of them (including Hollywood arch-heel Eduardo Ciannelli as the Italian father) has any inkling of the evil the younger folks are up to. When the Italian boy is out late at night, Ciannelli assumes he's with a girlfriend, for instance. This disconnect separating the generations seems like a likelier theme for the director eventually identified with representing alienation on screen, but a growing global indifference to life isn't really outside his zone of presumed interest, either. In many ways, Vinti looks and feels like a characteristic work in the manner the world only really discovered years later with L'avventura.

Antonioni is a master of spatial relationships between actors and landscapes. His films have a sense of immensity, not just because of his love for architecture -- buildings loom large in his films to both dramatic and satiric effect -- but because of the way he stages action. A typical scene in any episode of I Vinti will have characters advance from a distance into the foreground, where they are tracked as the continue moving until they walk or run off toward the horizon, growing ever smaller as the camera stands still, letting the dwindling figures measure the vastness of the location. Vinti is the earliest Antonioni film I've seen, and it seems as if by then the 40 year old director had his style fully in place. He closes the English episode with one of his signature shots, panning from a reporter talking in a telephone booth to a sparse landscape in a manner often taken to represent spiritual emptiness in our modern environment -- something I Vinti is designed to portray.

Juvenile delinquency may seem like a banal subject for the likes of Antonioni, but if we call it anomie then we're in business. Whether you agree with the narrator's judgments or not, the director films a compelling composite portrait of a world where something's definitely going wrong.

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