By Laurence Lerman / New York City
My first encounter with Monica Vitti took place in the late 1970s in one of Manhattan’s legendary repertory movie houses on the Upper West Side. It was either the Thalia or the Regency—I can’t recall which—but I can clearly remember the impact of seeing Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 drama L’Avventura for the very first time. It made for quite a heady and exotic experience for a teenage cinephile raised in central Jersey, who dared venture into the big city to seek out enticing foreign language fare
The same can be said of Monica Vitti, L’Avventura’s cooly alluring leading lady, who died in Rome on Wednesday, February 2. The actress, described by Italy’s Cultural Minister Dario Franceschini as “the Queen of Italian Cinema,” was 90.
Back in the day, I was familiar with the likes of a handful of shapely Italian actresses like Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida. Not from foreign film houses, mind you, but rather their Hollywood-produced English-language films of the ‘50s and ‘60s that were in regular rotation on American television. But Ms. Vitti was different—an undeniable beauty who was as icy, detached and cerebral as Sophia and Claudia and Gina were warm, life-loving and earthy.
Ms. Vitti was already and established theater star in Italy when she made three films in succession with Antonioni (with whom she was in a relationship for the majority of the decade): L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962). The movies came to be referred to as the filmmaker’s “Alienation Trilogy.” Antonioni’s austere, elegant and sparsely designed portraits of the emotionally isolated and ennui-filled lives of the Italian bourgeoisie found a perfect symbol in Ms. Vitti, whose enigmatic and seemingly disengaged presence was as deliberate and fine-tuned as the filmmaker’s compositions.
Dialogue was limited in Antonioni’s films—he preferred his mise-en-scène to do the talking—but when it came time to emote, Ms. Vitti did so in appropriately aloof and hushed Italian tones. Sensual ones, too.
“We spent the whole night talking things over. And for what?,” she listlessly asks her lover, Alain Delon, at one point in L’eclisse. “There are times when holding a needle and thread, or a book, or a man—it’s all the same.”
Following her international arthouse breakthrough with Antonioni in the 1960s (she also starred in his first color film, 1964’s Red Desert, and, later, in 1980’s The Mystery of Oberwald), Ms. Vitti went on to appear in dozens of commercial Italian productions. A couple of them, like the romantic comedies The Pizza Triangle (1974) and Duck in Orange Sauce (1975), were quite successful abroad, but the majority never made it to stateside theaters.
Ms. Vitti’s two major English language endeavors—the candy-colored 1966 James Bond spoof Modesty Blaise, based on the popular British comic strip, and 1979’s An Almost Perfect Affair—were both tepidly received. Reportedly, Vitti didn’t like to travel outside of Europe and believed her English was not good enough for English-language productions, not that Hollywood ever aggressively came knocking on her door.
It is Ms. Vitti’s films with Antonioni in the 1960s for which she will always remain best identified and remembered. They were sterling examples of the era’s stylish new kind of European cinema, presented by the latest cycle of young filmmakers and performers. And her work in them, chilly and removed as it was, made a warm and provocative mark on this young cinephile’s openness to all manner of cinematic storytelling.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.