When I entered Michelangelo Antonioni’s apartment in Rome to interview his wife and long-standing collaborator Enrica Fico, I saw his clothes elegantly arranged on the furniture, ready to be sold for charity. Said Enrica, “Whilst being a hot-tempered man, he was also Ferrarese, extremely elegant, with noble manners: you can say he was almost British. He would be very glad of my gesture today, yet maybe jealous of his Armani suit.” As the conversation continued, she discussed many other things: Antonioni’s fierce and passionate personality and his refusal to make compromises in his work, the impossibility of concealing true sentiment, and his love of visual arts and painting.
Enrica met Antonioni in 1972, a few months before the beginning of the shooting of his documentary Chung Kuo, Cina (China, 1973) and stayed at his side until his death in 2007. As an actress, producer and director herself, she played a key role in her husband’s career both personally and professionally. She directed two documentaries on Antonioni, Making a Film is for Me Living (1995) and My Life with Michelangelo (2005), and worked as assistant director on China (1972) and The Passenger (1975). After her husband’s stroke in 1985, her support and involvement in his projects increased: she co-directed Kumbha Mela (1989) and Noto, mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, carnevale (Volcanoes and Carnival), for the Enel Pavilion at the International Fair of Seville in 1993. She co-wrote Antonioni’s last documentary Michelangelo Eye to Eye (2004) and worked as executive consultant on both Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995) and The Dangerous Thread of Things (2004). Finally, in 2006, Enrica curated Antonioni’s solo painting show at the Hadrian Temple, entitled Silence in Colour.
I spoke with Enrica in March 2013 – our conversation was in Italian.
Let us begin with Chung Kuo, Cina, your first travel and documentary with Michelangelo.
First of all, I am and I was a traveller: travelling is my ideal state of mind, because there is a sense of complete alienation. When you travel, you go beyond yourself, your daily life and usual gaze. However, Chung Kuo, Cina was the first time I travelled so far from home, so everything was new to me. The professional role I had working with Michelangelo was also something new and quite challenging: it was my first time as assistant director, and the first time dealing with millions of Chinese extras.
What was was the focus of your camera? And what fascinated you and Michelangelo about the Asian country?
Michelangelo had a unique gaze, and I would not look at the same things he would look at, not even today. For instance, when we were walking on the streets in Rome, he used to stop to make me notice a couple fighting; he was fascinated by their dynamics, and in fact he inserted a similar episode in The Passenger. During the shooting of Chung Kuo, Cina, I would have never have thought of looking at the girls’ smiles, whereas he wanted to go deeper and visually explore their skin. He was fascinated by Maoist clothes, their blue colours and worn out textures; he zoomed in on the clothes to discover their elegant, yet dusty, colours. He loved dust and soft light, as well as the eyes of girls. I did not catch these details. Whilst being very close to his directing style, I had a different, crowd-oriented, emotional connection. My gaze was that of a young woman who was seeing the outside world – and Michelangelo – for the first time. We had different experiences: I was 19 years old and could eat anything on the streets, yet he did not. Because of this I was able to engage with the Chinese people in a different way to him simply because of my approach to their street food.
The film shows Michelangelo’s high degree of respect towards China and its sensibility.
Indeed, he had a lot of respect for the Chinese people. Michelangelo was extremely considerate and afraid of being invasive; yet understanding Maoist culture and society was challenging for us, too. Overall, the relationship between Michelangelo and the Chinese government had not been easy, and the situation was in fact resolved only recently. Consider, for instance, their criticism of the beautiful sequence showing a group of poor farmers, walking under the rain with their colourful umbrellas. As soon as we arrived, the Chinese government asked Michelangelo about his intentions, and he answered that he wanted to portray the communist man and his lifestyle, from the Gobi desert in the north to the tropical islands in the south. He was interested in exploring the habits, customs and duties of a Maoist communist fisherman, or of a man living in the desert under Mao Zedong. He wanted to go deeper, to explore social structures and daily life, looking at cities and industries, houses, a wedding, a funeral and the birth of a child. The government did not allow him to do all of this, arguing that infrastructure was not able to accommodate a film crew. We were locked in our hotel in Beijing for four days, negotiating with the government until we found a compromise; Michelangelo was allowed to go exclusively to main cities and landmarks of their choosing, but he still obtained guided access to a place where no Western man had ever been before. Although it was not exactly what he wanted, we ended up going to the very centre of China, Henan, to see the unique towering cliffs and spring water in this area.
It seems that he had a very competitive personality, as if he wanted to overcome his own limits, and the limits of filmmaking.
I agree. Another example of this is the first nine-minute, single tracking shot in Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950): during these nine minutes, Michelangelo shot whilst actors performed almost “acrobatic” movements. Lucia Bosè had to walk and turn on the dolly tracks, while the camera was shooting all around her. This particular sequence presents a very sophisticated and difficult camera movement, which is hard to identify even for a very competent viewer the first time he/she watches it. A sense of astonishment is perceivable immediately, though. In fact, this tracking shot encapsulates the lead characters’ emotions, the whole film and Michelangelo’s whole career, I would say.
Moving on to the 1980s, Il mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald, 1980) marks a further step in his experimentation with both colours and medium.
The Mystery of Oberwald was probably the only film that Michelangelo did not want to re-watch as he used to do with other films. Usually, he enjoyed watching his films sitting among the public with extreme interest, as if he did not make them himself and was a complete stranger to them. He put the camera away and played the role of the witness: in this sense, privileging intuition over passion was his ideal state. The Mystery of Oberwald was a different matter, and showed many limitations in its shooting process. First, Cocteau’s text was difficult, overloaded, and far from being a modern story like the ones Michelangelo used to direct.1 Second, in her career with Michelangelo, Monica Vitti was used to playing a very different kind of woman – modern and neurotic – whereas here, she had to play the role of a queen. Third, the challenge of television cameras. This last point is the reason why Michelangelo accepted this film, and I would say that he very much enjoyed it. Despite the limitations, he worked with colours as if he was a painter, modulating images, figures and nature through them. He was also able to create special, new effects: for instance, at the beginning of the film, Edith de Berg’s reflection on the oval mirror in the corridor was inserted electronically.
The 1980s was a turning point for Michelangelo because of the use of television cameras, and also because he returned to work in Italy with Italian actors. How did the Italian art scene welcome you both back?
I would say that Michelangelo was quite happy being in Italy again, however, he would have rather worked abroad, because he liked working with international actors and their acting style. Here in Italy, he could not find a similar way of working. Take Tomas Milian, for instance: working with him was a long and difficult process. And Tomas, whilst being an unusual choice as lead character of Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982), was the only available Italian actor of the right age at that time.
This cannot have made Identification of a Woman an easy shoot, I expect?
Shooting Identification was not great for Michelangelo, but he wanted to tell that story, as he felt very close to it personally at that time. Although he has always denied this, it is in many senses highly autobiographical, and many of his personal troubles and secrets are embedded in it. Before shooting Identification, Michelangelo faced a deep, empty phase of his life, as I was often away from Rome as I studied art history abroad. I needed space from Michelangelo; he was lonely, and transferred his solitude into this story and character.
Emptiness is a key theme in Identification, but it seems to differ from the kind of emptiness in L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962).
Identification is a desperate movie, and conveys a very deep emotional void. In the film, Michelangelo showed the despair of a man at a crossroads, facing decisions on whether to keep going in the same direction or embrace a different destiny. At the end, destiny led him where he was supposed to go, as Michelangelo lived the following 22 years – a very long period – in silence.
In these very last years of Michelangelo’s career, your role was crucial. In what way did your personalities and aesthetic views merge?
When Michelangelo got sick in 1985, he was 72 years old. He was already pretty old, but we decided to start an intense (and successful) therapy that allowed him to retrieve his basic vital functions, except for his ability to speak properly. After three years of recovering at home, he decided to go out – specifically to go to Cannes to present four unreleased films – and it was a marvellous experience. Among these new films was Kumbha Mela, shot in 1977 in India, which was a place I wanted to go at that time. On that occasion, Michelangelo shot for only one day with a non-professional cameraman on reversal film, but the film still shows his style. We re-watched the material in 1989, edited the footage, inserted the soundtrack, and then presented the film along with Vertigo (1950), Return to Lisca Bianca (1983) and The Villa of Monsters (1950) at the Cannes Film Festival. From that moment, Michelangelo officially returned to both life and the cinema.
The short documentary Noto, mandorli, Vulcano, Stromboli, carnevale was your next project, wasn’t it? Why was it shot in Sicily?
Sicily has always been an important place for Michelangelo’s creativity because of its light and history. It was close to both his heart and work. There was nothing that Michelangelo did not love about Sicily, because this land – this “absence of landscape” – is a desert compared to the rest of Italy. And Michelangelo is a man of the desert, in the deserted landscape.
The choice of Vulcano and Stromboli fascinates me particularly.
Michelangelo was fascinated by the volcanic landscape and by the force of this kind of land. Usually, the locations of his films are characterised by a very strong, violent and evocative landscape, which contain a special energy and emotion; think, for instance, about the mountains of Zabriskie Point (1970), the river Po, the modernist and desolate architecture of the Italian cities.
What role did you play in the selection of these locations?
To make cinema you need a good team, a crew. Personally I was a great inspiration for Michelangelo. He had a profound admiration for my work, my gaze, my creative madness, and my private world that existed outside his world. I might say that he was very fascinated by me, since we stayed together for 36 years. However, there were many other people advising Michelangelo on his choices: Tonino Guerra, set designers, directors of photography, painters and friends. He was a leader and, like every leader before the action commences, he listened to other suggestions, and then he felt, tasted, acquired knowledge, and read.
During one of your recent interviews, you suggested that Michelangelo was a “sentimental” director.2 Can you expand upon this further?
Dominique Païni said that, and I agreed with this statement very much. In truth, not being able to acknowledge true sentiment is the core of the whole Antonionian thematic universe. As his wife, I had never been aware of his jealousy towards me until the end of his life; his personal issue was being simultaneously very passionate and hot-tempered, and also extremely elegant, almost a British man with noble manners. He had such a “violent” personality, which made it difficult for him to compromise in his professional and personal life, almost to the point of becoming cruel in order to obtain what he wanted. However, although he decided to assume a distant and cold attitude, this often collided with the impossibility of discerning the sentiment. Let us think, for instance, of the versetti3 of L’avventura (1960): the main male protagonist chose the prostitute over the woman he loved, as he was not able to recognise the value of his love for her. In this sense, I would say that Michelangelo has always chased sentiment, yet has always been scared of it.
Painting is another passion that you two shared, isn’t it?
Painting has been fundamental in both his cinema and to our personal relationship. I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, and this background gave me the instruments to talk with Michelangelo on the same intellectual plane. When I met him for the first time, I was a painter and an expert on the history of painting, and you can imagine my excitement in finding such an art collection in this house, which included De Chirico, Morandi and Bacon among others.
Michelangelo painted himself.
Yes, he had always done so, especially between films, as he felt the urgency to find a creative outlet. Painting has always been a part of him, to the point he was almost jealous of his friend-painters, while he felt constantly to be at war with himself and the outside world. He started painting again in 2001 until a few days before his death in 2007; during these years, he was extremely happy because he lived in an abstract and silent dimension, like in the desert, between form and colour and, ultimately, without any actors or words. Form and colour made him delighted. In these late artworks, he made colours resonate, unchained, extreme and without rules, as he felt finally free from any aesthetic restrictions.
- The Mystery of Oberwald (1980) was produced by RAI and adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play L’Aigle à deux têtes (The Eagle with Two Heads, 1947). With the collaboration of scriptwriter Tonino Guerra, Antonioni faced both Cocteau’s subject and structure with respectful distance, and this allowed him to experiment with chromatic possibilities (electronic of colour, shimmering effects, fade-ins and outs), new technology (videotape) and an innovative use of illusory elements and melodramatic nuances. ↩
- See: Mostra Antonioni – Dominique Païni, YouTube 15 March 2013. ↩
- A poetic word in its original Italian, it translates into English as lines of a poem. ↩