Let Sleeping Corpses Lie… Antonioni’s STORY OF A LOVE AFFAIR Reviewed.

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BD. Region Free. CultFilms. PG

Enrico Fontana (Ferdinando Sarmi) is a Milanese industrial magnate, doing very well for himself, but his wife Paola (Lucia Bosè), whom he married after a whirlwind romance in 1943, remains a beautiful, remote mystery to him. Intrigued by the discovery of photos she’s kept from her apparently carefree youth in Ferrara, he enlists private detective Carloni (Gino Rossi) to fill in some of the gaps from her biography.

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The problem is, there’s an obscure incident that occurred just before Paola met Enrico, which she would very much like to remain that way… as would her former lover Guido (Massimo Girotti). Obliged to reconnect in an attempt to thwart Carloni’s investigations, they rekindle their earlier passion. Somebody who previously came between them has already died in unexplained circumstances… will boring Enrico go the same way?

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Those “post car sex” blues will get you every time…

Neorealism served Italian Cinema and society very well in the immediate post War period (expiating guilt for both the excesses of Fascism and the ridiculous, Mussolini approved  “White Telephone” films) but the writing was on the tenement wall after the 1950 feature debuts of two diverse talents. Federico Fellini clocked in with Lights Of Variety (Luci Del Varietà) and Michelangelo Antonioni, after making documentaries, writing film criticism and teaching at Centro Cinematografia Sperimentale (where one of his “livelier” students was a certain Lucio Fulci) directed Chronicle Of A Love Affair (Cronaca Di Un Amore).

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As well as being an eminently watchable and artful thriller (proto giallo, anyone?), the latter is a crucially transitional film, as can be best understood by contrasting its approach with that of Visconti’s similarly Noirish 1943 effort Ossessione (above), both of course owing much to James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice and both starring Girotti. Yes, Antonioni honoured the NR tradition of casting non-actors… Bosè’s career trajectory (from soda jerk to beauty queen, Antonioni’s lover and – at Visconti’s insistence – the star of this film) was almost as unconventional as that of the character she plays (and plays very well, her apprehension of looming Nemesis almost palpable). Ditto coutourier and one shot thespian Ferdinando Sarmi, who also provides the film’s set decoration and sumptuous costume design, at a time when Milan was just starting to challenge Paris in the High Fashion stakes.

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While Visconti, though, got down with the dispossessed (in a way Antonioni would still be echoing  three years later in his short doc People Of The Po Valley), Story Of A Love Affair flips the Neorealist coin by portraying the lives of the well to do, but in a far less flattering light than that afforded them in any amount of Telefono Bianco drivel.

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Antonioni and his co-writers based Story Of A Love Affair on the notorious Countess Bellentani case (principals pictured above) of 1948, just as the similarly scandalous Fenaroli case, ten years later, influenced the plotting of several gialli out of the Martino stable and their imitators, from Romolo Guerrieri’s Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968), the films Umberto Lenzi subsequently made starring Carroll Baker and Sergio Martino’s Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh (1971).

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All of those were in a determinedly populist tradition (and nothing wrong with that, it was precisely such box office hits that underwrote production of the supposedly “worthier” stuff) but in beginning to shrug off the proletarian prescriptions of classic Neorealism, Antonioni was taking the first step in a personal cinematic journey of a thousand miles that would turn him into the Quintessential “Arthouse Director”, the Silver Screen’s most potent purveyor of existential alienation.

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Alienation’s a very old word… it’s been around since Richard III.

This release, an international Blu-Ray debut, is based on a 2k restoration from 15 years ago (Story Of A Love Affair was one of the first films to undergo such treatment, under the supervision of Giuseppe Rotunno, no less) and does full justice to the magisterial monochrome photograpy of Enzo Serafin and Aldo Scavara’s camera operation through some long, fluid takes. Special mention too for Giovanni Fusco’s disquieting score, with its strangulated woodwind.

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Extras include assorted scholarly appraisals of the film’s status, the reminiscences of co-writer / assistant director Francesco Maselli (the sheer chutzpah by which Marco Ferreri kickstarted and nursemaided the production emerging as a consistent theme) and a featurette on the restoration process. Most engaging of all is a visual record of the restoration’s Premiere screening with the director and Bosè, plus guest attendees including the likes of Giuseppe Tornatore, ’60s / ’70s sex symbol Zeudi Araya (now a producer, still looking mind bogglingly fine) and Dario Argento. Argento hails Antonioni as the guv’nor (“the greatest Italian director”) and while it isn’t too hard to spot the influence on his Deep Red (1975) of 1966’s Blow Up (another Antonioni picture in which a forensic investigation ultimately obfuscates more than it illuminates), first time viewers of SOALA might acquire a new perspective on the conclusion to Argento’s own masterpiece, in which the hero watches somebody die in a lift mechanism. Sins of omission, of course, are one small step away from acquiescence … from sins of collaboration… and as in much of the finest Cinema that Italy produced in the second half of the Twentieth Century (from Pasolini, overtly, to more oblique offerings such as Pupi Avati’s The House With Laughing Windows), Story Of A Love Affair touches on that touchiest of questions for a whole Italian generation: “What did you do in the War?”

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The most moving image on this set is that of Antonioni at the aforementioned Premiere, feted by his peers but immobile and unresponsive, locked in by the stroke which blighted the last quarter Century or so of his life, simultaneously sad and appropriate for (a good line, they say, is worth repeating) the Silver Screen’s most potent purveyor of existential alienation.

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