Category: Italian cinema

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

Possibly the most luscious film ever-made, Visconti’s epic is a beautiful film of rage against the dying of the light

Director: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio Corbera), Alain Delon (Prince Tancredi Falconeri), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella of Salina), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Terence Hill (Count Cavriaghi), Serge Reggiani (Don “Ciccio” Tumeo), Leslie French (Cavalier Chevalley), Pierre Clémenti (Francesco Paolo Corbera), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta Corbera), Ida Galli (Carolina Corbera), Ottavia Piccolo Caterina Corbera)

There might not be a more visually ravishing film than Visconti’s The Leopard. Every detail of costume and set design is perfect in this gloriously stately, carefully crafted adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel. It’s a perfect match for the autumnal melancholy of Visconti’s elaborate work, as an ageing prince in the Risorgimento rages quietly against the dying of the light. The Leopard is a delicate and carefully-paced film that carries a sweeping romanticism.

It’s 1860 and if the Sicilian aristocracy “want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Italy is forming itself into a nation and Sicily is in a state of civil war. On one side, the forces of the revolutionary republican Garibaldi – on the other, the old-guard of Francis II of the Two Sicilies, clinging to keep Sicily part of the Bourbon empire. Watching all this, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), scion of a noble family, watching the inevitability of change but clinging to tradition. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) embraces first the fervour of Garibaldi, then Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) the radiant daughter of nouveau riche Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). But is there a place for the prince in this new world of democracy and the power of the middle classes?

The Leopard hails from the same wistful remembrance of things past that powers Brideshead Revisited in the English language. In Visconti, son of Milanese nobility, it found its perfect director. Visconti didn’t just know the world behind the declining place for the nobility: he’d lived it. He brings every inch of that to the luscious beauty of The Leopard, a mournful final hurrah of a generation and way of living that has no place in the present and is only an echo of the past.

The Leopard is crammed with simply stunning period detail. Visconti shoots this with a calm, controlled, observant camera, that moves and pans slowly through sets, carefully following its players. It’s set in a world of elaborate drawing rooms and stunning vistas. Costumes are intricate in their period detail. Dinners are grand celebrations of the opulence of this bygone era. Every detail in the set is perfect to the minutest detail – you feel a drawer could be pulled open and only period-appropriate props would be contained inside.

Visconti though never makes the film a slave to its period trappings. The careful details of the prince’s life serve to stress how bygone and dying these days are. It’s a film full of moments of small but telling undercutting that stress how this world is crumbling. In church, wind blows dust across the gathered Corbera family, coating them in dirt. They mock the newly empowered Don Sedara – and the pompous chap’s ineffectiveness is hammered home when a band keeps interrupting his attempt to declare the results of a rigged unification plebiscite – but Fabrizio is desperate to secure a marriage alliance with him and it’s clear Sedara is very much in the political ascendancy.

Could Fabrizio have done more to preserve his way of life if he wasn’t so clearly entering the twilight of his years? He’s virile enough, dashing from the family home (priest in tow) to spend a night in town with his mistress. He can climb the hills and hunt with the best of them. He half considers that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to have a crack at Angelica himself. But this is truly the Lion in Winter. He’s powerless to defend the traditional position that guarantees his influence and lacks the drive and youth Tancredi has to fashion himself a new one. For all his wry wit and handsome features, he becomes a sweaty, mournful figure at a celebration ball watching the young people dance all night and musing on where his own vitality went.

That long ballroom sequence – a near 45-minute extended scene that ends the film – is one of the triumphant tour-de-forces of cinema. A gorgeous culmination of the beauty of the entire piece, Visconti also manages to present it as a final hurrah of a whole way of life. This celebration is crammed with military figures who call the shots and filled as much with older people struggling to keep the pace as it is young ones with an eye on something far more modern than the pleasures that thrilled their parents. At the heart of this, Visconti’s camera carefully follows the prince as he moves from room to room, a quiet, lonely observer, tears in his eyes at moments, reflecting on his mortality and rousing his youthful fire only for a single dance with Angelica.

As this rusting monument to the old ways, Visconti was gifted with a Hollywood star. To be honest, at first he was far from happy when he received Burt Lancaster. But – once you get over the oddness of Lancaster being dubbed by a plummy Italian accent – it’s a near perfect marriage of actor and role. Always a graceful and elegant actor, Lancaster becomes Italian – there is more than a foreshadow of the Godfather to him – and his genteel, noble face is perfect for this bastion, just as his expressive eyes are perfect for the part’s delicacy and sadness. It should be a bizarre miscasting, but it lands perfectly and much of the success of the final ball sequence is his ability to communicate so much from such small moments.

Visconti places him at the heart of this languid, precise film and contrasts the prince’s gentle moving out-of-step with the future with the dynamism and openness to compromise of his nephew. Tancredi – a youthful and passionate Alain Delon – is energetic and with a casual ease switches passions personal and political. Starting the film as a red-shirted revolutionary, he ends it as a uniform-clad member of the elite. Professing his love for the prince’s daughter, he ditches her on a sixpence for Angelica. Not that anyone can blame him: Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous but also shows the elemental charisma that Leone was to use to such great effect in Once Upon a Time in the West. Cardinale also feels like someone between two eras: attracted to the casual and flexible Tancredi but perhaps more drawn to the elegant grandeur of the prince.

The Leopard works as extraordinarily well as it does because it is so well paced. This is a film that requires an inordinate length, lingering shots and scenes, and for action to be happening elsewhere. Our single burst of action is to see Garibaldi’s forces fight in the streets of Palermo: other than this, momentous events happen elsewhere off-screen. The camera moves instead to study the scenery or the passing of normal people on the streets. We are always given the sense of this family and its world being cut off and left behind by real events. Tancredi starts the film explaining his conversion to Garibaldi in detail: later he will barely mention why he’s changed uniforms or feel the need to say why he is accepting positions the revolutionaries reject.

It’s not a surprise that a cut-down version of The Leopard was a major bomb when released in America. The three-hour run time is needed to truly understand the drift and ennui Visconti’s film is exploring. It does it in a film dripping with gorgeous period detail and full of scenes awash with interest, but the point is this is a film of slow, deceptive but finally overwhelming impact. The quiet, controlled, predictable life that generations of the prince’s family has known, dies with the same polite, grand silence as it largely lived. The Leopard is a stunning tribute to the passing of an era.

The Conformist (1970)

The Conformist (1970)

Freud mixes with politics in Bertolucci’s stunning political-psychological thriller, one of the greatest films ever made

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Marcello Clerici), Stefania Sandrelli (Guilia), Dominique Sanda (Anna Quadri/Minister’s Lover/Prostitute), Gastone Moschin (Manganiello), Enzo Tarascio (Professor Luca Quadri), Fosco Giachetti (Colonel), José Quaglio (Italo Montanari), Pierre Clémenti (Lino Semirama), Yvonne Sanson (Guila’s mother), Milly (Marcello’s mother)

At age 29, Bertolucci made one of the greatest films of the 20th century. The Conformist is a film of uncertain illusions, half-seen shadows dancing on the wall of a cave. Each viewing unfolds new perspectives and interpretations. But each is rewarding, such is the magisterial grace the story is told with, and the radiant beauty of the film itself (a clear, massive, visible influence on Coppola’s Godfather films).

In 1938, a young Fascist Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is commissioned by Mussolini’s government to arrange the assassination of his former philosophy professor, dissident intellectual Luca Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) in Paris. Marcello longs for a “normal life”, obsessed with the fear that personal flaws, rooted in childhood trauma, will expose him. He marries the unexpected woman – the garrulous and ingenuous Guilia (a superb, guileless Stefania Sandrelli) – and joins the Fascists. But he is shaken by his fascination with Quadri’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda).

Bertolucci’s film is nominally a political thriller. It exposes the brutality of fascism, but its alleged heroes are ineffective, bourgeoise left-wing dissidents. But really this is a Freudian deep dive into the character of Marcello and how he has sought to “conform” his whole life.

The Conformist is like sitting in on a prolonged psychotherapy session, Marcello’s past, present and future stripped down to their components, with the viewer invited to theorise how they assembled in the way they have. The film’s non-linear structure is crucial for this – and Bertolucci was vocal on the vital wisdom of editor Franco Arcalli. The narrative was reconstructed around the day of the assassination and Marcello’s car journey to it – with flashbacks inspired by events along the way.

The film is a revue of Marcello remembering his recruitment, the days before his marriage and the childhood trauma of sexual awakening and murder that haunts his inner fears. Most of all we see unspool the events that directly brought him to sitting in this car, on this day, driving towards the site of an assassination. These component parts shift and rearrange themselves to form new patterns about how we understand Marcello and the choices he makes.

The film’s theological pivot is Marcello and Quadri’s discussion of Plato’s cave (read about it here), where men chained in a cave understand the world only from the shadows of objects outside which they watch on its walls. But there are no easy conclusions. Are the fascists the chained men? Or has Marcello chained himself away and only interprets the world through shadows? Is Marcello so disjointed he can only interpret emotions based on his understanding of shadows of them?

Or is this pushing us to consider we are watching a film: a thing made of light and shadows. Imagery constantly reminds us of this fact. Light streams through trees, pillars and windows like light from a projector. Views outside of train windows resemble back projection. Marcello watches a radio performance from a recording booth, the window of which literally resembles a cinema screen. Constructed realities are the language of this medium – and Marcello is perhaps applying the same phraseology to his life. He builds a narrative, just as we all do, making himself bland and forgettable.

Marcello dreads the discovery not only of his crime, as a 13-year-old, of shooting and killing a seductive chauffer (played by Pierre Clémenti), but also the sexual longing it awakened in him. This horror of homosexual yearnings – and fear at being caught for murder – has, perhaps, led to a reflexive desire to hide in the crowd: to conform. Understanding this leads to us seeing Marcello, for all his coldness, as a strangely tragic, repressed figure, hiding from himself and others. His face is often obscured, or seen behind glass and mirrors. He’s always slightly distant from us.

This void is beautifully captured in Trintignant’s compelling performance. He bottles genuine emotions within himself, that at rare moments are released like small explosions. He clings to a hat that hides his face and seems barely aware of his desires. Sensuality and nakedness fascinate and alarm him. Fascism is a large, empty illusion he clings to. In the film’s only touch of heavy-handedness Italo, who recruits him, is blind. You feel something for Marcello, but are also repelled by his studied artificiality. His whole life is a carefully framed pose, like those he strikes when handed a gun before stroking his hair (a repeated gesture) and running off to find his hat.

The one thing that seems to affect him is the fascination – attraction seems too strong a word – he feels for Anna Quadri. Laying the groundwork for the sudden impact she has on Marcello, Dominique Sanda appears twice earlier as unconnected characters (both prostitutes). Anna, smart, bisexual, knowing herself and others far more than anyone else, sees straight through Marcello. How much is her seduction of Guilia an attempt to titillate and neutralise Marcello? At one point, she seductively touches the laughing Guilia, while staring at the door where Marcello (and the camera) stand in the shadows, knowing he is watching. Does Marcello long for her sexually, spiritually or because it feels like he should do? Answers are myriad.

These are expanded by the constructed beauty of Storaro’s photography. Bertolucci’s mastery of camera movements is clear (there are tracking shots of breathtaking grace, including a long drift along wind-blown leaves that Coppola outright pinched) and he knows when to use angles that unsettle (including a Dutch angle that suddenly, stunningly rights itself) or feel voyeuristic. Storaro’s shoots with ravishing beauty that subtly colour codes emotions, moods and locations and stresses the constructed nature of film narratives.

Italy is a land of imperious, grandiose Fascist architecture: towering modernist rooms, cold marble and neo-classicism, shot with whites and striking starkness. Paris is awash in softer – but also cold and damaging – blues that feel more natural but unsettling. Moments where Marcello touches on his longings (or at least persuades himself he does) drip with yellows. It looks gorgeous, but also fits with themes of invented kaleidoscopes, being re-shaken to construct a world.

The film builds towards a scene of genuine horror. The assassination is a bleak nightmare in the snow. You can never forget the image of Sanda – her face contorted with panic, desperation and hate – clawing and screaming at the window of Marcello’s car while he just sits. Is he torn between indecision and fear, or does he feel nothing? Your ideas will change, but your horror at Anna’s desperate, hand-held-shot, futile flight through the woods like a deer pursued by hounds never will.

The film’s final coda re-opens mysteries. Marcello discovers things that make him question if his life of conformity (and the price he has paid for it) was even necessary. The final shot sees him sitting, a flame behind him, starring at a wall (of course!) before turning to – well to look at us? Or is he looking, at last, at the world he has only studied from it shadows? It’s unclear. Deliberately so.

What’s clear is that The Conformist is crammed with truly extraordinary images (from that haunting assassination to a beautiful Brueghelesque late-night dance between Anna and Guilia, everything sticks with you) and challenging ideas that carry no easy answers. Bertolucci’s film invites deep examination and analysis and presents possible suggestions, but no answers. It’s what makes it an extraordinary classic, a fascinating study of psychology and humanity.

Il Postino (1995)

Il Postino (1995)

A friendship (of a sort) across the divide in this sentimental, overtly charming romantic comedy drama

Director: Michael Radford

Cast: Massimo Troisi (Mario Ruoppolo), Philippe Noiret (Pablo Neruda), Maria Grazia Cucinotta (Beatrice Russo), Renata Scarpa (The Telegrapher), Linda Moretti (Donna Rosa), Mariano Rigillo (Di Cosimo), Anna Bonaiuto (Matilde Urrutia)

Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) arrives on an Italian island in 1950, exiled from his home in Chile. He brings celebrity to the small community: but also transforms the life of local Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi). Mario, a quiet and slightly lost man who doesn’t want to follow in his father’s fishing footsteps, takes a job delivering Neruda’s mail. He becomes fascinated by poetry and idolises Neruda with whom he forms a friendship, after he enlists him to help woo Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), daughter of the local café worker. Mario becomes more and more influenced by Neruda’s communism and love of language. How will he cope when Neruda’s exile ends?

A massive box office success – one of the biggest foreign language hits in the USA – Il Postino is a film born from tragedy. Troisi had long wanted to adapt the novel by Antonio Skarmeta. So much so, he delayed urgent heart surgery to make the film. With filming due to start, Troisi was so ill he could work little more than an hour a day. Many of his scenes were done in a single take. Radford re-worked scenes to allow Troisi to sit as much as possible, while a body double did all long shots, medium shots and any close-up where Troisi’s face didn’t need to be seen. Troisi recorded all his dialogue before filming – and tragically died the day after shooting completed.

It’s a moving story: and it’s hard to separate your reaction to it from your reaction to the film. Perhaps influenced by Troisi’s illness, Radford turns Il Postino into a quiet, gentle and mediative piece, crammed with restrained camerawork and thoughtful pacing. There is a gentle, easily digestible warmness to Il Postino, with relatable themes around love, friendship and the power of poetry. But you can’t help but feel subtitles made some feel they were watching something arty, rather than something that is essentially a bit of popular fiction turned into a film.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of positives. Radford perfectly captures the warmth and eye-opening wonder of a man discovering intellectual horizons he never imagined. Mario at first seems not particularly bright – but we discover he is simply a man who has grown up without intellectual stimulation of any sort. No one ever leaves his island and the only ambition anyone has is to become a fisherman. Watching a newsreel of Neruda’s arrival in Italy, the villagers seem as stunned by seeing these magic moving pictures as they do the famous poet’s arrival.

Into this tiny world drops a magic figure: someone who makes Mario discover that the functional words that only ever dropped hesitantly from his mouth, can actually be crafted into gorgeously elaborate sentences, full of power and beauty. Poetry at first just seems like a great way to get girls – Mario is stunned by the amount of mail from ladies Neruda receives – but then becomes an end in itself. Slowly Mario appreciates things around him – the moon, the lapping of waves on the shore, the sound of the wind in the hills – in a way he never even thought about before. Similarly, he begins to question the quiet acquiescence the village shows to all-too-obviously corrupt local politician Di Cassimo.

This largely works due to a quiet, unforced and gentle performance from Troisi. Shyly muttering his lines and rarely raising his head up to look directly at the person he is talking to, Troisi’s performance has an unaffected naturalness to it. He’s quiet, abashed and shy, also childlike, worshipping Neruda with a puppy-dog intensity (that never wilts, even after Neruda leaves the island) and reacts to things around him with an awe-filled wonder.

Opposite him, Noiret soaks himself in artistic confidence as Neruda, a man very aware he’s a huge fish in a small pond. Perhaps because he’s lonely, perhaps because he finds Mario’s childlike openness endearing, he indulges and encourages Mario’s attempts to befriend him. But, despite appearances, I’m not sure Il Postino wants to commit to the fact that this is not a friendship of equals. Neruda is fond of Mario – but he never, truly, sees him as an equal. Mario is, at heart, a distraction Neruda is fond of. He indulges Neruda’s clumsy attempts to win his attention, and there is a slight quiet background air of fatherly condescension in his treatment of him.

It means people overlook the more interesting parts of Il Postino. Because, despite the way it’s presented, this isn’t a story of a friendship over a divide. The final act is in fact more interesting in showing, after Neruda leaves, that a relationship that changed Mario’s life forever was just a brief, fond distraction to Neruda. Neruda remains the most important person in Mario’s life – but he wouldn’t even make the top hundred in Neruda’s life. Neruda makes little effort to keep in touch, gets a secretary to write a functional letter to Mario and takes years to even consider a visit.

The real point of interest here is how Mario flew, Icarus like, close to the sun – but found he could only get so close. He will only ever be a footnote in Neruda’s life, while Neruda is his life. Even when faced with evidence of Neruda’s affectionate disregard, he will still insist on naming his child after him. Similarly, poetry is something he can love but never quite master himself. This is interesting stuff. Il Postino avoids it.

Instead, it’s a film that settles on sentiment. You can’t argue with the skill Radford directs the film, or the quiet power of a late sequence when Mario records the sounds of the island for Neruda. Radford’s unobtrusive direction – partly influenced by working around Troisi’s illness – works to wring the maximum emotion from it. But it’s still a sentimental package: a package skilfully presented to Academy voters by Miramax (Luis Bacalov’s Oscar win for score was surely connected to Weinstein mailing a recording to every member of the Academy) and presents a pleasant fantasy story for the masses, that veers away from its more complex parts to present something far more reassuring and gentle.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Ennui, emptiness and envy in Fellini’s coolly satirical portrait of a hedonistic Rome

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Marcello Rubini), Anita Ekberg (Sylvia Rank), Anouk Aimée (Maddalena), Yvonne Furneaux (Emma), Walter Santesso (Paparazzo), Lex Barker (Robert), Magali Noël (as Fanny), Alain Cuny (Steiner), Nadia Gray (Nadia), Jacques Sernas (Divo), Laura Betti (Laura), Valeria Ciangottini (Paola)

It’s one of those films as much about everything as it is nothing. Fellini’s omnibus of interconnected shaggy-dog short stories follows Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni), a would-be novelist writing a gossip column, as he mixes with the great and the good in Rome. Casual affairs, Hollywood stars, nightclubs, drunken parties and would-be orgies – Rome is a whirligig of the shallow and meaningless, all wrapped up in a classic façade. La Dolce Vita was gloriously popular and hugely influential – it seemed to be casting a cynical eye over the 60s, even as they were kicking off – and remains possibly Fellini’s best-known and most popular film.

At its heart is Marcello. Gloriously played with a shallow suaveness smothering deep self-loathing by Mastroianni, Marcello has enough insight to understand the world he occupies is an empty and meaningless one – but not enough drive, discipline or determination to do anything about it. For all his dreams of becoming a novelist and artist, he’s all too easily seduced by the glamour and the hedonistic pleasures of Roman high society. When presented with choices, he invariably takes the easier one. He has enough soul to wish he had more of one.

Fellini lays out his journey through Roman night-life with a painterly skill – the frame is often full of fresco like images, taking in multiple characters at once, all preoccupied and busy with their own needs and wants. Fellini uses a superb mix of shifting POV shots to constantly place us in and then immediately out of Marcello’s shoes. Characters stare direct at the camera – are they looking at us or Marcello? Marcello arrives at Steiner’s house in a POV shot – but then Marcello walks into the shot and suddenly we are witnesses again. It’s a film where we are always reminded we are on the outside, like participants in a dream.

La Dolce Vita is long, but also spry. This is a city of people universally keeping ennui at bay, by a never-ending parade of parties and sex. While we might see and hear life-changing statements – declarations of love, resolutions to build a better life, the severing of personal relationships – these lead to nothing. Fundamental relationships and patterns of living remain unchanged across the (unspecified) period of time the film covers. Words come and go as easily as parties.

La Dolce Vita is constructed from seven short stories, each exploring a different aspect of Marcello’s empty, hedonistic existence. They cover: a sexual encounter with society heiress Maddalena (Anouk Aimée) in the water-logged flat of a prostitute; a night Marcelo spends trailing Hollywood star Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) across Rome; Marcello and other reporters reporting on a ‘miracle’ just outside Rome; a visit from Marcello’s estranged father; a party at an aristocrat’ faded palazzo with a failed encounter with Maddelena; finally a beach-house party where a jaded Marcello fails to initiate an orgy and collapses into something akin to a mini-breakdown, which he shrugs off. Intercut with this is Marcello’s friendship with Steiner (Alain Cury), the intellectual family-man Marcello aspires to be, who transpires to be as depressed and trapped as Marcello – with disastrous consequences.

These encounters are open to multiple interpretations: and part of the film’s strength is Fellini’s lightness in telling the story. Interpretation and significance isn’t forced upon the film: it’s long because it is stressing the repetition of its cycles. Each ‘short story’ is told with a pace and skill, frequently shifting in tone. Fellini will make you hoot with laughter or swoon with sensuality in one scene – and then shift uncomfortably in your chair the next.

Part of La Dolca Vita’s aim is to move Rome on from the tourist-centred attractiveness it had been given by a host of films from Roman Holiday on. It’s essentially marrying films like that with Rome Open City and Bicycle Thieves. It’s Fellini’s attempt to compare (and perhaps question) Rome’s classical cultural background with the hedonistic casualness of today’s world. It opens with a statue of Jesus being helicoptered across the outskirts of Rome towards St Peter’s. The statue is a glorious reminder of the power of Rome’s religious significance: but what follows it? A second helicopter, flown by Marcello and Paparazzo (his photographer), smirking and trying to pick up the numbers of the sun-bathing women waving up at them. New and old Rome intermixed, and not favourably.

The film is full of moments like this. The party at the aristocrat’s palazzo takes place in gorgeous grounds and rooms lined with busts of Roman emperors. At first it feels like a comparison between class and classlessness. But then you remember that ancient Rome was a hub of orgies and violence, and everything at this party would probably look pretty tame to the emperors watching.

The false miracle suggests affectations of Christianity are stage-managed and willingly performed at the dictates of the media. A priest may denounce the whole thing, but it doesn’t stop an army of people desperate to grab a piece of the action – from the media to ostentatious worshippers – descending on a small field, all of them willingly playing their expected parts. It only takes a downpour of rain to turn this devotional crowd into a panicked mass of people, blindly charging from shelter to shelter – with tragic results for one pilgrim. TV journalists stage-manage the crowd, give lines to members it and turn the whole place into a film-set.

As the film progresses, elements of classical Roman architecture slowly drift out, replaced by the harsher modernist buildings and blocks of flat (we’re subtly reminded, particularly with the arrival of Marcello’s father, mysteriously ‘absent’ for much of Marcello’s childhood, that a lot of these buildings were fascist in origin). Ironically the most famous sequence buries itself in classical architecture: Marcello’s night vainly following Sylvia (an alluringly playful Anita Ekberg, channelling Marilyn Monroe) in the hope of a sexual encounter (she remains wilfully oblivious of this). It culminates in Ekberg’s famous Trevi fountain dance – inspiring millions of would-be imitators.

Marcello’s life takes place in nightclubs and drunken parties, where social and sexual morals are modern and casual. Marcello’s most significant relationships are with Maddalena (Aimée is wonderfully archly cold), who toys with a profession of love only to instantly sleep with another man, and fiancée Emma (a clingy and desperate Yvonne Furnaux), who Marcello dutifully maintains a relationship with. Marcello wishes to see himself as a glamourous playboy, but he’s frequently on the backhand – picked up when wanted by Maddalena, played with by Anita and oppressed by Emma. We see him as often ignored and rejected as we do conquering.

Who Marcello really wants to be is the intellectual Steiner, who seems to have it all: fame, respect, and a loving family. It’s after meeting Steiner that we see Marcello doing the only novel writing in the film. Sitting in a beach café, he chats with a young waitress, Paola, who he compares to an angel in Umbrian paintings. Paola is also the last face we see in the film: waving to Marcello from a distance after his depressingly bitter failed orgy, as the guests gather around a leviathan washed up on a beach. She seems to be trying to ask him how the writing is going: he fails to understand and walks away. Paola feels like a moment of hope – a representative of a more fulfilled life of creativity and meaning – rejected by Marcello in favour of wallowing in pleasure. Fellini ends the film with Paola staring directly at the camera: is she making the offer of meaning to us instead?

It’s open to interpretation – as is the whole film. A big part of Fellini’s skill is not to hammer his points home, but let events speak for themselves, leaving the film open to interpretation. I see it as a sort of Dantesque parallel. Nearly every story is framed with characters moving up and down stairs – like the circular descent of Dante through Hell. Its structure seems to be broken into Cantos. And each step sees Marcello descend a little bit further – culminating in Mastroianni impotently ripping up pillows and spraying feathers over a laughing woman.

Is modern Rome hell? That might be a little bit too far. But it’s definitely a soulless purgatory. Paparazzo doesn’t care who he hurts to get the photo – a dead child or a grieving mother are all game. Marcello’s uses what talents he has for empty and cynical purposes and to seduce women. Everyone thinks only about their next hedonistic encounter. It’s a wonder that Fellini makes this as strangely enjoyable as it is: but then he is a master. And La Dolce Vita remains his most popular and most recognised work.

Death in Venice (1971)

Dirk Bogarde falls victim to obsession in Death in Venice

Director: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Gustav von Aschenbach), Mark Burns (Alfred), Marisa Berenson (Frau von Aschenbach), Björn Andrésen (Tadzio), Silvana Mangano (Tadzio’s mother), Romoloa Valli (Hotel manager), Nora Ricci (Governess), Franco Fabrizi (Barber), Carole André (Esmeralda)

In the early 1900s a famed German composer, Gustav von Aschebach (Dirk Bogarde), travels to Venice for his health. A repressed artist who believes beauty is found not in the sensual but the spiritual, his world is turned upside down when he becomes fascinated/infatuated with a divinely beautiful teenage boy (Björn Andrésen) staying at his hotel. Gustav lingers in the city, never speaking to the boy, but reduced to watching him at the beach and following him and his family puppy-like through the city. A city that is on the verge of falling into a serious cholera pandemic. With Gustav’s health rapidly deteriorating, the title alone tells you where this all going.

That opening paragraph will probably also tell you all you need to know about whether this is the film for you or not. Increasingly, the idea of a famed artist starring with a longing, breathless admiration at a (very young looking) teenage boy (who is also at times shot with a coquettish flirtatiousness, increasingly aware that he is being looked at) has more than a whiff of Operation Yewtree to it. Take a moment though: Visconti’s extremely delicate and deliberate film largely manages to walk a tightrope between sexual interest and a deeply closeted admiration for physical beauty in the style of classical statues or paintings.

The film is not a leering pederast’s fantasy, but a melancholic meditation where this young man as much represents the loss of youth amidst a life of regret and closeted repression as it does sexual interest. Don’t get me wrong, sex bubbles under there. Gustav – even if he is struggling to process his own feelings – has a giddy schoolboy like love for this unattainable boy, something he seems aware he can (and will) never act on. Gustav becomes a rather tragic even pathetic figure. By the time the film ends and he has caked his face in the same “young” make-up that disgusts him when he sees it on the face of another ageing roue on his arrival in Venice, it’s hard not to feel he has lost his way. He seems aware death is knocking and that it is simply a matter of opening the door.

Visconti’s film is perhaps the ultimate arthouse classic. Long, slow, with lashings of Gustav Mahler playing while the camera slowly pans across incredibly detailed sets (rumour has it, even the unopened drawers were filled with period specific props) and lavish costumes. It’s got more than a puff of self-importance, taking as its subjects art, love and beauty. It’s the sort of film where nothing much really happens (there is no real dialogue for the first ten or last ten minutes), but what little happens is laced with an overwhelming spiritual and poetical importance.

The film is however outstandingly beautiful. Venice has never looked so striking – or so original. It’s not a picture postcard: the sky is frequently doom-laden pinks and reds, the streets are lined with litter, antiseptic wash and later small fires to burn away the bad air. But everything is presented with a painterly, if doom-laden, beauty. As mentioned, the period detail is exquisite and faultless. There are more than a few comparisons with Barry Lyndon in its obsession with detail, the pictorial and period over such trivial matters as storyline and humanity. Like that film it also has a languid self-importance, that has helped make it ripe for parody throughout the years.

And yet, it engages at some level slightly more than Barry Lyndon perhaps because Dirk Bogarde is a far more skilled actor than Ryan O’Neal. Bogarde is a master of the small detail. A huge portion of the film is basically Bogarde starring at Tadzio and letting a range of emotions play across his face: fascination, shame, fondness, intrigue, self-disgust, longing. Visconti frequently lets the camera just study Bogarde’s face as the actor thinks, capturing moments of almost youthful excitement that tip as swiftly into an old-man’s shame. It’s a compellingly cinematic performance from Bogarde, an actor who never quite gets the credit he deserves.

Of course, it’s also an important land-mark in gay cinema. It’s one of the few films where we have a man express a confused yearning and admiration for a beautiful teenage boy (films – such as American Beauty – which cover similar ground with men and teenage girls are far more common). Despite this, the film never tips into feeling too icky, largely because Gustav himself is a rather sexless figure. Flashbacks show his failed fumblings with (female) prostitutes and traces of a marriage with a wife (a silent Marisa Berenson – another Barry Lyndon link), with whom he shares grief at the loss of a daughter, but seemingly little else. The implication is that Gustav has carefully suppressed all his emotions in to raise himself to a higher artistic plain. Tadzio perhaps shows him there is also beauty in youth and life, rather than just intellect.

Or you might think that’s just hogwash, and an excuse for a man in his fifties to leer at a pretty young boy. There are times when Visconti makes Tadzio too coquetteish, at times casting him in the role of distant seducer (although there are hints at least some of these glances and poses are in the imagination of the infatuated Gustav). Björn Andrésen has spoken about his discomfort in making the film (where Visconti and others allegedly tended to treat him with an icky fascination) and dealing with its legacy. Often the film plays more awkwardly today and while Visconti is partly aiming for the sort of admiration of beauty we see in classic Renaissance art – like Rubens co-directed the film – he’s still at times also positioning a young teenage boy as something close to a sex object. The film is not as simple as that, and its far from being crude while Aschenbach never feels predatory or dangerous only deluded – but touches of it are there.

Death in Venice has faced years of parody. It’s an easy film to snigger about, with its self-consciously arty look and feel. Visconti wants you to know this is an important film, and like Tarkovsky often hammers this home by making it slow and ponderous. But it’s also a beautiful and strangely engrossing film. A slow-paced two hours – pace that could have been helped if the heavy-handed flashback discussions about art between Gustav and piano player (lover?) Alfred had been trimmed out. Visconti directs it with a poetic mesmerism.

It’s got the feel of a classic painting. But it’s a film: and parts of that make it troubling at times. It never questions the appropriateness or not of this semi-sexual fascination of Gustav (for all that it stresses his increasingly pathetic delusion). However, it just about works because of the overwhelming air of tragedy and regret that hangs over it – and Bogarde’s delicately judged performance. Visconti indulges himself terribly here – but produces something that feels very much his own. Death in Venice is intriguing because its simultaneously bloated and self-important, but also mesmerising and beautiful.

8½ (1963)

Marcello Mastroianni plays a version of the director in Fellini’s inspiring

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Anouk Aimée (Luisa Anselmi), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Sandro Milo (Carla), Claudia Cardinale (Herself), Guido Alberti (Pace – Producer), Jean Rougeul (Carini Daumier), Mario Pisu (Mario Messabotta), Barbara Steele (Gloria Morin), Madeline Lebeau (Herself), Eddra Gale (La Saraghina), Ian Dallas (Maurice, clairvoyant’s assistant)

If there is a single director associated with self-reflecting films its Federico Fellini. Frequently recognised as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time, many of his films use baroque imagery and a masterful interplay of reality and fantasy to delve deep into both its director’s own subconscious and the swirling pressures and internal conflicts that make us the people we are. is, perhaps, the greatest expression of this style of film-making, a giddy sensory delight that demands investment and wisdom to unpeel its layers and give you a chance of finding its meaning.

Frequent Fellini collaborator Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a thinly veiled portrait of Fellini himself. Like Fellini, Guido is a successful and visionary director, facing pressure to come up with his ‘next masterpiece’ after the glorious success of his previous film (in Fellini’s case La Dolce Vita). Like Fellini, Guido is struggling to work out exactly what statement he wants to make next, instead allowing himself to become distracted by personal issues and day-dreaming flights of fancy (literally so in the film’s opening, where Guido imagines himself flying through the sky before being tethered and pulled to earth by his producer). Most of all these distractions revolve around women, from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), his mistress Carla (Sandro Milo) and recurring daydreams of Claudia Cardinale (playing herself) who could just be the muse he is looking for. 

To me one of the things that can make a film great, is when the ideas in it are not obvious and tired, but when they defy obvious characterisation but throw themselves open to further thought and different interpretation depending on your mood. definitely meets this criteria, combined with the fact that it’s beautifully made and very entertaining.

Fellini’s deep dive into his own subconscious is deeply involving and intriguing. The film dances from beat to beat between reality, memory and fantasy – often leaving the lines blurred about which of these we are watching at any one time. That’s part of Fellini’s idea, that our minds are complex enough to exist on all three plains at the same time, to juggle within ourselves what’s real, what we remember, what we imagined or wished could happen and how we create our own versions of all these. 

In the build-up to the film, Fellini famously struggled to identify what he wished to make and what it should be about. But while you could say that Fellini turned this creative block into a film – that, when unsure about what to make a film about, he made a film about a director who didn’t know what to make a film about – that’s to suggest a vagueness in its execution that isn’t the case. Fellini knows exactly what he’s doing here: every scene serves its purpose to explore the ennui and feelings of entrapment that an artist feels, both in his life and his craft. Far from being ambling, the film is carefully constructed and brilliantly focused.

Guido is hounded at every corner by people wanting something from him. Be it producers demanding progress, extras looking for roles in his film, actors demanding insight for their characters to his mistress looking for his attention or his wife demanding more focus from him on their marriage. The film is Guido attempting to identity among all these demands what he needs and wants from his own life – and how to build on that. It’s telling that most of Guido’s fantasies that litter the film revolve around his demands for other people to service him – be that romantically, literally or spiritually. Is part of the point of the film that we are all selfish to some extent? 

It’s the film’s exploration of day-dreaming fantasy that gives it some of its most extraordinary work, coupled with Fellini’s superb and striking visuals. The opening sequences of Guido imaging literally flying out of a traffic jam (and away from the stares of the other drivers) into the freedom of the sky – before being literally pulled back down to Earth – shows how these flights of fancy give us windows into our own desires. Guido’s a confused man looking for focus and something to believe in – his constant fantasies of Claudia Cardinale seem in part longing for her to solve his creative problems, part sexual, part almost motherly, as if she can take some decisions away from him.

Other fantasies – such as an imagined conversation with a priest for spiritual guidance – lean on finding the sort of structure his life seems to be missing. (And also, in a fantasy confession of his ennui to the same priest, perhaps a need again to be told what to do.) Most of his fantasies though revolve around romance. He imagines his wife and mistress sharing anecdotes before dancing away arm-in-arm. Most famously, an extended sequence shows Guido imagining a harem containing all the woman in his life, where he is the centre of attention – and women who age beyond his interest are politely banished upstairs “to be well looked after”. The women range from long-standing crushes and mistresses, to half-glimpsed dancers and an air hostess with a sexy voice. 

There is a striking honesty about Fellini putting something like this on film – and then use the fantasy he is displaying to both comment on and criticise his own internal fantasies. In the fantasy, unlike real life, his wife is an almost maternal figure (Guido has already jumped at one point in his reverie earlier in his film, to remember his mother only for her to turn into his wife), the women address Guido with harsh truths about everything from his character to his sexual performance, a revolt breaks out in the fantasy harem at Guido’s banishing of early crushes as they age (one which Guido stamps out). The harem is further set within his childhood home, adding a whole other layer of odd sexuality to it, as part of the women’s duties are to bath and wash him exactly as his grandmother did as a boy. It’s a sequence that lays itself open to multiple interpretations, but never feels exploitative or sleazy.

Large chunks of the rest of the film take place in a hard-to-define space between dream, memory and reality. Frequently scenes shift in nature half way through – Guido is followed throughout the film by a critic-turned-screenwriter, full of criticism of the intellectual shallowness of his work who, mid-rant, he imagines taken away for execution by some toughs. Gentle tracking shots around the retreat Guido is staying at – scored with a mixture of classical music and Nina Rota’s wonderful score – trip a line between real and imaginary in the sights we see. Conversations are intercut with imagined moments or might simply be happening in a pretence rather than a reality.

If it sounds like a difficult view, it’s not. Because for all the intelligent analysis of the ennui that can come from a creative block and the internalised struggle to find a balance between all the impulses that pull on us, it’s also a hugely entertaining film. Funny, wise and superbly acted. Mastroianni is brilliant as Guido, in turns giddy and world-weary, confused and resigned then ambitious and dreamlike. The rest of the cast are also excellent, with Anouk Aimée delightful as his long-suffering wife and Sandro Milo hugely entertaining as a needy but largely ignored mistress.

Fellini’s dives into memory also add both a richness and an emotional heft to the film. There are some beautifully nostalgic sequences that head back into the past. Guido’s childhood is explored with a series of wonderful vignettes. From his childhood in a wine distillery with his grandmother and aunts, full of playful energy, to the first stirring of a sexual awakening watching a prostitute dance on the beach (a quite extraordinary scene of playful flirtation, but still rather oddly innocent in its way). These scenes have captured the imagination of directors across the globe, with their power and ability to capture both the nostalgia of recollection, but also a distant magic of memory and the impact these still have on us in the present. But no body does this better than Fellini.

The best thing that can be said about is that I can imagine watching it hundreds of times, and each time seeing something fresh and new about it. And it works because its ideas are profound without being pretentious and easy enough to engage with, while never shallow. It brings depth and richness to complex internal struggles and repackages these into a rich experience that enlightens both memory and creativity. A great movie.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Clint Eastwood is the Man with no Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Clint Eastwood (“Blondie”/The Man With No Name), Lee Van Cleef (“Angel Eyes”), Eli Wallach (Tuco), Aldo Giuffrè (Union Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Corporal Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramírez), Al Mulock (Elam, one-Armed Bounty Hunter), Antonio Casas (Stevens), Antonio Casale (Jackson/Bill Carson), Antonio Molino Rojo (Captain Harper)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly closed out Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” Western trilogy, the role that turned Clint Eastwood into a star. Unlike the other two films in the Dollars series, TGTBTU was shot on a larger and more expansive budget, and showed Leone stretching himself into something more than a peddler of Americana pulp. This was a film that was as much an artistic statement as it was an entertainment – perhaps more so. 

The plot of the film is very simple – considering its extended runtime. Three bandits and hired guns are on a quest for buried gold, while all around them the American Civil War rages. The bandits are: “The Good” (Clint Eastwood) – the taciturn “man with no name” who has more of heart than he lets on; “The Bad” (Lee Van Cleef) – known only as “Angel Eyes”, a stone-cold killer with no soul at all; and “The Ugly”, Tuco (Eli Wallach), a larger than life Mexican bandit, scruffy, scuzzy but with plenty of joie de vivre. The money is hidden somewhere out in a graveyard in the West – but who is going to get there first?

TGTBTU is Leone at a midway point of his career. Tonally the film falls between the more straightforward thrills of the first two Dollarsfilms, and leans closer towards the artistic epic canvasses that Leone would paint in his Once Upon a Time… films. Perhaps this is why TGTBTU is possibly the most popular of all Leone’s films, it’s more entertaining than either of the latter two but has more thematic depth than the earlier two. But that doesn’t change the fact that, watching it, I feel this is reaching for a moral and thematic richness and complexity that is just beyond Leone’s grasp. He’s straining for this film to be something more than his earlier films – and I’m not sure that’s something he manages to do. 

But let’s focus on what the film does right, which is a hell of a lot. This is the film where Leone really found his voice and ran with it. It’s a hyper real world he creates of the Old West, with a tone of artificiality about it. Part of that comes from the odd disconnect you get from the European actors and the dubbed voices that overlay them (not always completely accurately), but it’s there in every inch of the style of the film.

It’s an explosion of style, with artificiality frequently alongside reality, all thrown together into a sort of crazy Western world where everything seems to be happening at once (from bandit towns to the Civil War), and you could turn a corner and end up in either a desert, a battle field or a town under siege. His style is heightened, and makes for some wonderful shots, not least the way first Blondie and later Tuco’s banditos seem to drop into a wider frame, expanding the world suddenly as we watch it. 

Leone’s a director who practically invented the term “operatic” for cinema. His gun battles are 99% build up and 1% action, and it’s the simmering tension of those build-ups that really make his films stick in the mind. If you think of it, you’ll imagine that iconic Ennio Morricone score (recorded before the film was shot, so Leone could shoot the film to match it – composers dream of having such licence today!), followed by slow series of escalating cuts. Leone will cut to hands approaching triggers, then close ups of faces, then long shots for context, then all of these again and again, each time the hands getting closer, the close-ups getting tighter, the long shots being more prolonged, all of it about building the tension and then BANG the shooting is done in seconds.

The film was criticised for being violent at the time, but it’s more like extremely tense. You can see why Tarantino sites Leone as his master. Watch that introduction sequence for Angel Eyes, a long, quiet scene where he eats a peasant’s food while questioning him and then ends by a sharp series of shootings that leave the family devastated. It’s the style Tarantino was going for in Inglourious Basterds and a tone establisher for Leone. You always know the violence is coming, and you know it will be quick and merciless when it does, but the film makes you sit tensely waiting for it for minutes at a time. The violence when it comes is often cold and those who carry it out are cynics and thieves rather than heroes and villains.

It makes for a sprawling, epic, even rather unfocused film at times – and it means the runtime is hopelessly overextended at over three hours uncut – but it’s also what interests Leone. He sees a world where killers are cool, calm, calculating and don’t go in guns blazing. Where intimidation is an art and micro-calculations occur before any trigger is squeezed. 

And these ruthless killers are in a world of violence all around them. Around the edges of the film’s narrative, the world of the Civil War rages, claiming lives left, right and centre. It’s here that Leone targets a thematic richness that I don’t feel is completely successful. There are elements that work – and the Union prison camp that Blondie and Tuco end up in (staffed by sadistic guards under the guidance of Angel Eyes) is the best of them. Clearly paralleling Nazi extermination camps in the herding of prisoners, the trains that carry them to certain death, the brutal beatings and the Yankee soldiers who are forced to play music (literally for their lives) to cover the noise of those beatings, you can feel Leone’s anger at the horror mankind unleashes on itself. 

But it’s heavy handed at places and makes its points too bluntly, dropping them into the film rather than weaving them neatly into the overall narrative. Towns and villages are bombed out and dead men lie on the edge of roads, but it doesn’t really get tied into an effective contrast with the central treasure hunt narrative. This is Leone straining for greatness, but not having the chops to get there yet. Blondie may bemoan the pointless slaughter of civil war – and even comfort a dying soldier – but these beats could be removed from the film without affecting its overall impact. Leone’s real love is Americana pulp, and his focus on this sometimes gets in the way of achieving his wider aims.

Perhaps that’s also because the impact gets lost slightly in the film’s great, sprawling length – and Leone’s lack of discipline, his insistence in taking everything at his own pace (often a slow dawdle through details), while it works really well for some sequences it also gives us others (such as Tuco running through a graveyard) that seem to last forever for very little impact.

Leone also increasingly became more a director with epic visuals in which characters are only details, with this film. Eastwood – reluctant to return in any case – especially feels like a much blanker presence in this film, coasting through his role almost on autopilot. Although you could say he generously cedes much of the limelight to Eli Wallach, who roars through the film as Tuco. Wallach’s eccentric but heartfelt performance – full of odd mannerisms but underscored with a genuine emotional vulnerability at points matched with a childlike enthusiasm – becomes central to the enjoyment of the film (he’s really the lead character). Van Cleef meanwhile drips demonic, cold menace behind unflinching (Angel) eyes.

Leone’s epic work is a sprawling, over extended, self-indulgent epic that mixes moments of pure cinematic entertainment with heavy handed digressions into man’s inhumanity that are a little too on-the-nose and unthreaded into the central plot to carry as much impact as they should. But it remains one of the most popular films of all time partly because what it does well, it does better than almost anyone – those long, tense build-ups, that electric energy that Wallach represents, the otherworldly artificiality mixed with cold reality. The Good the Bad and the Ugly is Leone’s crowning achievement, and for all its flaws, it still packs a punch.

The Passenger (1975)

Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson hit the road in Antonioni’s partly frustrating, partly masterful The Passenger

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Cast: Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (The Girl), Ian Hendy (Martin Knight), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Charles Mulvehill (David Robertson), Steven Berkoff (Stephen)

Ever wanted to jack in your life and have a go at being someone else? It’s a temptation we’ve all felt at one time or another, that chance to make a completely fresh start free of all those burdens and expectations of our own lives. 

It’s a temptation thrown in the way of David Locke (Jack Nicholson) a British-American journalist, trying to make contact with rebel groups in the deepest Sahara deserts of Chad. Returning, after a failed excursion, to his ‘hotel’ in the tiny, beat-up village in the middle of the desert he finds that the only other resident, an Englishman, has died of a heart attack. The two man have a physical similarity, enough for Locke to decide to swop places with the dead man and leave Chad under a new identity as David Robertson. Curious to follow the details left in Robertson’s appointment diary, Locke finds that he has taken the identity of an arms dealer – making sense immediately of why Robertson was also in the hotel at the time – forcing Locke to stay one-step ahead of both the arms dealers and his wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) and producer Martin (Ian Hendry) keen to talk to him about ‘Locke’s’ death.

If that sounds like it might be an action packed thriller – you’d be wrong, because let’s not forget that this is an Antonioni film, and if there is one thing you can expect from the revered auteur of the Art-House, it’s that his films are mysteries wrapped in enigmas. The Passenger is no exception, a slow, intriguing mood piece that only partially allows the audience even half a chance to puzzle out what it’s about, mixed with striking images and haunting sequences of fundamental unknowingness. Despite the paragraph above there is almost no plot in The Passenger, with the film instead focused on themes of alienation, existentialism, destiny, fate and identity. In other words all the big stuff.

Much of this is captured in the character of Locke. Played by Jack Nicholson in a stripped-down, purged style a million miles away from the “Jack” of legend, Locke is a blank. We spend almost the entire film with him, but learn virtually nothing about him. What desires or miseries or depressions drive him to abandon his life and head out into a new life? We have only vague whispers about an unhappy marriage (with a wife having an affair with someone else) and a general listless dissatisfaction with his own life and career. Locke is a character yearning for some kind of release, some kind of higher meaning – the happiest he seems to be in the movie, is hanging over the side of a cable car, arms outstretched, pretending to fly over the waters below. It’s a freedom like that – some sort of total unshackling from the modern world altogether – that he seems to want or need.

So why doesn’t he go for it? Why doesn’t he just junk Robertson’s appointment diary and escape properly into the wide world, well beyond the reach of Chad rebels, curious wives and BBC Producers? Perhaps because he is a Passenger himself, a man who lacks the essential will and freedom of purpose to make his own destiny, to escape the structure of a world he finds so constricting? Instead, he seems bound of a wheel of fire, compelled somehow to continue following some sort of structure unable to yank himself fully free of the chains of this modern world. He wants to be a free spirit, but he remains a little man, to whom events happen, who is approached by people, who follows directions not forging his own path.

He gets as close as he can to opening up by talking to a passenger of his own, a mysterious girl (played with an unaffected naturalness by Maria Schneider that is part graceful reality, part wooden stiffness but works perfectly) he encounters while following Robertson’s trail. He first spots her sitting on a bench in London, then sees her again atop Guadi’s La Pedrera in Barcelona. Is this coincidence? Is this fate? Destiny? Or is this a curious suggestion that the girl may be more than she seems? None of these questions is answered by the film, but it fits perfectly in with the unknowing vagueness and quizzical unpredictability of its events. Hammering home the blank unknowability of Schneider’s character, she isn’t even named in the film. She joins Locke on his journey, but her motivations are as vague as his – is it escape, a bohemian lark, a curiosity that guides her? Who knows?

The film continues in this vein, showing Locke drifting from Chad to the UK to Berlin, Barcelona and Seville, never seeming to allow Locke more than a few seconds of freedom. Is the film asking if there is any such thing as true freedom, that even after swopping lives Locke still finds himself locked down into following a series of pre-arranged duties, like a train on a line? It’s not clear, but it’s beautifully filmed. Antonioni’s mastery of the camera shines throughout the film, and it’s full of haunting and immersive imagery, not least in his skilful use of locations and framing, with Locke and the Girl frequently positioned oddly or even dwarfed by the architecture and locations around them, from the plains of the desert to the towers of Gaudi.

Antonioni also saves for this film some sequences which are simply breathtaking in their cinematic mastery and beauty. His control of technique is near faultless – while his art house vagueness might have you pulling your hair out at points, these sequences will have you winding the film back just to relax in their skill and confidence again. Early in the film, we see Locke sit and fake his passport in his Chad hotel – oh for the days when identity theft was as simple as glueing a new photo into a passport – the camera smoothly moves around him, while he listens to recordings of Robertson and he meeting, until it settles onto the balcony (all this in one take) at which point Robertson walks into frame and continues the conversation, Locke following him and, there we go, Antonioni has taken us suddenly into the past. Without a single cut, the camera follows the conversation before panning back round to Locke sitting once again writing.

It’s a sequence that cineateases would be raving about, if it wasn’t dwarfed by the film’s penultimate shot, a stunning seven-minute single take that would be simplicity itself to make with CGI and Steadicam today, but was somewhere achieved without the invention of others. Starting on a single shot of Locke’s Seville hotel room, the pan slowly focuses on events outside the grilled window, the camera slowly zooming in on the outside until it passes through the grill and rotates 180 degrees back to see the room from the outside, while the Girl and other mysterious people arrive and leave outside. It’s a beautiful, brilliant, sublime, masterful piece of cinema. It’s compelling, surely one of the greatest “one-take” shots in all of cinema. Simply perfect. Directors could sit and dream of making such a shot. 

Antonioni’s masterful direction and wilfully obtuse exploration of his themes makes for a film that is at time frustratingly unreadable, but also crammed with opportunities for the viewer to insert their own views and interpretations, something that is only going to become more tempting (and rewarding) with repeated viewings. Alongside that, it’s a simply beautiful and sublimely made piece of cinema – and if for no other reason deserves your time.