Long ago, in a different lifetime, deep in the bowels of the college library, I poured over the pages of Sight & Sound, Film Quarterly, and other esteemed cinema journals, along with the collected reviews of Pauline Kael, among other prominent critics. Those afternoons and evenings, spent alone with only what felt like the entirety of an amazing, unexplored world spread out before me in the pages of books and periodicals, signified the next crucial step in my film history education. I’d been fortunate enough to take a film class in high school that truly ignited my passion for movies, thanks in large part to one very special teacher, who also happened to be the first person to encourage me to be a writer. There, in the stacks of the library’s lower level, I took what she’d taught me and used that knowledge to further explore new and exciting corners of celluloid history.
It was there that I learned of auteurs like Fellini and Antonioni, Peckinpah and Penn, among others. Shots of a goddess-like Anita Ekberg in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita captivated me. Reading about the squib-laden bloody violence that Peckinpah unleashed in The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia blew my mind. It was there that I felt I knew these movies before I’d ever seen them. It was there that I committed to seeing as many of them as I could. And it was there that I first saw the face of Italian cinema—Antonioni’s muse and surrogate, Monica Vitti, who died this past week at age 90—and felt instantly drawn to it, even haunted by it.
All those years ago, I dabbled in some of Vitti’s catalog of classics—four of which she made with Antonioni from 1960–1964, including L’Avventura (1960), the film from which I first saw a still of her—and, like everyone else who’s done the same, have been under her spell ever since. As one memorial for her noted, cinema is a often a vehicle for celebrating the beauty around us—the beauty of our natural and man-made worlds, and the beauty of the faces and bodies that populate these spaces. Vitti’s face was as uniquely beautiful as any that have ever graced the screen. No one looked quite like her, and no one conveyed such stunning refinement and excruciating alienation in equal measure. The films she made with Antonioni masterfully explore the dichotomy of her exquisite beauty: we loved her face not just because of how objectively beautiful it was, but because of how intensely powerful the emotions behind it were. She was also a great comedienne, and did 1960s camp to perfection in the comic book adaption Modesty Blaise, directed by Joseph Losey. She was a great talent, more than earning her title as “The Queen of Italian Cinema.”
When I saw her face in the pages of some periodical, all those many years ago in the basement of the college library, it felt like home, if that makes sense. Her distinctly Italian features, from her Roman nose to her pouty lips to her hypnotic eyes reminded me so of the Italians I’d come from, and the Italian Americans I’d grown up around. Vitti, and Italian cinema, held an allure that ensnared me at that young age and continues to grip me today.
When I think of Vitti now, I think of her heartbreaking, profound performance in her final collaboration with Antonioni, Red Desert (1964). Antonioni literally painted the landscapes and made stellar use of his palette in his first color film. To this day it’s a high-water mark in cinematic color theory, with the use of color reflecting the main character’s emotions throughout. The story of one troubled, crumbling mother and wife, played with excruciating detail by Vitti, set against a backdrop of the toxic, industrial wastelands of Northern Italy, is a haunting tale of alienation and longing, one that sticks with you for all time after just one viewing. Vitti is extraordinary. One needs only to watch her in this to understand her appeal and the enormous impact she made on a cinema.
Memorials for her life and work will emerge in the coming days and few will be able to capture the allusive qualities that made Vitti a star. We must watch her, study her face and startlingly honest relationship to the camera in order to fully understand. I knew she was special when I saw her face in a magazine, decades ago. Then I saw her act, and knew why.
A true legend of cinema has died, and we’ll never be able to properly thank her for all of the beauty she so generously gifted us with during her career. That boy in the library who grew into the man writing this certainly owes her for helping to open his mind to new modes of cinematic expression. Monica Vitti was a crucial part of my education, and it all started with a picture of that face, which I later discovered contained multitudes.
Rest in peace, Monica Vitti.