November 03, 2016
Monica Vitti's ennui is one of the reasons I love cinema. Her sad, bored, lonely, searching characters in the films she made with Antonioni are simultaneously relatable and aspirational. She is alternately a volcano of emotion and a bottomless pit of emptiness. Claudia, Valentina, Vittoria, and Giuliana are completely different women but she portrays each of them with the same solemn resolution, adding dimension to roles that, in less gifted hands, could have fallen flat.
I love her work with Antonioni. I always include Claudia whenever I do those "which fictional characters represent you?" memes. L'Avventura is one of my desert island movies. But Vitti's talents didn't end with melancholy expressions of chronic boredom or modern discontent. In a career spanning almost four decades, Vitti constantly displayed an uncanny knack for comedy. While her sullen expression might have left a lasting impression on the landscape of cinema, her laugh echoes through history, waiting to be heard.
It's often stated that Vitti turned to comedy after the Antonioni films, but in reality they were a brief departure from the genre -- two of her first films, Ridere! Ridere! Ridere! (1954) and Le Dritte (1958) were comedies. And, one could even argue, there is an element of comedy at play within her work with Antonioni. Her humor, spontaneity, and force-of-nature energy are on full display when Claudia is making faces in the mirror or dancing to "Mai!" in L'Avventura, when Vittoria wrestles and imitates corny lovers with Piero in L'Eclisse, when Giuliana tries quail's eggs in Red Desert.
This vitality comes through even more-so, though, in her comedies. I have yet to see the pre-L'Avventura ones that I mentioned above (sadly the non-Antonioni films are very hard to find in America... see this post for an elaborate story about the lengths to which I had to go to find and watch "On My Way to the Crusades I Met a Girl Who...") but I've managed to track down several of her 60's-70's comedies and I highly recommend them.
The most famous (and most readily available) is Modesty Blaise. This was actually my introduction to Monica Vitti, who starred opposite one of my favorite actors, Dirk Bogarde, in the English spy spoof. Vitti plays the titular character, a super mod spy who changes outfits and hair colors in the blink of an eye, and Bogarde plays her arch-nemesis, Gabriel, an over-the-top white-haired villain who drinks from giant champagne glasses with goldfish swimming in them. It's one of the most fun movies I have ever seen, although after countless viewings I still have no idea what's going on plot-wise.
But it's a prime example of Vitti's light comedic touch. It actually feels light. Effortless. Gentle. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Vitti and Terence Stamp, playing the Robin to her Batman, sing a little duet while eating ice cream.
Isn't that beautiful? And light as a feather. I love the hat tilt, the way Stamp and Vitti reach for a kiss before sinking into their seats. It's comedic choreography, well timed, simple, and sweet.
I think the mark of a great comedienne is the mannerisms -- it's not just about being able to deliver a punchline. Aside from Modesty Blaise, all of Monica Vitti's films were in Italian, and despite the language barrier I still find her humor absolutely charming. It's the mannerisms. It's the almost Chaplin-esque facial expressions. I think she would have excelled in silent film, although one would definitely miss her perfect intonations and that raspy, delightful laugh.
Her flair for creating Antonioni's weary women trying to make sense of the alien world around them lay in her ability to communicate with the audience through her expressions. I firmly believe you could watch L'Avventura with the subtitles off, and, just by watching Vitti's face, completely understand what the movie is saying. She brings this same talent, this ability to convey thoughts and emotions through gesture and manner, to her comedy.
My two favorite Vitti comedies are The Scarlet Lady, in which she stars as a revenge-obsessed woman opposite Maurice Ronet, and The Pizza Triangle (alternate titles are A Drama of Jealousy and Jealousy, Italian Style but I swear it's a comedy) which co-stars Marcello Mastroianni and Giancarlo Giannini. The Scarlet Lady is (drum roll!) available on amazon, on a Region 1 disc (so you can play it in the US) with English subtitles (woo hoo!) Unfortunately The Pizza Triangle doesn't seem to be commercially available in the US, but I found a copy here if you're interested.
Or you can go back and re-watch the Antonioni films, paying close attention to those fleeting glimpses of a rare comedic talent. Like Garbo before her, Monica Vitti was a natural at honing in on and reflecting the weight of existence on screen.... and when she laughs, it is a revelation.