Tuesday, May 19, 2015

La Notte (1961) ***

Like a less dramatic, more boring “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?,” Antonioni's “La Notte” explores the resentments and discontent of a dysfunctional marriage. Marcello Mastroianni plays Giovanni, a successful author, and Jeanne Moreau plays his wife Lidia. “La Notte” (Italian for “The Night”) begins with the couple visiting another author, a long-time friend who is dying in the hospital. At the hospital, Giovanni is accosted by a beautiful but crazy young woman who draws him into her room and seduces him, although the nurses burst in before consummation. He later confesses the experience to Lidia, who seems coldly unconcerned about the near-infidelity. Giovanni is worried by her reaction, as are we, because everyone knows that it's a bad sign if your lover doesn't care enough to get jealous.

Later, Giovanni glad-hands the public at a book reading, and Lidia slips away to wander around Rome, visiting old haunts. Later still, on Lidia's request, the two go out to a nightclub, where a couple put on an interesting, gymnastic strip show. This show is the coolest thing in the movie, but Giovanni and Lidia are bored and restless, and Lidia finally suggests they attend the party of an acquaintance, a wealthy industrialist. They party the night away, each pursuing a possible infidelity, before finally hashing out their deteriorating marriage in the light of the new dawn.

“La Notte” is considered an important film by critics, part of the great period of Italian film roughly corresponding to the French New Wave. Then, as now, the film was lauded for the subtlety of its storytelling. There is a lot of talking, but “La Notte” could probably work as a silent film, as so much of the movie consists of silent, beautifully photographed scenes of the characters walking or leaning up against walls. These scenes focus on the inner life of these characters, and we are often left to speculate on the content of their thoughts and emotions, with subtle clues from these two excellent actors.

All of this subtlety comes at a price, however. Without mincing words, I have to say that I was bored for much of the 2-hour run-time. The scenes are long and slow, and one wonders if Antonioni couldn't have edited it to a more watchable length while preserving the tone. You wait and wait for something big to happen, then finally realize that nothing will. It's a slog, a movie that feels like work.  Towards the end of the film, a character tells Giovanni and Lidia, "You two have worn me out tonight."  I understood how she felt at that point.

Plenty of film fans disagree with me, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing “La Notte.” It is quite thought-provoking, and Antonioni puts together some amazing-looking camera shots. I would not, however, suggest that someone watch this as their first experience of classic foreign cinema. For a film of the same period that explores similar emotional content, but in a more dynamic, entertaining way, I would recommend de Sicca's “Marriage Italian Style.”  For a movie with Marcello Mastroianni staying out all night exploring his existential angst, “La Dolce Vida” is an essential film, and much easier to watch than “La Notte.” For those who are as enthralled by Jeanne Moreau as I am, she is riveting in “La Notte,” but “The Lovers” or “Jules and Jim” are much more watchable introductions to her work.

3 stars out of 5

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