Five years ago today the world bid farewell to not one, but two of its greatest filmmakers – the Master of Melancholy, Ingmar Bergman, and the Master of Alienation, Michelangelo Antonioni.
Swedish-born Bergman’s wave of influence over the modern cinematic landscape is beyond measure: Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Ang Lee – all these directors and more have cited Bergman as an inspiration. He was once famously described by Woody Allen as “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera.”
Italian-born Antonioni, often viewed as the junior of the two contemporaries despite being five and a half years older, redefined cinematic narrative. Rejecting the audience’s preconceived notions of plot, Antonioni, much like Fellini, fused the cultural and existential concerns of neo-realism with his characters’ internal struggles, resulting in beautiful, inscrutable explorations of everyday life; less a ‘film’ in the conventional sense, more a ‘piece’ of cinema.
Antonioni, as with Bergman, asked questions he purposefully did not answer: “I detest films that have a ‘message.’ I simply try to tell, or, more precisely, show, certain vicissitudes that take place, then hope they will hold the viewer’s interest no matter how much bitterness they may reveal. Life is not always happy, and one must have the courage to look at it from all sides.” A modest filmmaker, when accepting his honourary Oscar in 1995, Antonioni’s speech consisted of one word: “Grazie.”
Praising and critical of each others’ work, Bergman and Antonioni used the camera in very different ways to tell their tales of life, love, death and sadness. Bergman favoured the close-up; faces, both human and clock. He relished in shadows, glances and themes of spirituality. Bergman’s films brim with theatricality; the Knight’s first meeting with Death in The Seventh Seal (1957). This is perhaps unsurprising given his productive and illustrious stage directing career; his output measured in the hundreds. Many of his screenplays grew out from play scripts.
Antonioni was a practitioner of the long shot, forcing us to remain where many other directors would cut away (as with the famous seven-minute take from The Passenger (1975), which took eleven days to perfect). We observe his enigmatic diegeses with a sense of aloofness; voyeuristic onlookers sitting in the cinema. We are alienated, just like the photographer, Thomas, as he wanders through an uncannily vacant London in Blow Up (1966) – Antonioni’s best-known and first English-language film. We notice the little things, the liminal things, and the mysterious things.
Speaking at the time of their deaths, Washington Post writer Dan Zak summed up the two men and their work perfectly: “Antonioni and Bergman were men of distance. They photographed the chasms between us.”