Monica Vitti, the “queen of Italian cinema”, dies at 90

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Monica Vitti, whose cold sensuality and cerebral approach to her roles animated a groundbreaking series of 1960s cinematic masterpieces directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, including the highly controversial ‘L’Avventura’, died in Rome on Wednesday . She was 90 years old.

His death was announced by filmmaker Walter Veltroni, former mayor of Rome and Minister of Culture of Italy.

In a press release, Dario Franceschini, the Italian Minister of Culture, wrote: “Goodbye to the queen of Italian cinema”.

A classically trained actress, Ms. Vitti was already an established stage star in Italy in 1957 when she met Antonioni, who later became her companion for a decade, just as she became his muse and alter ego.

Ms. Vitti is emerging on the international scene as all eyes turn to Europe, where a new generation of visionary filmmakers is remaking the landscape, particularly in France and Italy. Her sharp, patrician features and icy demeanor provided a visual and stylistic counterpoint to the working-class voluptuousness of leading Italian actresses of the time, including Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

The official screening of “L’Avventura” at the Cannes International Film Festival in 1960 became a milestone in the history of cinema. It ended with a chorus of boos from the bewildered audience at a film that started out as a mystery about a missing woman named Anna and turned into an almost emotionless sexual interlude between the missing woman’s fiancé and her best friend, played by Ms. Vitti.

Antonioni thought his career was over. Ms Vitti fled the auditorium in tears when her most heartfelt scenes were met with laughter. But a cabal of filmmakers, led by Roberto Rossellini, wrote an impassioned defense of the film, and it won the festival’s Special Jury Prize and was widely hailed as a cinematic landmark.

Mainstream critics were divided on the film, which drew as much bemusement as it did praise. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker declared it the best film of the year and praised Ms Vitti’s work. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther analyzed the film and described its performance as “oddly flirtatious and intense”. But it made her an instant international star, and in 1962 British film magazine Sight & Sound declared it the second best film ever made, after ‘Citizen Kane’.

Ms. Vitti then starred in two more Antonioni films, ‘La Notte’ (1961) and ‘L’Eclisse’ (1962), which he said were intended to form a trilogy with ‘L’Avventura’ on the alienation in the modern world. world. They remain central to Ms. Vitti’s legacy as a film actress.

She also starred in Antonioni’s first color film, “Red Desert” (1964), which many critics described as a fourth film in the alienation series.

Neorealism, which had dominated Italian cinema since the end of World War II, was replaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s by new approaches. Federico Fellini became a global figure thanks to a series of exuberant films like “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”.

Ms. Vitti’s breakthrough role in ‘L’Avventura’ came around the same time Fellini unveiled his most influential film at that time, ‘La Dolce Vita’. Both films shared a pessimism about modern life, but otherwise couldn’t have been more different. Fellini’s film embraced audiences with its seductiveness, while Antonioni’s was maddeningly dark, not so much meeting audience expectations as pointedly ignoring them.

A romantic relationship blossomed between Ms. Vitti and Antonioni during the filming of “L’Avventura” and grew stronger in the years that followed. At one point, before their relationship became widely known, Ms Vitti lived in an apartment directly below Antonioni’s in Rome, and the director had a trapdoor and a spiral staircase installed so they could get together. see when they wanted without being noticed from the outside.

An attempt to turn her into a mainstream star in the psychedelic British spy satire “Modesty Blaise” in 1966 failed despite a solid cast, including Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde, and despite acclaimed director Joseph Losey at the helm.

After her relationship with Antonioni ended in 1967 and she stopped making films with him, she decided to reinvent her whole career, switching to light comedies, which at the time in Italy were dominated by stars. masculine. Italian audiences and critics alike were stunned by her ease as an actress, which many came to believe was her greatest calling.

She continued to be a beloved star in Italy, although few of her films from those years, which had titles like “Kill Me Quick, I’m Cold” and “The Girl With a Pistol”, found a following. international audience. An exception was Ettore Scola’s “Dramma della Gelosia”, released in the United States in 1970 as “The Pizza Triangle”, which was a substantial success.

In 1974, she worked with another famous filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, in “The Phantom of Liberty”, his last great critical success.

Monica Vitti was born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome on November 3, 1931, the third child and only daughter of Angelo and Adele (Vittilia) Ceciarelli. She shortened her mother’s maiden name to use as her own stage name.

She later recalled a troubled and impoverished childhood under strict parents who kept her isolated at home while allowing her brothers the freedom of the city, which she bitterly resented. The experience, she says, made her wary of marriage and reluctant to have children.

Partly to escape her unhappy home, she began acting as a teenager.

When she was 18, her parents and brothers emigrated to the United States in search of a change of fortune, but she remained in Rome, where she graduated from the National Academy of Dramatic Art in 1953.

“I took advantage of their absence to become an actress,” she said. “When they came back, my parents had to call me Monica. They had to recognize what had happened.

She had film roles as early as 1954, but was best known at that time as a stage and television actress. She met Antonioni in 1957, but he was struggling to find money to make films at that time, and it wasn’t until ‘L’Avventura’ that he was able to introduce his new star and lover. .

In the wake of the Antonioni trilogy, Ms. Vitti has become one of the most glamorous figures on the international film scene, a regular at Cannes and other international events. His stardom continued, at least in Europe, after his move into light comedy in the 1970s.

She established a relationship in 1975 with another Italian filmmaker, Roberto Russo, cameraman, screenwriter and director. They lived together for many years before finally getting married in 1995. He survives her.

In 1979, Ms Vitti was recruited by Hollywood director Michael Ritchie for ‘A Nearly Perfect Affair’, in which she played the wife of an Italian film mogul, who strikes up a romance at the Cannes Film Festival with a young filmmaker played by Keith Carradine. .

A year later, she worked for the last time with Antonioni in a television film entitled “Le Mystère d’Oberwald”, based on a play by Jean Cocteau. As a coda, it was an anticlimax. Most critics responded with a shrug, and the film had little impact.

Ms. Vitti worked less often on screen in the 1980s and turned to stage work. She also taught drama. In 1989, she tried her hand at directing with “Secret Scandal”, a film which she also wrote and in which she starred with Elliott Gould. It garnered acclaim, but it flopped at the box office and marked the end of his big-screen career.

For the next decade, she worked infrequently on Italian television.

At the height of his fame, after the release of ‘L’Avventura’, Ms Vitti usually left it to Antonioni to try to explain to reporters what he meant by the film – in particular why he refused to resolve the mystery of Anna’s disappearance.

But in a New York Times interview in Manhattan days before the film was released in New York, Ms. Vitti gave it a try, with a response almost as cryptic as the film.

“That’s the one question the public isn’t supposed to ask,” she explained. ” It does not matter. What is important is that Anna was carrying two books before she disappeared – the Bible and “Tender Is the Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. One suggests our concern for morality; the other was a literary experiment in which the heroine disappears in the middle of the book and is replaced by another protagonist.

Alex Marshall and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.

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