If the protagonists presented in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni seem almost like apparitions, like figures that hover desolately above and disengaged from some facet of the films' compositional or sociocultural arrangements, it's with good reason: They practically are. Antonioni is one who bequeathed to the cinema gifts of portentous proportion, each of his film a coalesced arras of the cerebral and the majestic. Usually adorned with a centripetal character emphasis—be it consciously acknowledged or insidiously impacting—pieces like L'avventura (or any installment of the "alienation trilogy," really) Il deserto rosso, Zabriskie Point, and The Passenger all establish, at the very least, a communal, baseline dynamism between human ecology and environmental demand. Characters come dressed with varying degrees of self-awareness, sure, but there's always a sense that they're never fully overcome by the gravity of their exacting surroundings.
And yet, each offering portends of different personal and cultural pitfalls, as the director himself constantly adapted his style to epochal permutations and modish social and artistic demands. Antonioni realized that ennui is not simply ennui—that even the individual persona is an ever-evolving mechanism at the mercy of emotion, perception, feeling, and circumstance. It's this notion that propelled some of the (r)evolutionary shifts in the filmmaker's oeuvre, and the results materialized relevant due to his insistence on cultural and formal acuity; his films were those of the moment, both in terms of unseen but omnipresent concerns and his personal synchronization to them. Whereas his masterwork—well, one of them anyway—L'avventura presented pervading malaise and apathy as if they were symptomatic of the bourgeoisie condition, Il deserto rosso, in a leitmotif far ahead of its time, delineated how humans, thanks to the natural perversions accorded by relentless industrialism, have taken over the reigns of our own biological impetuses. The common thread of sweeping change and the individual effect seems to pervade each of his pieces, only in their own organic applications.
But it's Identification of a Woman, a work curious in its fits of ideological spattering, that most deftly elucidates the ineffability of change as a pervasive entity. Staring Tomas Milian as film director Niccolò—who, like photographer Thomas in Blow-Up, isn't defined so much by vocation but instead the lineaments that could accompany such a professionally-granted perspective—the work charts his search for the feminine lead of his next project. Alas, the filmmaker's inquest of finding a proper actress is more episodically Odyssean than initially realized, and the complexity of searching for the "right" woman is something that quickly diffuses into other corners of his life: romantic, familial, and domestic. His story becomes one of an almost investigative quintessence, with his struggle lying primarily in his inability to identify that for which he truly longs; his life, in turn, comes defined by the cultural and introspective forces that disorient his emotional ballasts. But Niccolò is an adult, and an adult character. He experiences, due in part to his occupational proclivities, a certain disconnect from his surroundings, as if a membrane separated the man from experiencing social engulfment—the various constituents that make up his and others' lives come to cleave rather than cohere the director from the world his works supposedly probe.
Not only does Antonioni evince this chasm between the cultural machine and the social vacuum in which his protagonist exists, he makes it a point to compartmentalize public and private facets of life, tethering this combative dichotomy to contemporary class palisades. At one point in the film Niccolò attends a stuffy soirée with his young paramour, Mavi (Daniela Silverio), only to experience a penetrative feeling of detachment from how territorially "cliquish" the upper-class denizens act. Sure, the framework for this interpersonal gesture is socioeconomic, but the idea is universal: letting others into our private atmospheres is a risky investment, one that welcomes the possibility for humiliation and betrayal; the rich and powerful just have, in our social systems of material emphasis, more to lose. And for the sake of extrapolation, Antonioni even carries this concept into realms of personal relativity, as he underscores the contrast between acquaintance and intimacy in everyone that Niccolò encounters—the organic rate of exchange between these two classifications comes to the forefront of the film's interactions. Antonioni, as mentioned above, understands the connate complexity of the individual, and he paints his principal's journey with a complete spectrum of encounters. Even the casual and innocuous moments of public life can elicit shifts that challenge private harmonies, and this accords a happiness-is-elsewhere tenor that feels especially present within romantic realms. A scene exists in which Niccolò describes his perfect relationship with a female as being akin to the quiet, symbiotic dynamic that humanity experiences with nature. This idyllic, idealistic form of coexistence speaks to the character's main shortcoming: Without identifying a realistic goal, for lack of a better word, Niccolò is fated to aimlessly drift through a shifting cultural cosmos, never to achieve contention or self-actualization.
The visual landscape of Identification of a Woman is one germane to Niccolò's social disassociation, as background objects read as, in relation to the director, distinct entities of more decorative than encompassing employment. The characters of this cinematic world seem to ensconce themselves with myriad artistic mediums, caring not how such pieces—which run the gamut from literature to paintings to sculpture to music—are produced or wherein their emotional roots are planted but instead how they fit into often postural social arrangements. This presents the protagonist's crisis as something of a full-circle confinement, for Niccolò is trying to craft something for the consumption of, what he feels is, an unfeeling public. Art, Antonioni suggests, is something that becomes more commodifiable as we venture further up the class ladder, and what's worse, emotionally derived pieces are often positioned in the same context of contemporary cultural signifiers: alarms, phones, sirens and the like. In this, a gaudy contrast comes to materialize in the film that speaks to the emptiness of the space between both people and their environs, which compliments Niccolò's doubts concerning natural tranquility and the modern condition.
As he has in the past, Antonioni takes care in honing the feminine personalities in his work, evoking an appreciation for that which he can't possibly understand. Men, he posits via dialogue in a poolside scene, come acquainted through cultivated social agents—here it's a boxing match, but any similarly testosterone-centric enterprise would also be appropriate, if a bit didactic—whereas his women seem better equipped for grasping empathy and the underlying causes of emotional synergy. Antonioni treats this disparity with a felt sense of reverence, and knows that continuing to strive for life's intangibles, for that which he cannot truly identify, will only dig up larger existential voids. During its clearly Kubrickian denouement, the narrative tangentially diverges into a possible Sci-Fi premise for Niccolò's next film, as the director describes a potential plot to his young nephew. The idea is that humanity will one day be able to more proximally explore the sun, and use any newly accrued information on the subject to better understand the grandeur of the universe. And in one deftly spoken line, the spritely little listener asks a question that sums up the applicative oversight of both our species's and Niccolò's speciously progressive idea of existence: "And then?"
It's only fitting that one of Antonioni's more chromatically expressive films is affixed with such a beauteously fluid digital transfer. Omnipresent is fine object detail, which even highlights the textural constitution of painted canvases, weathered concrete walls, and porous human flesh. Grain is as pervasive and stable as we've come to expect from Criterion, and contrast levels elicit the director's emphasis on particular hues rather well. Depending on the cultural diorama in question, Antonioni seems to favor either hellish warmth or soothing coolness, with the former being especially present throughout a cocktail party for the economically elite. Reds are generally a bit more harsh and persistent, while greens and golds tend to emit a gentler, more congealing radiance. Of course, light sources and the reflective qualities of proximal objects cause discrepancies in how some scenes are lit shot-to-shot, but, as evoked by this representation, each segment comes with a specific, and more importantly realized, visual undercurrent. My only complaint would be a curiously distinct yellow stain around the 1:08:00 mark that appears to hover halo-like on a sheet above a carnally charged Mavi and Niccolò. It vanishes come the next scene.
Aural concerns are equally expressive, even if they carry a bit less visceral immediacy in comparison to the splendid digital imaging because of some light hissing. Dialogue is stable and crisp and I even detected some allocation of certain effects within my rear speakers.
Cue the tumbleweeds. The only supplemental material for this release can be found in the booklet, which offers up an essay, albeit a fine one, by John Powers and a personally telling and contextually insightful interview of Antonioni by critic Gideon Bachmann.