Watching your own world crumble around you has never been a guaranteed easy task to perform. Personally, I have been married and divorced, and have lost close friends and family members to both death and just plain bad blood. I have survived more than one relationship that went so far south, it managed to come right back up again by way of the North Pole. And while those traumatizing moments in my past are not ones I look forward to reliving again anytime soon, I must confess I would be more intrigued to experience such instances once more were I myself to receive a notified affidavit from God that Michelangelo Antonioni would write and direct my own misery.
One only need take a look at his crowing 1961 achievement La Notte (the second of a neorealist trilogy, preceded by L’Avventura and Eclipse) to fully realize what I mean. Not only was the multiple award-winning feature referenced in a mostly honorable light in both Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Episode 29, if you need a hint) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (see: end credits), but it also landed on the late Stanley Kubrick’s personal list of top ten favorites, and even managed to be praised by the usually-stuffy American critics of the time. Which really tends to say something specific – even if the general theme of the film is about nothing in particular.
The story begins with successful writer Giovanni Pontano (the great Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) stopping at the hospital to visit their dying friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki – who, contrary to popular opinion, was not the creator of a certain Internet encyclopædia). Within moments, we realize that the marriage between Giovanni and Lidia is not built upon the happiest of foundations. In fact, they’re downright miserable; and a passing, er, “gesture” towards our writer hero from a nymphomaniac in a nearby room – which Giovanni lovingly embraces – is only a slight hint at what might be wrong with the Pontanos’ sense of matrimony.
From there, we witness Lidia (a decidedly strong female character for a film from the ’60s, let alone an Italian one – wherein women are generally either saints or whores) wander about Milan aimlessly, attempting to interact with the people she passes by, but unable to ever connect with anyone or anything – including her own feelings – while Giovanni, on the other hand, deals with isolation at home. Later that evening, the pair go to an ultra-cool jazz nightclub, where we witness a titillatingly risqué performance by an amazing dancer. Following that, they venture to a swank (and by far, the coolest) party (ever!) in Milan, where Giovanni neglects his wife in order to woo his host’s beautiful younger daughter (Monica Vitti). Meanwhile, Lidia is followed and approached by a dashing young lad (Giorgio Negro, who was, interestingly enough, actually a well-known eye-surgeon from Rome using an acing alias!) who attempts to court her into his life – if even just for a wee bit.
Of course, in the end, La Notte is all about wee bits. Nothing ever truly plot-like ever befalls the viewer, but it doesn’t matter: Antonioni embraces his innate ability to weave authentic Ming Dynasty pottery from thin air throughout his masterpiece here. He constructs a feast out of twigs and berries, and joyously serves it up to his audience as a buffet – which we in-turn devour unconditionally. Antonioni uses the city of Milan itself as part of the cast, and Gianni Di Venanzo’s beautiful photography only adds to the experience. And that experience has been made ten-times more attractive come the arrival of the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray.
Presented in a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer that preserves the film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio. If you’re expecting greatness here, you’ll be pleased to know you were right: Di Venanzo’s spectacular black and white cinematography looks better than it ever has on home video (and perhaps even then some), as Criterion’s transfer boasts some truly rich depth, balance, and clarity – and is virtually free of any debris or unnecessary correction issues. The disc only contains the original Italian audio, which is presented here as in its monaural (LPCM) glory. The audio track itself is heavenly, especially when that early ’60s jazz music pops up. The removable English subtitles are clear and precise.
As far as special features go, La Notte includes two interviews: one with film critic Adriano Apra and film historian Carlo di Carlo, and another with Harvard professor Giuliana Bruno – all three of whom discuss Antonioni’s style of filmmaking. The original Italian theatrical trailer is also included here, as is an illustrated booklet that features an essay by critic Richard Brody.