Whether a cinematic account of “a day in the life” can capture the essential spirit of a generation in a nuanced portrait may be open to debate. But perhaps the best evidence that not only can it be done, but it can be done with stunning poetic truthfulness, is Italian auteur, Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic study of mid- twentieth century malaise, La Notte. Set in a rebuilding and thriving Milan some years after the devastating world war, the film follows an outwardly successful couple whose marriage is falling apart as they go through a miserable day unable to make emotional connections either with each other, or with anyone else for that matter.
Lidia and Giovanni Pontano, played by Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni, serve as a metaphor for their generation. Although aging, Lidia is stylishly attractive. Giovanni is a successful author, in spite of some self-doubt about the value of his work. The couple has no children, and if they are not particularly wealthy, they are clearly quite well off. Just as clearly, almost from the film’s very beginning, it is clear that money and success have not made them happy.
They begin by visiting a dying friend in the hospital. They drive to a book signing for Giovanni’s latest, and Lidia leaves to wander around the city, eventually winding up in an older part of town they had frequented when younger. Somewhat emotionally reawakened by nostalgia, she calls Giovanni to come and pick her up. He however seems unaffected by the memories. They go out to a night club, and then to a lavish party where the guests indulge in a frenetic childish search for a good time. Lidia walks about, bored and detached; Giovanni seems in his element. He makes a play for the daughter of the host; Lidia drives off with a stranger: neither results in a connection. The party ends, and at dawn, the couple walks on the grounds. Lidia confesses her unhappiness and tells him that she no longer loves him. Giovanni tries to fix things physically. And as he lays on top of her, silencing her objections with a kiss, the camera pans away from the couple, and leaving the viewer unsure about their future.
In one sense La Notte is a film in which nothing happens, in another sense everything happens. As the couple goes through the day, it becomes more and more evident that even as they are living in a world with a prospering material environment, that prosperity is missing something. Material success does not bring spiritual fulfillment. Indeed, in the case of thinking feeling people, it may well be alienating.
The gorgeous modern buildings which dominate the film’s visual panorama are little more than prisons for those alienated by what they represent. The roaring helicopter and overhead planes, the city traffic and even the kind of escapist jazz played at the party are little more than barriers to meaningful communication.
Coming between L’Aaventura and Eclipse, La Notte has been called the central film in Antonioni’s “alienation trilogy.” Whether central only in terms of chronology, or in terms of significance as well is open for discussion, but central or not, it is one of the more important films in the Antonioni canon.
The DVD in the Criterion Collection is a new digital restoration with newly translated English subtitles. Bonus material includes a new interview with film critic Adriano Apra and film historian Carlo di Carlo; a separate interview with academic Giuliana Bruno on the role of architecture in the film, and the original trailer. Of course there is the traditional Criterion booklet, here with an essay from critic, Richard Brody and a 1961 article by Antonioni.