Now Playing! Michelangelo Antonioni’s Lives of Quiet Desperation at the Castro

Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings in 'Blow-Up,' screening April 28 at the Castro Theater's Antonioni tribute.  (Courtesy Cinema Italia SF)

The great tragedy of modern life, Sofia Coppola might say, is that the accoutrements of success—clothes, toys, technology and beautiful lovers—don’t provide happiness or nourishment. This is not a recent realization: Sixty years ago, the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni discerned the boredom and self-loathing of affluent urbanites amid the glittery, gritty grandeur of his country's postwar economic revival. Luce Cinecitta’s April 28 retrospective at the Castro, Michelangelo Antonioni, summons the director’s radically unflinching and impeccably designed dissections of human nature for a contemporary generation of conspicuous consumers.

In the exquisite black-and-white films L’avventura (1960) and L’eclisse (1962), as well as his aggressive forays into color, Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966), Antonioni exposed the trap door beneath the trappings of privilege: the gradual disintegration of morality, a concurrent loss of empathy, a tenuous, nebulous sense of identity and an inability to connect on a meaningful level with another person. (One can imagine what Antonioni would make of the people wearing earbuds and staring at their screens on the 45 Union, let alone the Google buses to Silicon Valley.)

The genius of Antonioni’s 1960s films lay in his ability to express entire themes and interpersonal relationships through his compositions: Every image conveyed the whole story. Even the outlier in this roundup of career highlights, The Passenger (1974), a sweaty, dusty road movie starring Jack Nicholson at his peak, ends with one of the most astonishing and moving sequences in all of cinema. Surely some of San Francisco’s nouveau bourgeoisie will identify with the existential journey of a man ditching his identity and escaping his self-created prison of ties and responsibilities. Antonioni, you see, is one of the immortals.

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