It's almost fitting that Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman would die within 24 hours of each other. Bergman's death might have received nearly three times the amount of press coverage as Antonioni's,* but what has been said about Bergman could just as easily apply to Antonioni. Both of them, perhaps more than any filmmakers in history, are responsible for turning cinema inward to focus on the existential angst of the modern, post-war world. That might sound like a steaming heap of pretentious garbage, but you'll have to take a whiff: their contributions mark the greatest advancement of the capabilities of cinema since the introduction of sound.
Antonioni might not have been as prolific as Bergman, but he packed just as hard of a punch. With films like L'Avventura, L'Eclisse, Red Desert, and Blowup, Antonioni depicts a world spiraling out of control. The effects of two world wars have caused the world to lose its moral compass, and, left adrift in an increasingly industrialized and confusing world, his characters find nowhere to turn but within; however, the interior often proves to be an even more frightening and alienating place. Left with a spiritual dead-end, his characters become inert, lost in the landscape, disappearing, devolving, deteriorating, until the world swallows them whole.
Like Bergman, Antonioni was a master of composition. Even though he claimed he never plotted out his shots until the morning of the shoot, his framing has the look of carefully planned perfectionism. In contrast to Bergman, however, Antonioni's compositions draw heavily upon the landscape to comment on the interior of the characters. He paints on a larger canvas, in the hopes that he can show how the industrial world bears down upon its inhabitants, how people cannot exist outside of their designed environment. Without architecture, an Antonioni film would feel empty and artificial. It's the environment, that cold and vertiginous modern society, that provides the context for Antonioni's psychological probing.
What he probed, more than anything, was what was happening to society right now. This was both a blessing and a curse for Antonioni, but usually a blessing. Films like L'Avventura and Red Desert hit the mark so strongly that they became timeless.** A film like Blowup is so prescient that it declares Swinging London dead and morally bankrupt almost before it started swinging. But, this approach can backfire, as it does with Zabriskie Point, a captivating but puzzling film about American counterculture that probably felt dated in 1970. Nevertheless, Antonioni was always able to keep with the times, and The Passenger, one of his last major works (and severely underrated), manages to capture the inertia and despair of the 1970s world in a way that makes many "serious" American films of the same era feel soft.
More than anything else, Antionioni was a master of endings. The final moments of L'Eclisse, The Passenger, and, best of all, Blowup, mark some of the most dazzling moments in the history of cinema, whether it is the terror of L'Eclisse, the entropy of The Passenger, or the relativism of Blowup, it is impossible to move after the end of an Antonioni film. You feel as though you have witnessed your own unraveling, and you fear that, even though the curtain has closed and the lights have come back on, Antionioni's film has just begun.
Antonioni's and Bergman's era of internalized cinema isn't gone forever, even though it may seem like no one makes films like theirs any longer. There's hope yet. Thankfully, these two masters of the cinema left behind dozens of spellbinding works that will give audiences something to talk about for decades to come, and filmmakers an endless spring of inspiration and possibility. Cinema is an incredibly young art form, and their influence on it is just getting warmed up.
* Figures based on an incredibly advanced research technique (patent pending) that involved Googling "Ingmar Bergman dead" and "Antonioni dead" and comparing the number of hits: Bergman received 4.39 million hits to Antonioni's 1.36 million. The painstaking process that produced these incontrovertible results lasted approximately 4.85 seconds and required a team of scholars working round the clock in between searching for a new margarita recipe.
** Two years after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, L'Avventura was chosen by Sight and Sound magazine as one of the 10 Best Films Ever Made.