Ranking: #88/111

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)

Genre: Social Drama/Romance

In La Notte (The Night), Antonioni, a master of filming physical locations and the geometric spaces in which his characters move and interact, has created a striking black-and-white existential drama. His visual style may be architectonic but his aim in many of his dramas is to explore the psychology of his characters, especially as they fail in their relationships. This combination of creating very real spatial contexts while attempting to portray his characters’ states of mind came to be known as interior realism.

I love the courage shown by the director in showing the death of a love relationship, between an egotistical and bored novelist called Giovanni and his partner Lidia, while creating a portrait of a superficial bourgeois society where people no longer truly connect. The cinematography is stark throughout, but for the sequences at night, the black tones of the night photography become almost like black velvet. This intense blackness is a symbolic visualisation of the underlying loss of meaning Antonioni is investigating. There is even a power cut during the party the troubled couple attend that night, deepening the darkness.

And the terminal sickness of their friend Tommaso, who is on his death bed in hospital as the movie opens, parallels the slow, emotional death of their relationship. Before he dies, he laments to them that he lacked the courage “to go all the way”.

The underlying sad tone of the film is only reinforced by the magnificent contextualising shots of modern Milan, as if the streets and buildings are only an empty backdrop to their failing lives. Antonioni always places his characters in an environment, making them part of a bigger picture as he skilfully depicts a whole society, of which the characters are only a small part. Often, the characters seem to be dwarfed by urban buildings. Only surfaces seem to count, to be important. Sometimes the cinematography is like a choreography of isolation. This drama is, above all, a social critique.

As Lidia, played by a morose-looking and haughty Jeanne Moreau, wanders around downtown Milan, she first encounters a violent fist-fight amongst young men in a dilapidated area, and then a group of engineers firing rockets into the sky on an open field. It’s the dawn of the Space Age in the early 60s but through the juxtaposition of these two revealing episodes, Antonioni is pointing out while science is rapidly advancing in its technological progress, the humanity of humanity is regressing: we have lost our way morally. It’s not just the couple who are lost in the movie. Communication between people in the story has become essentially hollow.

This is a noticeably quiet film, too, inviting the viewers into a contemplative, and, at times, sombre, mood.

Giovanni reveals that he’s also going through an existential crisis as a writer, saying that writing is a “lonely craft”. He’s even forgotten what he once wrote, no longer able to recognise his own words when they are read out to him. At one point, he refers to “all those useless books”.

La Notte is a milestone in post-modernist cinema, standing alongside the dramas of Ingmar Bergman in its astute study of existential alienation. Antonioni believed that his times were at a turning point in history when the old values and traditions of the past could no longer work for the post-war generation.

Both Antonioni and Bergman return again and again in their work to depicting human relationships in which there’s a failure to really connect or even to really care. They were uncompromising in their existential dramas.

La Notte, though, could be Antonioni’s bleakest work. Or is it his deepest?