The Gaze of Antonioni
Surfacing without press screenings at a few theatres in the Landmark arthouse chain in the US for two weekend screenings in mid-August, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 17-minute Lo Sguardo di Michelangelo may conceivably be his most interesting film since Red Desert (1964). It’s hard to be sure of this after only one look at it – the film was abruptly withdrawn after qualifying for an Oscar nomination – but I thought afterwards that I might have just seen one of the first truly durable reflections to date on digital cinema.
Mislabelled Michelangelo Eye to Eye in English when a more accurate English title might be The Gaze of Michelangelo, this beautifully filmed meditation is preceded by an intertitle – the only words in the film apart from the credits – explaining that Antonioni has been confined to a wheelchair since his stroke in 1985, but through the ‘magic of movies’ shows himself visiting the sculpture on foot. The action consists of Antonioni – walking without a cane, and looking like Antonioni prior to his stroke – entering the St. Pietro church in Rome to look at and then touch and caress portions of the restoration of Michelangelo's Moses, then leaving again. It sounds quite simple, despite the digital trickery that made it possible, but like the montage sequence at the end of L’Eclisse (1962), this is a very intricate (and beautifully intricate) simplicity, in terms of framing as well as editing. Conceptually it might be described as one restoration interacting with another restoration – a spectacle that, like all of Antonioni’s greatest films, pointedly raises more questions than it dares to answer, and preserves more mysteries than it can dream of resolving.
We have made many voyages together, Michelangelo and I. These voyages have always cured us.
To make a foreigner of oneself, to go and live in unknown places, has always taken us so far from ourselves that to then return home and find oneself, emptied of oneself, but full of experiences, was always a comfort.
These voyages were always to far-off places. Today they take place much closer to home.
Every time we go to San Pietro in Vincoli with Michelangelo to visit the Tomb of Julius II it is another voyage. I saw Michelangelo totally isolated in front of the figure of Moses, like in the African desert.
I’ve always felt that this was his special gift, to look with pure eyes, with that beautiful clear green of his, without filters.
Michelangelo’s gaze rests gently on the figure of Moses and is able to contain the entire weight of the memory of everything he has seen, lived, learned in his life.
To look can be intense like a prayer for him.
Even more so now that his steps and his gestures are accompanied by a great silence, to stand next to him when he is absorbed in looking commands a profound silence, a reverent respect for his pilgrimage.
Our first voyage together was to China in 1972 for his documentary Chung Kuo. When we got back home and looked at the footage I realised that almost everything that Michelangelo had seen had escaped me. I hadn’t seen all those colours, all those shades of blue in the Maoist uniforms, those shy smiles of the young girls, that dusty light. I made another voyage in front of his screen.
Now I have the good fortune to stand beside him once more, while he prepares his film on San Pietro in Vincoli. I wait in silence for the gift of his gaze.
Translated from the Italian by Rouge.
Mosé by Helmut Newton
Courtesy of Lottomatica SpA
© Jonathan Rosenbaum, Erica Antonioni and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the authors and editors of Rouge.