Michelangelo Antonioni began writing about film as a student at Bologna University, mercilessly criticizing the fatuous Italian comedies of the 1930s. In 1940, he studied direction at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome and two years later co-wrote the scenario for "Un piloto ritorna" with director Roberto Rossellini before working as an assistant director on films directed by Enrico Fulchignoni and Marcel Carne. His first directorial effort was a documentary, "Gente del Po", begun in 1943 and completed in 1947. For two other documentaries in the late 40s he solicited music from Giovanni Fusco, initiating and cementing a collaboration with the man whose scores would enhance his own pessimism in eight films.
Antonioni's minimalist yet poignant style, which critics described as "structured absence," and his disdain for vulgar commercialism, made him an important influence on post-neorealist Italian cinema. His first feature, "Story of a Love Affair" (1950), used complex camerawork to tell the simple tale of a wealthy woman whose husband dies, an approach that would typify his subsequent work. "The Vanquished" (1952) focused on the youth of post-war Europe in three separate stories set and shot in Rome, Paris and London. The Italian section displeased the Italians by depicting their youngsters as neo-Fascists, and censors in France and England banned their respective portions of the film. Antonioni's episode of the anthology film "Love in the City" (1953) dealt with suicide, a preoccupation that also provided the uneasy resolution to "The Girl Friends" (1955), a study of several women and their disappointing relationships with men.
After the release of "The Outcry" (1957), a study of the inept men of the Po Valley, Antonioni's developing assurance with the medium led him to look beyond the proletarian subjects favored by neorealism. "L'Avventura" (1959) began a phase of non-narrative, psychological cinema, examining the barren eroticism of a bourgeoisie (Antonioni was himself from the middle class) which had abandoned its traditional social and cultural values. The film attracted a political critique that equated Antonioni's work with the writings of Andre Gide. Critics, citing the united thematic concerns of "L'Avventura", "La Notte" (1961) and "L'Eclisse" (1962), have grouped them as a trilogy in which mankind reaches unsuccessfully for love as the last refuge in the modern world. Antonioni made one more film directly charting the same universe, although "The Red Desert" (1964), in which Antonioni working for the first time in color had an entire landscape painted red to underline his theme of despair, focused so intensely on the character of Giuliana as to lose the trilogy's sense of alternative possibilities. Heroine Monica Vitti's palpable frustration signaled the end of her four-film collaboration with Antonioni, which had made her an international star.
"Blow-Up" (1966) marked Antonioni's departure from Italy to "swinging London," where he dramatized the paradoxes of its nervous hip consciousness. The film's finale--a ball-less tennis match--became a reference point of 60s cinema. The success of "Blow-Up" (Antonioni won the National Society of Film Critics' Best Director award and was nominated for Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay) brought the director to California for "Zabriskie Point" (1970), an elegiac view of the intersection of materialism and hippiedom. "The Passenger" (1975) featured Jack Nicholson as an American reporter who adopts the identity of a deceased fellow guest in a North African hotel. The director's virtuoso use of Gaudi's architecture echoed the unresolved angles of the protagonist's world. Neither "Mystery of Oberwald" (1980) nor "Identification of a Woman" (1982) found distribution in the USA.
In 1985, Antonioni suffered a heart attack that left him partially paralyzed and over the next decade managed to produce only the eleven-minute documentary short, "Volcanoes and Carnival" (1992). However, with the encouragement of his wife Enrica and the financial backing provided by French producer Stephane Tchalgadjieff, Antonioni returned triumphantly with "Beyond the Clouds" (1995). German director Wim Wenders, who had become involved because Antonioni's precarious health made him uninsurable, shot the prologue, epilogue and linking shots between the four episodes comprising the movie and otherwise stayed out of the way, totally fascinated by Antonioni at work.
Based on stories in Antonioni's book "That Bowling Alley on the Tiber: Tales of a Director" (1985), "Beyond the Clouds" proved a brilliantly unified movie on par with the director's best work, evoking such familiar themes as alienation in the modern world while also exploring a religiosity not previously found in his films. Employing his signature fluency of camera movement and shots sustained much longer than the norm in the creation of an impeccable visual composition, "Beyond the Clouds" demonstrated that the old master had lost none of his technical expertise and was in fact still growing artistically at the age of 83. His wife chronicled the experience and edited her nearly 85 hours of film into a 52-minute documentary titled "For Me, to Make a Film Is to Live" (1995). The director was presented with an honorary Academy Award for lifetime achievement at the 1995 ceremony.