Antonioni’s characters are creatures without meaning; people who are unnecessary and without whom the world would still go on. Critic Adriano Aprà makes the point in an interview available on Hulu – the world exists before the characters do, and the characters are just visitors.
In many stories, the world is created to fit the story. A soldier receives his dramatic deployment just when his romance needs some difficulty; the opportunity for big bank heist comes along just when the right people for a motley crew are looking for money; super villains typically take turns developing their insidious plans in order for James Bond to only battle them one at a time.
But Antonioni’s stories are superfluous to the worlds they are set in. If Vittoria and Piero had never fallen in love, there would still be an EUR water tower, there would still be a stock exchange, and there would still be street lamps. Antonioni is criticizing the anthropic principle of both film and modern attitude.
But, perhaps Antonioni’s characters do affect their environment after all. Let’s take a closer look at the vaunted denouement. Vittoria and Piero agree to meet up for a date, but neither shows. We as the audience aren’t surprised; they’re both attractive, but they feel awkward as a couple, and don’t seem to understand each other.
So, instead of a scene of romance, Antonioni shows us 7 and a half minutes of the empty area where the two lovers were supposed to meet. But what is the world that love has left behind? We’re presented with a building covered in scaffolding, a pile of rubble, a broken fence, an old rain barrel with a soggy matchbook, fascist architecture and other images — many subtle, many not — of decay and alienation.
This is the existentialist link between values and environment T.S. Eliot used, drawing on the wasteland motif. We can see perhaps Vittoria as a Fisher King, unable to find purpose and vitality wherever she goes. Rome is then created as empty as she is. (Perhaps the prominently-featured Roman architecture in the purpose-driven, active stock exchange scenes is a counterpoint?)
I'm a journalist and film enthusiast who lives in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I've been writing about movies for 15 years and I hosted a weekly movie review television show on UATV for two years.