Movie Review – L’eclisse

L’eclisse (1962)
Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini, and Ottiero Ottieri
Directed Michelangelo Antonioni

How can you love another person in the wake of fascism’s horrible rending of humanity? Loving someone when the death camps of the Nazis are just a train ride away? That feels impossible. Michelangelo Antonioni struggled with this as a human being, an Italian, and an artist. He was fully cognizant as Mussolini’s regime distorted and warped the Italian mind, working in league with other monsters. Antonioni stood in what was left of Italy and looked around. He saw a landscape pulsing with an aura of dread. Yet, somewhere inside of that was love. People whose hearts were aching for it but too scared to reach out. When they did, the hand recoiled quickly, overwhelmed with the anxiety of the love being offered to them as yet another mask obscuring the horror of existence in the modern world.

L’eclisse opens with an ending. Vittoria (Monica Vitti) ends her relationship with Riccardo at his apartment. They have been talking all night, and the audience comes in at the final moments. He tries to persuade her to stay, but Vittoria rebuffs. Then, after a short walk through the EUR district of Rome (more on this neighborhood a little later), Riccardo catches up and fumbles through a second goodbye. It’s embarrassing but also cute but still yet a little pathetic. We don’t know how to end relationships well, so we fumble it one way or another.

Later, Vittoria visits her mother at the Rome Stock Exchange. This place is a kinetic bomb of silence & contemplation, then explosive activity. It’s designed to look classical, like an ancient Roman building. What’s happening inside *feels* modern but isn’t this just another religious frenzy in the worship of the god of the lira? Vittoria meets Piero (Alain Delon), and he’s cute. The man is a few years younger than her, and Vittoria is intrigued. They part ways as Vittoria and her mother goes to get lunch at an open market. The young woman wants to talk about her recent breakup, but her mother is more focused on her recent acquisitions in the market. 

That night, Vittoria’s neighbor Anita visits, and the breakup is finally discussed. Vittoria explains that she feels despondent and, more than that, confused. She doesn’t know where beauty is in the world. Marla, another neighbor, calls them over. Her husband is out of town, and she’s bored. Marla’s house is decked out in exotic animal skins and photographs of Africa. A discussion about the continent ensues. Marla’s family owns a farm there, and she begins to voice concern about the “monkeys” there starting to speak out for themselves. To mock Marla, Vittoria and Anita dress themselves up as what they perceive African women to be and dance about the apartment to a record of African drum beats. Marla is annoyed, but they become distracted when she realizes the dog has escaped.

Each woman goes in a different direction, Vittoria ending up in some corner of the neighborhood still in development. A tall chain link fence is not secured, so its metal poles are being moved back and forth in the wind. They create a dissonant industrial symphony, hollow metal chimes, which captivates Vittoria. She is frozen for a bit before waking up and moving on. The next day, Vittoria and Anita head to the airport to take a scenic plane ride over Rome. This is another transcendent experience for the woman, as she becomes enthralled with the clouds before she takes off and then the city below her as she flies through it. Again, something is shifting inside Vittoria; she is awakening to a truth. 

The same day, she returns to the stock exchange, where she runs into Piero again. She witnesses a man lose everything and then just keep going. Piero drives Vittoria to her mother’s house, and she shows him her childhood photos. He is smitten with this woman and goes in for a kiss. Vittoria pushes back, communicating that she likes him but doesn’t want that now. After work, Piero meets up with a call girl but comes up with an excuse to back out of their scheduled appointment. Something is shifting inside him, too; what used to satisfy him isn’t doing it anymore.

Piero drives to Vittoria’s apartment. While he’s talking to her, a drunk man steals Piero’s Alfa Romeo. The couple talks through the night and, the following day, discover the drunk had an accident. The car is dredged up from the river, the man’s lifeless arm hanging out of it. Piero starts talking about all the money he’ll need to spend to repair the car; Vittoria is visually stunned that this is what he would worry about, not the dead person. After a walk through the park, he finally gets his kiss, but Vittoria is uneasy. Something just still isn’t right. 

Vittoria gives Piero a call that night but doesn’t speak. He thinks this is a prank call and becomes so annoyed he shouts into the receiver and slams it down. Piero shows up in the morning with a BMW to replace his damaged Alfa Romeo. She asks to go to his place. Instead, he drives her to his parent’s home. Piero’s parents are wealthy, and their home is covered in paintings and sculptures. They keep talking, but Vittoria clearly measures what she wants to reveal to this man and what she wants to keep to herself. Then she finally states, “Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But then maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.” This doesn’t stop them from kissing, falling onto the couch, and becoming more intimate; they have sex.

We don’t know how much time passes. It could be the next day, maybe a week later. Vittoria and Piero are lying in the grass on a hill. As he looks at Rome from this vantage point, Piero remarks that he feels as if he’s in a foreign country. He feels no connection to this time & place, yet he is in it. Vittoria chimes in that this is how she feels around him, which bruises his ego. She tries to explain further, “I wish I didn’t love you or that I loved you much more.” We’re curious if he understands. Do we understand her? Later, they laugh again and fool around on the couch in his office. Then it’s time to go. They embrace, then part, and promise to see each other daily. That night they will meet at “their place” at 8pm sharp. That night, neither person shows up, and Antonioni gives us this closing sequence of images.

Let’s briefly discuss this neighborhood, the EUR – Esposizione Universale Roma (“Universal Exposition Rome”). This area was chosen in the 1930s by then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini as the site of the 1942 World’s Fair. The ruler decided this event’s theme was celebrating twenty years of fascism in Italy. So naturally, when you host a World’s Fair, you build buildings that serve as icons. So what were the buildings in Rome?

You have architecture clearly modeled after the Roman Empire’s heights, intended to infuse the people with pride for their history & heritage. That sounds well and good; we should be proud of where we came from…but shouldn’t we also look with a critical lens at the past. Il Duce and his supporters thought otherwise. To question Italy was to engage in acts of hatred towards the people. Education would be taken over and used to push this blind idealism, this unflinching erasure of the ugly parts. The goal is to take uncritical myths perpetuated about the past “glory” and plaster them onto the contemporary situation. They are using lies to justify the evil they do to those marked as not a part of that “glory.” Those could be Jews, Roma, Africans, homosexuals, and transgender people. It’s whoever is chosen not to be included in the grand myth. This is the architecture that served as the seed for the EUR.

By the time L’eclisse was made, Italy was less than twenty years away from the collapse of Mussolini’s rule. By this time, post-fascist architecture was being built in the EUR. You have buildings like Palazzo dello Sport, a multi-purpose entertainment arena constructed for the 1960 Olympic Games. Il Fungo (The Mushroom) is prominently featured in this film. At the time, it was a water tower built out of concern that as new buildings were constructed, pushing out green space, it would be more challenging to have irrigation that brought water into the neighborhood. Il Fungo would ensure that when fires did break out, water would be there to extinguish them. Now it has a restaurant on top. It closed at one point and reopened a decade ago. Now apparently, Il Fungo “has an odd reputation now as a place for “scambisti” — people who exchange husbands or wives in various combinations.”

Both the Fascist and post-Fascist designs have a way of alienating a person, primarily through Antonioni’s camera. He finds angles to film people in a setting that causes them to be swallowed up by their surroundings. By the film’s end, the only thing that remains is the EUR. Our two protagonists are lost in it all. Antonioni takes us back to places we’ve seen before as if he is searching for the lovers. He does so in vain. A crosswalk. A chain link fence. A water barrel with debris floating inside of it. A baby carriage. A newspaper announcing the nuclear arms race continues forward at a fever pitch. Where are the lovers? Much more, where is love inside this thing?

Have you felt alienated in a place in the United States? I know I certainly have. What is love in the United States? Look at your television. What is it telling you love is? Do you feel that is true? Nick Fuentes said, and I am paraphrasing here, that a man having sex with a woman is “gay” and that the only way to not be “gay” is to be an incel. Does that man know what love is? How about Kanye West? Do you think he still remembers what it is to love anything? A seemingly endless parade of American people live with passionate incoherence and revel in infinite hate. To be passionate about something is not to experience love. Piero is as passionate about Vittoria as he is about his Alfa Romeo. But she knows there is more than what has been laid out before her by this wounded society. She sees past the pretty boxes they have put up in her neighborhood. There are clouds. There are drops of water falling from the leaves of a bush. Life is there. Love is there. But it is being eclipsed. 


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