Her timeless, stunning beauty and mysterious demeanor made her an international art house favorite but behind that guise is a clever queen of comedy.
Born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome on November 3, 1931, Monica Vitti wasted no time in pursuing her career. As a teenager, she acted in local amateur productions before formally training at Rome's National Academy of Dramatic Arts. Shortly after graduating in 1953, she toured Germany with an Italian acting troupe and then returned to her hometown to appear onstage in a production of Niccolò Machiavelli's La Mandragola. Her first major film role was in Mario Amendola's 1958 Le dritte.
One can say there were two parts of Vitti's career: Part I, when she started out as Michelangelo Antonioni's partner and muse and then Part II after the couple separated and she took on lighter roles with a comic twist. Her most important role and the one that launched her career was undoubtedly Antonioni's, L'Avventura. The actress invested much of herself in the project, accompanying Antonioni on his difficult location scouting through the Aeolian Islands, and then enduring nearly impossible conditions while shooting. For example, the film's production company actually went bankrupt in the middle of shooting, forcing the cast and crew to work for free. Vitti's costar, Lea Massari developed a severe health condition after swimming in the frigid waters of the Mediterranean to shoot her scenes. She went into a coma and was rushed back to Rome for treatment. Locations around the islands were infested with insects and rodents. Extras did not show up. Rough waters on the sea surrounding Lisca Bianca, the island on which much of the film was shot, interrupted ferry service, often leaving the cast and crew stranded without food or blankets. Fate eventually took over and the production somehow came together. Filming was complete, and L'Avventura has become a cherished classic with Vitti as its celebrated protagonist. Her character, Claudia, often seems cold and aloof but as Antonioni explained, he didn't want his characters to express "the birth of an erroneous sentiment, but rather the way in which we go astray in our sentiments," explaining that "our moral values are old. Our myths and conventions are old. And everyone knows that they are indeed old and outmoded. Yet we respect them."
The film's reception was just as tumultuous as the sea upon which it was created. The film premiered at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and concluded with boos and disapproval. The next day, Roberto Rossellini along with other filmmakers released a statement. “Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, L’Avventura they wrote, “and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their admiration for the maker of this film.” The film went on to win the festival's Special Jury Prize and was later named by 70 international film critics, the second-greatest film ever made, behind Citizen Kane.
Vitti starred in several of Antonioni's films, two of which are considered a series together with L'Avventura, La Notte in 1961 and L'Eclisse in 1962. With this trilogy, Antonioni explored his tormented belief that people had become emotionally unattached from one another. Vitti's character put this belief into words near the finale of La Notte, when she said, “Each time I have tried to communicate with someone, love has disappeared.”
After the couple called it quits, Vitti went on to work with other Italian directors such as Mario Monicelli, and then in 1970, shared the screen with Marcello Mastroianni in Ettore Scola's romantic comedy about a love triangle between a florist, construction worker and a pizzaiola, Dramma della gelosia. The film was highly successful in Italy and showed audiences a hilarious and completely different side of her detached, aloof characters of the Antonioni years. The 70's proved to be a prolific decade for the actress. She took on a number of challenging roles and won prizes for her performances. One of those characters, named Miele, proves that she, together with Claudia Cardinale were the first official Thelma and Louise. Carlo Di Palma's 1975 comedy, Qui comincia l'avventura featured the gorgeous pair whose southern Italian characters trade in their dull lives for a wild roadtrip up north.
Vitti began to slow down in the the 80's but paired up again with Antonioni on his project, Il mistero di Oberwald. The film was not a huge commercial success, and marked the last time the two would work together. In 1995, she married her longtime partner, director Roberto Russo and remained under the radar except for occasional film festival or television appearance. She is said to be suffering from a dementia-related disease. The legacy of her acting career and simple yet stunning beauty will remain with us forever.
By- Jeannine Guilyard
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