It’s not hard to become fascinated with actresses in older, black-and-white films – especially when you’re viewing them for the first time in your college years decades later. There’s something about the mystique of this glamor of the not-so-ancient past: the cigarette smoking before it was publicly deemed life-threatening; the delicate implication of sex instead of, well, what we have now; the classic but on-the-brink-of-modern flirtatiousness; the early 60s. Some glamorize Jean Seberg. For me, it’s Monica Vitti.
The late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni really knew what he was doing by casting the uniquely captivating Italian actress in all three of his “trilogy” films (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse). I say “uniquely captivating” because – aside from the tousled blonde sex hair and the big, pensive eyes – you can’t exactly place your finger on what else draws you to Vitti, though you know it’s a culmination of things.
In Antonioni’s films, she often plays the role of “the lost woman,” in a state of limbo in romance and in life. And she plays it well. Though the audience knows she is unsure and she admits it herself at times, she always somehow retains a sense of self-assurance, striking in its tenacity. While her roles in Antonioni’s films often require copious amounts of staring off deep in thought, Vitti accomplishes this by refusing to bore the audience. Simply put: You just can’t stop looking at her. Beauty helps, I’m sure. But I like to think it’s more of what she can produce with her eyes alone. It’s a look of profoundness masked with boredom.
Overall, she is effortless – walking or running in strappy heels, leading on a suitor, or putting on an outrageous show. There’s a scene in L’Eclisse that happens to be one of my favorite examples of Monica Vitti as an actor. Though – I must warn – this clip is drenched in racism, it’s one of the rare opportunities where we get to see Vitti break out of her more somber role. Vitti’s character, Vittoria, is over at a friend’s apartment – a white woman with a family-owned plantation in Kenya who also expresses blatant notions of racism towards Africans. In this scene, Vittoria and another friend put on a crudely offensive show and dance, mocking the Kenyan women who appear in numerous photos around the friend’s apartment.
I’ve always believed that this scene is meant to caricaturize the white Kenyan’s unabashed racism (and presumably the more suppressed racism of the other two), while also pointing to the desperately sad states of these bored, well-off Italian women cut off from the reality of the rest of the world. And here, Vitti is the obvious “star” – the ultimate vessel of upper-class boredom and yet provocative introspection.
While Monica Vitti is 78 years old now, she feels indefinitely suspended in the first few years of the 60s – placed in an Antonioni black-and-white film, playing the beautiful and charismatic “lost” woman with the intense, preoccupied eyes.