IL GRIDO (1957; Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni)
“In my collection I have a copy of Il Grido, and damn what a boring movie it is…. You know, Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realizing that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement. Sure, there are brilliant moments in his films. But I don’t feel anything…” – Ingmar Bergman, 2002
So, you’re a disaffected, alienated, isolated middle-aged man and you want to make a film about it. The problem: you’re disaffected, alienated, and isolated. Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1957 Italian neo-realist drama Il Grido is a film that presents an assortment of beautiful images and even a few brilliant moments. But like its hero, Il Grido ultimately suffers from its own alienation and emotional distance.
Il Grido stars dubbed American B-movie actor Steve Cochran, who is okay when he doesn’t need to be good, but terrible when he needs to be great. He plays Aldo, a rural refinery worker who has been in a relationship with a married woman (Alida Valli) for seven years. When she finds out her migrant worker husband has been killed, she breaks it off with Aldo, who is left heartbroken and angry. He grabs their daughter (succinctly played by Mirna Girardi) and journeys around the Italian countryside, hoping to rid himself of his love for her.
The movie becomes a series of short stories, as Aldo visits a succession of women who he becomes romantically, though not emotionally, involved with. The women are vaguely interesting, each providing strong performances (with a special nod to Betsy Blair as Elvia, a pitiable spinster who has been in love with Aldo for years – her compelling performance outshines everyone), but there is never any real emotional power from them. Antonioni creates a much more effective character out of the barren landscapes and dead, leafless trees than out of any of the people in the movie. Don’t get me wrong, the locations are absolutely beautiful and presented with wonderfully haunting effect, but the film lacks the intensity of a more honest drama because we’re always kept at arm’s length. It’s okay if the women can’t get close to Aldo, but if we can’t… well, see the Bergman quote above.
Il Grido is not a bad movie, it just gets bogged down in its own aloofness. It’s still generally considered an early work by Antonioni, despite his being 45 years old when it was released, and it feels like an early work by a promising director: some amazing images, some ambitious themes, but lacking in narrative and emotional intimacy. Ultimately, as Bergman stated, I just don’t feel anything.
First, a confession – Il Grido is only the second Antonioni film I’ve seen (Blow-Up is the other), so I won’t pretend to be an expert on the man and his work. However, I will say that Il Grido is one of the most mysterious, downbeat, and ultimately entrancing films about the tangled desires and emotional degradation of lovesickness I’ve ever seen.
Antonioni undercuts your expectations from the beginning – in the first scene, a small-town mother learns that her overseas-laborer husband has died. Irma (Alida Valli) seems desperate, but not because her marriage is over (for all intents and purposes, that had ended years ago); rather, her husband’s death means she can finally end her long-term, live-in relationship and take up with her other lover, a younger man. Irma dumps the bewildered Aldo (American Steve Cochran, utterly believable), the simple refinery worker who helped raise her daughter, Rosina, and goes to live with Luigi – her husband’s death kills two relationships.
We start to think the story will center around Irma, the proud, damaged woman caught between two lovers. Instead, Il Grido shadows the heartbroken Aldo as he takes to the road with Rosina, dragging her through a series of murky waterfront villages like a token of his lost love. As the impoverished Aldo and Rosina wander from town to town looking for work, Il Grido acquires the street-level intimacy of The Bicycle Thief, only sullen and provincial where De Sica’s film was urban and emotional.
Aldo and Rosina wander for months like itinerant zombies (“I quit my hometown”, says Aldo) – he visits an old girlfriend, then instinctively squashes the spark; he shacks up with a strong-willed gas station owner and her drunk father but eventually ditches her; he meets a sick prostitute who hates his moodiness. The brilliance comes in the richness of the details and the subversion of expectations. An example – late in the film, Aldo gets hired on an old farm. One night over drinks, he listens to his new boss boast of his youthful adventures working in Chile and Argentina. Aldo is captivated, and decides to travel to South America to find work. He acquires the proper paperwork, leaves the employment office, and calmly tears the form up – his misery is inescapable.
Antonioni shot the film in stark seaside locations on the countryside (“Cities are too expensive,” Aldo tells Rosina), and accompanies the images with a spare, haunting piano theme. It has the outward qualities of Neo-Realism but the inward qualities of spiritual vacuousness and narrative frustration that made Antonioni’s reputation. Il Grido is determinedly slow and just as moody and unfocused as its hero, but I was consistently compelled by its sly surprises and nihilistic romanticism.