Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1982 Identification of a Woman was a homecoming of sorts for the legendary Italian director, who (the studio-bound, shot-on-video experiment The Mystery of Oberwald aside) hadn’t made a feature in his home country since the 1964 The Red Desert. Back with screenwriter Tonino Guerra and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, it’s also a return to his old themes of the difficulties of love and relationships in the modern world. After pushing explorations of alienation and disconnection to the edge in films as Blow-Up and The Passenger, Identification of a Woman brings us back to a more familiar world, and a more personal one too.
Tomas Milian plays Niccolò, a film director looking for inspiration for his next film in the faces of women he clips from papers and magazines, and looking for someone to fill the hole in his personal left by his divorce. The fortysomething director finds his fancies drawn to much younger women and perhaps the subsequent emotional disconnection and communications barrier is a result (at least in part) of this gap in age and life experience. Then again, Niccolò predilections line up pretty well with Antonioni, who long ago had a affair with his beautiful actress and muse Monica Vitti (twenty years his junior). This is a portrait of a film director, after all, and it’s hard not to imagine Antonioni slipping a little autobiography in, either by design or by instinct.
As the film opens, Niccolò is with Mavi (Daniela Silverio), a spirited, assured, independent young woman who comes from money and privilege. Niccolò is adrift her society (Antonioni punctuates his unease at a social event with a dryly funny gaffe: Niccolò stubs his cigarette out in an ashtray, only to find it’s actually a napkin ring left on the table). When a “gorilla” (that’s actually how this rather polite thug is identified in the credits) delivers a veiled threat to stay away from Mavi, he becomes rattled by parked cars and unsigned deliveries and driven to uncover who is sending him these messages, to the point that he loses sight of Mavi. At one point quite literally. Afraid he’s being followed on trip to a country house, he drives like a madman through a thick fog on a country road, oblivious to her terror until she forces him to stop and then runs off, disappearing into the gray cotton sea. While you could say it’s a bit spot on as a metaphor — Niccolò follows and becomes swallowed up, adrift in his own private world while searching for someone out of sight and out of reach — it is also orchestrated with the grace and precision of a ballet and photographed like a dream. Antonioni’s camera simply floats along with him in his dreamscape, seeing no more than Niccolò until the faint orange glow of a cigarette anchors him back into the human world of anxieties and indulgences.