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Throughout its history, cinema has explored the potential of fictional images of emptiness and silence to generate sensibilities that escape representation. In this piece, I reflect on filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La notte (The Night, 1961), and L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). Antonioni’s trilogy provides a powerful filmic version of the nexus between individualism and loneliness, a critique of culture elaborated through what I call the poetics of silence. It corresponds to the moment when there is nothing more to be said between two people—in Antonioni, a version of human incommunicability.

In the films, Antonioni expands the horizon between time and image to a re-elaboration of the characters’ dramas, an experiment whose power allows us to think about how his work opens up to new sensory dimensions from silence and static. Using the idea of ​​the nondogmatic image from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s thought and philosopher Jacques Rancière’s assumption of the emancipation of the spectator, I explore how Antonioni develops a poetics of silence while also carrying out a critique of individualism. In its relationship with life, cinema becomes a regime of perception capable of transforming sensorial experience, producing a politics of aesthetics, in Rancière’s terms.

Antonioni explores the relationships between images of emptiness and the spectator’s sensorial experience. The characters’ dramas are filmed in the context of the deterioration of relationships until emotional bonds have eroded. The scenes extend into situations of impasse, paradoxes in which the characters remain silent, submerged until meaning is emptied.

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Movie projector on a dark background.

Cinema and Anthropology in Search of Expressions of Silence

Cinema establishes a particular experience of the passage of time. Unlike photography and its potential to freeze the snapshot, film retains a sense of perpetual duration, the psychological comfort of the image that does not escape but has the capacity to dilate the present and twist the experience, as Gaudreault and Gunning showed. As art, as expression, or as technology, cinematographic devices spread throughout the world throughout the twentieth century and assumed the functions of industry, entertainment, art, education, propaganda, and scientific research. Technological development and the entry of thinkers from other areas enriched cinema theories to the extent that the filmic image incorporated analysis from anthropology, phenomenology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and philosophy and structuralist, culturalist, and Marxist assumptions, among others. Cinematic discourse has absorbed theories in such a way that it is not possible to separate the history of cinema from the history of thought.

Faced with all this noise, in the articulation between image and culture, a movement that emerged in Italy, inspired by French realism, turned to a critical reflection on the country itself. Initially used by filmmaker Antonio Pietrangeli to refer to Visconti’s film Ossessione (Obsession, 1943), the term “neorealism” gained notoriety throughout the 1950s through the films of Rossellini and De Sica, which sought to expose the contrast between socioeconomic conditions and the banality of lifestyle in Italian culture, according to Bazin, immersed in political circumstances that escape control, in the postwar context.

Given this context, what place does Antonioni’s work and his trilogy of incommunicability play in thinking about silence in the twenty-first century? From an anthropological point of view, Antonioni proposes a language that breaks with the usual regimes of visuality to the extent that it approaches the idea of a cinema-poetry in which silence is a privileged space for questioning the meaning of human existence within values of modern culture. Andrey Tarkowski defended Antonioni as one of the few poet-filmmakers, creator of works that “do not age” (opere che non invecchiano), according to Aldo Tassone. Claude Sautet stated that, unlike the works of Visconti and Fellini, there is a pictorial culture in Antonioni’s cinema. Alan Resnais commented on the particular way in which Antonioni explores silence as the subtlest analyst of feelings.

The Trilogy as a Filmic Experience of Human Voids

In the 1950s, Antonioni, then a young filmmaker, combined neorealist aesthetics with film noir, focusing on psychological aspects and accentuating individual tension in scenes. His works, such as L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960) and L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), mark the effects of the postwar Italian context on the individual, in which long takes tend to lose the characters, an expression of disorientation. The use of landscape, a cinematic dimension explored in styles such as film noir andWesterns, expands the space for contemplation. L’avventura operates by exploring the image as a space of contemplation valuing empty and silent spaces, a resource capable of isolating the characters in the narrative axis. In Antonioni, these spaces are metaphors for silence as an expression of anguish and introspection.

L’avventura and La note explore themes of desire, moral crisis, and the disintegration of a couple. L’avventura explores the boundaries between death and love, while La notte tells the story of a superficial party in a bourgeois house. La note features floating characters, a style that combines Musil’s critique of the individual with Camus’s existentialism. The films’ “language” is characterized by close-ups, empty urban spaces, and silent actors, in expressionless positions. Antonioni’s cinema is considered the opposite of Hitchcock’s, as it operates with pure mystery and not with a type of suspense that gradually reveals itself toward an outcome. La note ends with an ambiguous process of separation, while L’eclisse begins with the dissolution of a couple’s relationship. Both films stand out for their open narrative structures and their ability to reproduce life in its state of indeterminacy, a metaphorical expression of silence.

In L’avventura and L’eclisse, all efforts of the couples to reunite disappear in time. The language of disagreement is the means by which Antonioni approaches relationships, capturing the places where characters have previously been as now lifeless. L’eclisse, said Antonioni, is a kind of conclusion of the dive into modern feelings, which began with the relationship between friends (Anna and Claudia) in L’avventura and continued through the wandering of love, between the compulsion to speak and the hesitation of silence, until a decision to separate in La note. From this conclusion, nothing remains, like Sartre’s existentialism: “a hole that simultaneously holds freedom and anguish.”

In the poetic insurrection that makes Antonioni simultaneously create an abstractionist aesthetic effect and launch his critique, the human figure is flattened to match the objects in the scene. Antonioni films the reduction of humans to matter, to solid substances, at the same time that he expresses the evaporation of emotional bonds in the plot.

Antonioni expresses his version of individualism until the catastrophe of human communication. L’eclisse is the third film in the trilogy. The first film, L’avventura, shows the speed with which a feeling of loss leads to a dilemma of desire and guilt. La note delves into the problem of human incommunicability through the character Lidia, lonely and in crisis. L’eclisse offers a poetic composition more aimed at inhuman communicability than human incommunicability, through filming empty landscapes. The trilogy concludes when there is no longer a dilemma or crisis in the love relationship, but a kind of fading of belief in bonds. Antonioni films the disappearance of people in the flow of life, the fluidity of relationships that are lost in the city.

The final scene of L’eclisse is a metaphor for the abandonment of relationships. In his other films, he gives false signs of rapprochement amid the couples’ incommunicable state. In L’eclisse, neither Piero nor Vittoria ever appears at the meeting they arranged with enthusiasm. What remains is an intersection of lifeless streets.

From Voids and Silences to the Rebirth of New Ways of Seeing

Antonioni explores the absence of sound and life toward a cinematic experience of dead times. The long take is a way of using the camera not with the mere objective of telling a story but concerned with the intensity of the image in transmitting sensations of the absence of something.

In classical cinema, there was a certain coherence between space and time; the films went through editing, a rational mechanism that organizes cause-and-effect relationships. The film has a structure characterized by a situation that leads to a conflict, or the reverse path, from conflict to situation, which will be resolved, or at least summarized, at the end of the plot. With the movement-image of classic cinema, it is possible to say that the narrative is constructed by exploring physical spaces, as in Eisenstein or even in Keaton’s comedies.

After the war, some narratives began to be based on discontinuity, juxtaposition, and fragmentation of space-time (nouvelle vague). In Bresson and Godard, for example, the scenes are not linked in the sense of there being a systematic connection. Instead of the cause-and-effect logic, dry cuts, and jump cuts, which give shape to a cinema sliced ​​into perceptual phenomena, postwar cinema, like consciousness, seeks the dispersive and intermittent. Hence the experience of the time-image arises.

When we consider the mental activities involved in the filmic experience, the first cinema corresponds to a sensorimotor scheme—that is, the spectator’s sensations arise through the movements in the film and meaning itself and emotions appear as a reflection of this movement. The second scheme is the result of a certain disbelief in the action. In the postwar period, a cinema challenged by political-historical conditions abandoned the link between human action and the transformation of reality to express a deafening, mourning silence in the context of postwar death. In cinematographic art, filmic experiments appeared as a reaction to the nexus between situation-action, action-reaction, stimulus-response, especially in Italy, which was defeated and destroyed in the war. It is this scenario that provokes questioning of the sensorimotor nexus.

The aesthetic crisis is a crisis of movement, a constitutive aspect of classical cinema that governed sensations, from Eisenstein to Ford. While this scheme was part of a tradition in American productions, in Europe the foci of the postwar state of mind began to appear in Italian neorealism and the French nouvelle vague. The expression of silence is a reaction to the crisis of efforts to understand through speech, a reaction to the unbearable brutality arising from the sounds and movements generated by war. Antonioni’s incommunicability is the filmic expression of silence, a moment in which there is nothing more to be said.

In Welles, time is reversible and disparate, through his flashbacks and memorialistic movements—just think of Citizen Kane (1941). In Antonioni, time is relentless: it lasts until the subjects are exhausted, without the comfort of past memories or the nourishment of future expectations. It is an imprisonment in the present. Time lasts and weighs like a load—so Antonioni seeks to reach the interior by exploring silences, marks of indifference, and inaction in his characters. This results in feelings of tiredness, waiting, and exhaustion of the bodies on-stage.

Conclusion: Between the Spectator and the Anthropologist, a Nonrepresentational Experience of Silence

Antonioni’s trilogy explores a cinema where sensations are not based on actions but on poetic situations of the experience of inconsolable loneliness. Scenes, such as facial expressions, landscapes, and signs, have the potential to convey meanings beyond preconceived meanings. The “third eye” metaphor suggests that cinema is no longer about seeing, but about seeing beyond. He uses incomprehension to challenge clichéd images and the representational image based on Platonism. Antonioni’s films explore empty places, such as streets, churches, and forests, and use the human figure as a consonance of lines, shapes, and volumes. This way of filming expands the potential of the cinematic experience. Antonioni seeks to capture time at a standstill, between a finished past and a dead-end future, operating in the tension between external and internal factors. The trilogy is a proposal for reflection expressed in a language that seeks to stop time and reflect on empty spaces. It explores the poetics of silence through the cinematic expression of incomprehension. Like a kind of Camus of cinema, it expresses his revolt against reality. It does not conform to the conventional Hollywood regimes of seeing and hearing. Thus, Antonioni frees us from an imprisonment caused by sounds and speech. The mismatch and disappearance are left naked in the face of suspense in an irreversible state.

Antonioni’s trilogy is one of the expressions of nonrepresentational sensorial cinema as a form of thought in favor of life, in search of new languages ​​capable of inspiring ethics and aesthetics. The trilogy allows us to think about a new type of language, which includes pure optical-sound situations, capable of producing new experiences of understanding. From the scene that slides through time until it stops, that shows without filming, that says something through the absence of sound. Of the characters absorbed by everyday situations and objects, at the limit of the experience of emptiness from the image.


Eduardo Moura Pereira Oliveira

Eduardo Moura Pereira Oliveira was born in Rio de Janeiro. He is a professor of anthropology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and researches the relationship between time and subjectivity in fictional narratives. In his master's degree, he studied the works of filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. In his doctorate, he researched the work of the writer Sándor Márai.

Cite as

eduardo-moura-pereira-oliveira. 2024. “A Poetics of Silence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Nonrepresentational Trilogy.” Anthropology News website, January 11, 2024.