Il Grido 1957: Michelangelo Antonioni at his Neo-Realist best
So much attention has been paid to Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s films from the 1960s that his earlier Neo-Realist efforts have been overlooked – as if they represented the work of nothing more than a talented tyro. But even though Antonioni was not as consciously “experimental” in his early films as he was in those of his Alienation Trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse), and in later classics such as Blow-Up and The Passenger, his Neo-Realist films were both well written and visually accomplished, playing upon the viewers’ emotions and providing them with believable characters and situations. That Michelangelo Antonioni’s film career started out in documentaries should come as no surprise to those familiar with his earlier output.
One of the best of the early Antonioni efforts is Il Grido / The Cry (1957), which he also co-wrote along with Elio Bartolini and Ennio de Concini. The nearly two-hour-long black-and-white drama has much in common with Federico Fellini’s 1954 classic La Strada, save that Antonioni’s film is a bit more believable and less patently heart-tugging. Also worth noting, Il Grido prefigures many of the themes that would recur in the director’s later work – e.g., alienation, apathy, anomy – in addition to possessing a political edge lacking in those later films.
Italy’s post-war proletariat
Set in a small-town – actually, a village with crappy shacks and huts – Il Grido revolves around Aldo, a refinery worker and mechanical engineer played by American B-movie actor Steve Cochran, who is utterly believable as a (dubbed) Italian native who takes to the road with his young daughter (Mirna Girardi), after discovering that his companion (Alida Valli) is about to leave him for another man.
Steve Cochran, whose reputation in the United States rested mostly in his crime films, here plays a member of the Italian post-war proletariat as the country is on the verge of pulling out of its long economic slump.
In fact, as opposed to Antonioni’s later interest on the idle bourgeoisie, Il Grido focuses on Italy’s working class. But to read too much ideology into this small and personal film would take too much away from Steve Cochran’s excellent acting. That Cochran lucked out by getting this role after years playing one-dimensional heavies shows that an actor’s career is as dependent upon luck as that of any other person.
Spoilers ahead: Many critics see the film’s ending as showing Aldo’s suicide, but clearly his is an accidental death. Yet, the idea that Aldo is a victim of his social status has some merit, even if the near-universal claim of suicide does not. Although he is a skilled worker, Aldo cannot get back on his feet; after all, as a single parent, he must reject jobs that he could have taken if alone.
Il Grido has been compared to the plays of Samuel Beckett, and this is one of the rare times when such comparisons are apt. No, Antonioni’s landscapes are not as bleak and his characters are not as satirical as Beckett’s, but much of the film is a physical journey to nowhere, for Aldo ends up back where he started – a failure.
Though not as widely praised as Michelangelo Antonioni’s later efforts, Il Grido is better than the one that followed, L’Avventura (in which the filmmaker totally broke with his past), while skirting near and above greatness. The shots of depressed industrial landscapes enshrouded in fog lend the film a dreamy state not unlike Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr. Cinematographer Gianni de Venanzo does an excellent job, but even better is Il Grido‘s musical score, especially a haunting Erik Satie-like piano theme by Giovanni Fusco, detailing Aldo’s inner turmoil even more convincingly. Only the film’s rather abrupt, if appropriate, ending can be argued against its greatness, just as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon can be said to miss greatness only as a result of its weak ending.
Still, Il Grido contains many moments proving that Antonioni and his collaborators were more than just capable screenwriters. Among those is the scene of a man briefly entering the house of Aldo’s former lover Elvia (Betsy Blair); he asks her out on a date only to be casually rejected while being offered a potential date on some other Sunday. He cynically scoffs that her promise will be “like every other Sunday.”
In that brief scene, we know all we need to about Elvia – that she is still obsessed with Aldo. There is no need for a flashback on her past with either man, for that moment sums it all up with wonderful poesy and concision. And in the next scene, as she is out dancing with Aldo, we can actually be a witness to Elvia’s feelings. When she realizes he is using her to forget Irma, her pain is genuine.
If only more filmmakers learned the lessons Michelangelo Antonioni taught by way of Il Grido half a century ago. More of them would produce films of quality, and a few would even augur great art. Ah, perchance to…
© Dan Schneider
Note: This review of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido is a condensed / revised version of Dan Schneider’s text, which can be read in its original form here. The views expressed in this Il Grido review are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
Il Grido / The Cry (1957). Director: Michelangelo Antonioni. Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Ennio de Concini. Cast: Steve Cochran, Alida Valli, Betsy Blair, Dorian Gray, Lynn Shaw, Gabriella Pallotta, Mirna Girardi.
Steve Cochran Il Grido 1957 photo: Spa Cinematografica.