La Notte: Masters of Cinema Review

The following is a revised and updated version of my 2008reviewof Masters of Cinema's DVD release ofLa Notte


Milan. Giovanni Portano (Marcello Mastroianni) is in town for a signing of his latest novel. With him is his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). They visit their friend Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) who is terminally ill in hospital. Later, Giovanni goes to his book launch while Lidia visits the part of the city she previously lived in. Later that evening, they go to a party where Giovanni meets Valentina (Monica Vitti)…

La Notte (The Night) was Michelangelo Antonioni’s follow-up to L’avventura and is a further refinement of its themes and techniques. It’s generally thought of as the middle film of Antonioni’s early 60s black and white trilogy that he made with Monica Vitti, which he completed the following year with L’eclisse. On the other hand you could argue that, as Vitti only plays a secondary, if still significant, role in La Notte, that it is really a pendant to the true Vitti trilogy, which ends with the director’s first colour film, The Red Desert. Or it’s film two of a tetralogy. Your call.

If the synopsis above seems uneventful, that’s true but beside the point. In his book Story, Robert McKee gives La Notte as an example of a miniplot. This is a film which is character-led, which you could sum up as being not about “what happens” but being about the characters “while things happen”. However, Antonioni being a modernist, does not believe that his characters are fully knowable: we in the audience are expected to pick up hints and clues from their facial reactions, their body language and so on. We’re left to infer the role Tommaso (an affecting one-scene role from Bernhard Wicki) plays in Giovanni and Lidia’s marriage, as he’s clearly close to both of them. You could suggest that in some way he’s holding their marriage together. (There are no mention of any children.) The gap between husband and wife becomes more noticeable during the day and especially at the party. Judging by his behaviour to a nymphomaniac patient in hospital early on, not to mention his prolonged flirtation with Valentina at the party, Giovanni seems hardly the faithful husband. But suggesting that infidelity is the cause of the couple’s dissatisfaction would be too simplistic.

As the film progresses, Antonioni expresses recurrent themes in his trilogy (or tetralogy): how wide a gulf there can be between men and women, the alienation and ennui of modern (early 1960s) life. And few directors have such an eye for architecture – though this is more evident in L’avventura and L’eclisse. This was radically new and exciting for cineastes over forty-five years ago, at a time when arthouse cinema was more culturally central in the Western world than it is now. (It may come as a surprise to see Dino De Laurentiis’s company logo in the opening credits, but he was just as capable of putting his money behind Euro arthouse cinema as well as big-budget Hollywood.) Needless to say, Antonioni has been influential: Woody Allen parodied him, Brian De Palma riffed on Blowup in Blow Out and Michael Mann shares his sense of the expressive possibilities of buildings.

La Notte isn’t, to my mind, quite the equal of L’avventura or L’eclisse, but it’s still a key work for its director and a film that rewards watching more than once. It hasn’t been easy to see in the UK since its cinema release in 1962. (The BFI database records just one TV showing, on ITV in 1983, back when that channel did show foreign-language films, often subtitled, late at night.) The BBFC cut La Notte back in 1962 for a X certificate and there never was a video release. Eureka’s DVD, released in 2008, marked the first time the film has been available uncut, or even at all, in this country for many years. Their Blu-ray, like the DVD before it, contains what it describes as “previously censored sequences restored”, which probably include a brief shot showing Moreau's breasts and a nightclub striptease, the latter primarily responsible for the 12 certificate the film now bears.

The Blu-ray

There has been some uncertainly as to the intended aspect ratio of La Notte. Masters of Cinema's DVD was in a ratio of 1.66:1. The Blu-ray however comes from a new 4K restoration and is in 1.85:1, with more information at the sides. It's a beautiful-looking transfer of this black and white film, with blacks and whites and the greys in between spot on, particularly important in a film like this which is set for about half of its running time after dark. There are some minor instances of print damage – minor tramlines, a hair in the gate at one point – but nothing too deleterious and overall this is excellent. The screengrabs below are a comparison between the DVD and the Blu-ray, and I've left in the black bars for reference. DVD first:

The Italian-language soundtrack is presented in LPCM mono. Unlike his compatriot Fellini, Antonioni did take care over lip-synch, and the few lapses are minor. This is particularly noticeable considering that this film includes a Frenchwoman (Moreau) and an Austrian (Wicki), both of whom appear to be delivering their lines in Italian. English subtitles are optional.

The only extra on the disc is the theatrical trailer, which runs 3:10. As with L’avventura this attempts to sell the film on its sexual frankness – mild today, but far in advance of Hollywood at the time.

As usual with Masters of Cinema, they have provided a substantial booklet to go with their disc. This was not available for this review, so the following refers to the 56-page booklet included with DVD release, and if there are any notable differences with the Blu-ray booklet I will update this review accordingly. It contains a long essay on the film by Brad Stevens, which expands on how much we don't know and can't know about these characters and suggests the more we see this film the less we “know” about it. There follows, “The Sickness of Feelings”, a transcript of a Q&A with Antonioni that took place in 1961, during a retrospective of his works, including the then-new La Notte. As usual, there’s plenty to be going on with, as Antonioni’s answers are lengthy and in-depth. The booklet closes with some other brief interview snippets and comments and contains production stills for the film, as well as film and disc credits.

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