Antonioni: the dangerous thread of things


A commentary on the non-literary prose of the Italian filmmaker

By Afrânio Catani*

Many call him “the poet of boredom”; others classify his works as unintelligible; if alive, Nélson Rodrigues would perhaps make the same judgment about his films that he attributed to the Earth in Trance (1967), by Glauber Rocha: “it is a Chinese text upside down”. Critics almost always deified him, as well as moviegoers and parts of the cultivated public. Despite having received dozens of awards, Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) experienced not a few commercial failures and several of his projects failed to get off the ground.

And this is what will be discussed here: in 1983, he who had already been a film critic, had written scripts, directed 11 shorts and 15 features, published by Einaudi, Turin, Quel Bowling Sul Tevere (Brazilian translation: The Dangerous Thread of Things and Other Stories.1990), bringing together 33 stories – which he calls “narrative cores”.

With false modesty, he defines himself as “a director who writes, not a writer”, showing perfect command of the most varied narrative techniques. Until then, none of them had been filmed. Later, however, with Wim Wenders, he directed beyond the clouds (1995), putting four of them on the screen: the love story that never existed, the shop assistant who murdered her father with a dozen stab wounds, the tragicomic divorce games in Paris and the beautiful young woman from Aix-en-Provence who decided to join a religious order, heading to a convent.

The book, which went practically unnoticed when it was published in Brazil, is permeated with notes of ideas, scenes and dialogues for films to be made. Those who are familiar with Antonioni's filmography will be delighted, imagining a couple of dozen excellent films that did not materialize. The critic and professor Paulo Emílio Salles Gomes (1916-1977) spoke numerous times that he thought the Sertanejo, by Lima Barreto (1906-1982), director of O Cangaceiro (1953), the best Brazilian film. The tape, however, was never filmed, but Paulo Emílio read the script and talked so much with Barreto that, for him, the Sertanejo was at the forefront of our best production.

It is no easy task to highlight the stories of this filmmaker contained in the 165 pages of the book, with the most varied extensions. The smallest of them, “Antarctica”, occupies just three lines: “Antarctica glaciers move three millimeters a year towards us. Calculate when they will arrive. Predict, in a film, what will happen” (p. 19). The epigraph extracted from Lucretius (De natural return, V 195-99), is extremely provocative: “Even ignoring how the world originated, / just by observing the movements of the sky and many other things / I can be sure that the world was not created for us / by a divine will : so many are the evils it contains”.

If he hadn't devoted himself to cinema, perhaps Antonioni could have been an anthropologist, novelist, columnist. In “That bowling on the Tiber” he writes that on one occasion he found himself in Rome by chance and was somewhat aimless and without activity: “when I don't know what to do I start looking” (p. 65). And his gaze goes through everything, starting with the eyes of the people (or characters?), scouring the environments that surround these people, observing how their movements occur, how they act in their professions, how they relate to who they work with, going down to the details apparently more insignificant.

He highlights the existence of several techniques for looking, emphasizing that his “consists of going back from a series of images to a state of affairs. Experience teaches me that when an intuition is beautiful, it is also right. I do not know why. Wittgenstein knew” (p. 65). He also adds: “a large part of my time is spent looking for” [things, people, places] (p. 65).

A voracious reader, he quotes Barthes, Borges, Conrad, Eliot, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Raimondi, Joyce, MacLeish, Chekhov, among others, demonstrating how cinema and literature can converge in order to mobilize affective life.

There is no lack of considerations about his hometown, Ferrara, where “in winter there is such a dense fog that it is impossible to see a meter ahead” (p. 68). Or, in “Chronicle of a love that never existed”, an episode of beyond the clouds, in which, in short, it is about “a strange story between a man and a woman in Ferrara. Strange for anyone not born in this city. Only a native of Ferrara can understand a relationship that lasted eleven years without ever having existed” (p. 41).

He clarifies that, when he was young, trying to break the rules of bourgeois decorum, he preferred to have friends who were children of proletarians, “and not bourgeois like me. Maybe unconsciously I betrayed the popular origin of my parents, who were self-taught bourgeois, so to speak” (p. 83).

Here and there, poke the way of life North American: “in Las Vegas, words count for little” (“The desert of money”, p. 109); in “The wheel” addresses, in passing, the dramatic situation experienced in the filming of Zabriskie Point (1970): the Cessna 177 in which the pilot and the director of photography were riding crashed into the roof of a car and lost a landing gear wheel, forcing them to drop everything that was essential to reduce the weight of the plane , flying for an hour around the sand runway to use up fuel and get lucky. According to the pilot, they had a 50% chance of leaving unharmed – which fortunately happened (p. 142-143); recalls, in “Não me procura”, that “the noises went away, the silences arrived” (p. 161); that Luchino Visconti (1907-1976) locked him, with two other screenwriters, in a hotel room for four months, in the making of The process of Maria Tarnowska, and in “A Caminho da Frontier”, during the Second World War, with friends, he was hidden in an attic for a month, in the Abruzzo region, to escape deportation (p. 103).

Antonioni confesses that every time he is about to start a film, the idea of ​​another comes to him (“The horizon of events”, p. 9) and that he always needs to make a great effort “when a film ends to start thinking about other. But it's the only thing left for me to do that I know how to do. sometimes it stops at a verse I read, poetry stimulates me a lot” (Who is the third?…”, p. 131).

However, it is in “The dangerous thread of things” (p. 125-130) that the old master seeks to detail the birth of a film, the birth, the insight, the harrowing (for the director) first three minutes. One morning, he says as an example, he wakes up with some images in his head, ignoring their origin and the reason for mentalizing them. “In the days and months that follow, they come back and I … do nothing to send them away. I keep looking at them and mentally make notes that I then put on a pad” (p. 125).

Then he transcribes the various images received, with the place, date and time when the events take place – there are 9 or 10 -, detailing them. Until he realizes, suddenly, that “this unconscious way of generating a film will go nowhere if I don't take the reins. In other words, the time has come to organize the ideas and only them. Transform everything that is instinctive into reflective. Think of the story in terms of articulation of scenes, of beginning, development and end, of structure. The imagination needs to become intelligible (almost edible), it needs to be helped to find meaning. Roland Barthes says that the meaning of a work cannot be made alone, all that the author can produce are assumptions of meaning, forms, if you like, and it is the world that fills them in” (p. 128-129). Suspicious, he asks: “But how can Barthes count on an entity as uncertain as the world? “ (p. 129).

The director comments that a script that was born some time ago can lead to another, and parts of abandoned projects have the ability to effectively join future scripts, eventually becoming a film, sort of by chance. If that happens, then “it is necessary to attribute to mental adventures the same motivations and mechanisms that coordinate (or trigger) the real adventures of our lives” (p. 130).

I was in doubt whether this comment ended in the previous paragraph. That's because I think I had already given my message. But I couldn't resist and decided on one bonus tracks, by an observation by Seymour Chatman and Paul Duncan in a book dedicated to the filmmaker and which summarizes well his way of making cinema. Right at the beginning of the volume there is a photo of Il deserto rosso (the red desert, 1964), in which Giuliana and Corrado hold a sheet of newspaper brought by the wind and examine it. The authors write: “The meaning of this sequence is that the spectator can create his own meaning, in the same way that the characters will create theirs. This is where Antonioni's contribution to cinema consists (…) in finding images in which each spectator can find his own meaning” (p. 4) -= the 33 stories of this dangerous thread of things show us that.

*Afrânio Catani, retired professor at USP, is a visiting professor at UFF


Michelangelo Antonioni. The Dangerous Thread of Things and Other Stories. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1991.

Ignatius Araujo. The genie returns in “Beyond the Clouds”. FSP, 13. September. 1996.

Seymour Chatman & Paul Duncan (org.). Michelangelo Antonioni – The Investigation. Madrid, Taschen, 2004.

Benoît Conquet. “Par-delà les nuages”. In: Ciné/Libre, Paris, janvier, n. 24, p. 11, 1996.

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