The extended definition of art cinema marks off films that can be differentiated from commonplace entertainment cinema in terms of source material and intended audience. Alongside such popular genres of early cinema as actualities, trick films, chase films, and comedies were brief films drawn from the traditional elements of "high culture," that is, adaptations from classic drama and literature and films based on historical events. This dimension of the art film emerged most forcibly in France during the years before World War I, with films from the appropriately titled Le Film d'Art company, and there were equivalent trends in Germany and Italy. At this time, the contours of the art film begin to form in terms of its relationship to orthodox and established high culture—literature, history, and the fine arts—together with the aspiration on the part of producers to attract a more "respectable" and educated audience than the urban working classes that patronized the nickelodeons. Art cinema's project was the transformation of a cultural phenomenon with origins in fair-grounds, vaudeville theaters and music halls, and improvised screening venues, into a cultural activity comparable to the established art forms.
However, the most important phase in the early history of art cinema was the 1920s. The major European film industries had been severely effected by World War I, and Hollywood had established itself as the main provider of entertainment cinema in many parts of the world. In the course of reconstructing their film industries, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union, in particular, created a diverse range of cinemas, making films that differed in key respects from the Hollywood films that filled European screens. Such films reflected an attempt to establish alternatives to the evolving Hollywood cinema of stars and genres and were recognized by intellectuals and artists in such metropolitan centers of culture as Berlin, Paris, London, and New
Antonioni is synonymous with the notion of art cinema. His film career began in 1942 when he worked on Roberto Rossellini's Un Pilota ritorna ( A Pilot Returns ) and Marcel Carnés Les Visiteurs du soir ( The Devil's Envoys ), and, despite suffering a stroke in the 1980s, Antonioni has remained sporadically active.
His first feature film was Cronaca di un amore ( Story of a Love Affair , 1950), but it was his sixth feature film, L'Avventura (1960), that thrust him into public prominence. Though it was booed off the screen at the Cannes Film Festival, it was defended by Rossellini, among others, and went on to win the festival's Special Jury Award. It was followed by La Notte ( The Night , 1961), L'Eclisse ( Eclipse , 1962), and Il Deserto rosso ( The Red Desert , 1964), all featuring the actress Monica Vitti, who had played the central character in L'Avventura . While the early 1960s films all centered on a female character, Antonioni's next three fiction films— Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975)—placed a man at the center of the narrative and were set in London, California, North Africa, and Spain rather than Rome and Milan. They were made in English for an international market produced by his fellow Italian Carlo Ponti and the American major studio—MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Antonioni returned to the ethos of the early 1960s films with Identificazione di una donna ( Identification of a Woman , 1982) and Al di là delle nuvole ( Beyond the Clouds , 1995).
The films display a number of the key characteristics of the European art film. Embodying a somewhat bittersweet perspective, they focus on the intimate personal lives of affluent urban professionals. Stylistically, the films employ the meandering narratives characteristic of art cinema, in which the protagonists, enveloped in their inner turmoils, wander aimlessly through visually dramatic landscapes and cityscapes and are often captured in meticulously composed off-centered images, clinging to the edges of the frame. The films also refuse the neat closure of the classical film.
Antonioni's significance as a director is likely to rest on his early films of the 1960s, although a rounded picture of his achievements requires attention to his documentary work and and his color experimentation in The Red Desert and The Mystery of Oberwald (1981). Shot on videotape and in the thriller format, the later film serves as a loose narrative basis for the director's existential concerns while also representing the film noir dimension of his works, which can be discerned as well in The Story of a Love Affair , with the disappearance of Anna in L'Avventura , the mysterious death in the park in Blow-Up , and the man on the run in Zabriskie Point . Roland Barthes attested to Antonioni's high standing in the world of cinema when he suggested that the filmmaker's work stands as a challenge to all contemporary artists.
Cronaca di un amore ( Story of a Love Affair , 1950), L'Avventura (1960), La Notte ( The Night , 1961), L'Eclisse ( Eclipse , 1962), Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), Identification of a Woman (1982), Beyond the Clouds (1995)
Antonioni, Michelangelo. The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema . Edited by C. di Carlo and G. Tinazzi. New York: Marsilio, 1996.
Cameron, Ian, and Robin Wood. Antonioni . New York: Praeger, 1971.
Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. L'Avventura . London: British Film Institute, 1997.
Rohdie, Sam. Antonioni . London: British Film Institute, 1990.
York as art films. These countries did have their equivalents to the American entertainment films, but the art strands represented distinctive approaches to filmmaking that were aligned with the modernist and avant-garde artistic currents of the time: expressionism, surrealism, dadaism, and constructivism. In France, such films as La Souriante Madame Beudet ( The Smiling Madame Beudet , 1923), Ménilmontant (1926), and La Coquille et le clergyman , ( The Seashell and the Clergyman , 1928) deployed a range of techniques to represent the inner psychological life of their protagonists, while such filmmakers as René Clair (1898–1981) with Entr'acte (1924), and Salvador Dali (1904–1989) and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) with Un Chien andalou ( An Andalusian Dog , 1929) defied the narrative logic of mainstream Hollywood films. The German film acquired an international prominence with the appearance of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari ( The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari , 1920), a self-consciously artistic film that combined the psychological qualities associated subsequently with the French films with an approach to mise-en-scène influenced by expressionist drama and painting. Though most German films during the period were commercial genre pieces, historical spectaculars, and thrillers, the handful of expressionist films that followed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari have imprinted themselves on film history as founding examples of art cinema both through their eccentric style and their international circulation through specialized cinema clubs and societies. In particular, the other important art cinema of the 1920s came from the Soviet Union, where Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953) made formal and narrative innovations in terms of montage. Such films as Bronenosets Potyumkin ( Battleship Potemkin , 1925), Oktyabr ( Ten Days That Shook the World and October , 1927), and Mat ( Mother , 1926) also injected a political edge into the art film. In economic terms, art films were financed from a mixture of sources including the state itself in the case of the Soviet film, large commercial concerns such as Germany's Univesum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), smaller specialist firms, and private financing by the filmmakers themselves or by wealthy patrons. In 1920, the German government instituted financial incentives for exhibitors screening films with artistic and cultural value, a move that many governments would later emulate in order to protect and foster an indigenous cultural cinema.
The 1920s saw the establishment of a number of the parameters for the art film, in particular its status as a challenge artistically, culturally, and financially to the Hollywood film, which had established itself as the exemplar of cinema in most countries of the world. The art film presented a parallel experience—complex artistic films instead of entertainment narratives, intimate screening venues instead of picture palaces, intellectual journals instead of fan magazines—addressed to audiences familiar with modernist developments in literature, music, and painting. The territory staked out by the art film of the 1920s was defined in the polarized terminology of "art versus entertainment" and "culture versus commerce," conceptual couplets that still inform thinking about the medium.