The Film Center’s ongoing retrospective of the work of Italy’s greatest living filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, offers two noteworthy programs this Friday night. First is perhaps the most unjustly neglected of Antonioni’s early features, Lady Without Camelias (La signora senza camelie, 1953), a caustic Cinderella story about a Milanese shop clerk (Lucia Bose) who briefly becomes a glamorous movie star. One of the cruelest and most accurate portraits of studio moviemaking and the Italian movie world that we have, it’s informed by a visually and emotionally complex mise en scene that juggles background with foreground elements in a choreographic style recalling Welles at times. Though it’s only Antonioni’s third feature, and it’s episodic structure necessitates a somewhat awkward expositional method, this is mature filmmaking that leaves an indelible aftertaste.
Then comes a program of shorts made between 1947 and 1953, mainly “apprentice” works, though no less impressive and commanding for all that; the only conventional and fairly forgettable one is the last in the program, The Villa of Monsters (1950)–to be shown, unlike the others, only with French and German subtitles. Perhaps the most significant stylistic trait to be found in most of the work here is the pan suddenly linking foreground with background, the animate with the inanimate. The other films are People of the Po (1947), Street Cleaners aka N.U. (1948), and my three favorites: Superstition (a perfect subject for Antonioni given his feeling for omens) and Lies of Love (a somewhat sarcastic look at fumetti, Italy’s live-action comic books), both made in 1949, and Antonioni’s remarkable and disturbing episode from the anthology Love in the City (1953), “Suicide Attempt.” A group of women, responding to an eerily unseen male questioner, are persuaded to recount and partially reenact their attempted suicides. The ambiguous and complex interplay here between objectivity and subjectivity, fact and fiction — as in one chilling moment when a 19-year-old woman lying on her bed unconvincingly pretends to slit her wrist, then suddenly shows us the scar left by her genuine suicide attempt — seems decades ahead of its time. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Friday, April 2, Lady Without Camelias, 6:00, shorts, 8:00 (admission is $5 per program, $8 for both), 443-3737.