Le Amiche: When the Rain Starts to Fall

Michelangelo Antonioni’s fourth feature Le Amiche (1955) fails to offer the bizarre delights or metaphysical headspinning of Blow-Up (1966) or The Passenger (1975). But it is a useful stop on the way, a neat melodrama with the Italian film critic-turned-director sharpening his knife to be used on the throat of the Italian bourgeoisie. The film also finds him using the camera to explore not only urban space, but the relationship between the people and things within that space.

That said, its complex nentwork of assignations could get tedious for anybody uninterested in the erotic entanglements of Antonioni’s chosen circle of artists, architects and fashionistas. Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago) arrives in Turin from Rome to set up a fashion boutique. She’s drawn into the social whirl of a group of women when the troubled Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) attempts suicide in the hotel room next to hers. While Clelia becomes attracted to the architect’s assistant working on her remodeling her shop, the recovered Rosetta steals the painter Francesco away from his sculptor consort Nene (Valentina Cortese). When the spurned Nene gets an invitation to exhibit in New York, the fragile ensemble is poised to explode—and it does.

Towards the end, the chic leader of the group—herself flaunting a illicit fling with an architect—remarks, “Maybe a miracle will happen … Maybe we’ll have a good time tonight.” Antonioni is suspicious of clubs and demonstrates that his nouveau riche are way too weighed down with anxiety and emotional hang-ups to be very enjoyable company. This is illustrated in a key scene which paves the way for L’avventura (1960), with the gang going for a seaside picnic on a beach littered with coupling lovers and romantic betrayal. The quiet sigh of the ocean provides the accompaniment for aimless wandering and overall exhaustion. In Antonioni’s hands, the bustle of Turin also exposes his characters’ pretensions. When, on the train home, Clelia counsels Nene about the necessity of love in one’s life, a pair of celibate nuns are visible behind her. Nene never gets Clelia’s message anyway. When Francesco returns to her, asking why she loves him, she happily exclaims, “Maybe it’s because you make me suffer so.”

The audience I watched the film with seemed disappointed in the surfeit of narrative and there were a few walkouts. The ennui afflicting Antonioni’s ensemble is also capable of infecting the auteur. But Le Amiche is still an important nexus of the younger Antonioni’s concerns and points towards the films of the future. As well as planting that early seed of L’avventura, Antonioni also draws on his essential short documentary about street sweepers, N.U. (1948) In that short, he drew the audience’s attention to city workers who he felt were left “unseen.” Le Amiche is awash with vagabonds and street vendors. When the gang gather to celebrate the opening of Clelia’s store, one of them even invites a bum into the restaurant to feast with them. The presence of an urban underclass, struggling to merely survive in post-war Italy, shows up the others’ pretension. Of them all, only the Roman Clelia seems capable of true slumming. Her courtship with Carlo (Ettore Mani) takes place in a “deli” in her old neighborhood which by modern standards is clearly a corner-shop bodega.

That crummy hole-in-the-wall becomes a symbol of a love affair which, in the best Antonioni style, dissipates completely. Clelia is alive enough to finally rail against the transparency and cynicism of it all. When Rosetta finally successfully ends it all, she explodes against the amiches’ ringleader and the clientele of her store. Her business partner gives her a final choice—stay in Turin with Carlo or return to Rome. Her choice gives rise to the possibility of an assignation at the train station. But as in the final reel of L’Eclisse (1962), the conclusion is a missed connection. For Antonioni, a circle of friends and lovers is one where the center cannot hold.

Cortese was married to Richard Basehart at the time and later received an Academy Award nom for Day for Night. Manni got mired in spaghetti westerns and war films until he accidentally shot himself in 1979. Cinematographer Gianni di Venanzo continued to work with Antonioni up through to L’Eclisse. He also established the look a la mode with his photography for 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits and Joseph Losey‘s film maudit Eva before dying in a car accident in 1966. Veteran composer Giovanni Fusco established himself as the man to go to for art house soundtracks. As well as his Silver Ribbon-winning scores for Cronaca di un amore (1951) and L’avventura, he also worked with Alain Resnais on Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and La guerre est finie (1966).

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