Star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films in the 1960s who later turned to light comedies
Monica Vitti at the Cannes film festival in 1966. Photograph: Roger Viollet/Rex/Shutterstock
The Guardian-John Francis Lane
Although she was often described, perhaps with a touch of irony, as the “muse of incommunicability” for her dramatic roles in several of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, Monica Vitti, who has died aged 90, always aspired to be a comic actor. In 1962, she had an offer to do a film for Agnès Varda, but turned it down; as she explained in an interview, “I want to remain loyal to Michelangelo, who has promised to make me the Carole Lombard of the second half of the century.” Though Vitti certainly had comparable looks and verve, and did eventually succeed in becoming a popular comedic star, she will probably remain in most film buffs’ minds as Giuliana, the complicated young blond woman in Antonioni’s Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964), his first colour feature.
Giuliana was perhaps Vitti’s most credible and identifiable characterisation. Her main concern is for her child’s neurosis, but she is not helped by her anguished attempt at a romantic relationship with an engineer, played by Richard Harris. The film contains one of world cinema’s most bizarre lines: “My hair hurts”, but it probably aroused merriment only when seen translated in a subtitle – Tonino Guerra, the film’s co-writer, pointed out that in Italian it sounds better.
Vitti and Antonioni had begun living together as he prepared to work on the film in which she shot to fame, L’Avventura (1960), but he did not tell her much about the part she was to play, either before or during its prolonged and hazardous shoot. She later said: “What I’d learned in drama school wasn’t much use on the rocks of [the Sicilian island] Lisca Bianca, where we were shooting under such dramatic conditions. Michelangelo treats his actors as objects, and it is useless to ask him the meaning of a scene or a line of dialogue.”
Like most of the cast and crew, she had faith in him and the film, in which she played Claudia, the best friend of a young woman who goes missing on a deserted volcanic island. While searching for her, Claudia becomes involved with the missing woman’s boyfriend. All their hopes were pinned on Cannes, where the film was in competition. It was Vitti’s first festival experience, and the hostile reception from some of the audience at the official screening was a shock, leaving her in tears. She soon found consolation in the film’s jury prize, awarded after a campaign led by the film-maker Roberto Rossellini, which opened the way to her stardom in Italy and internationally.
L’Avventura was the first in a trilogy said by Antonioni to be about alienation in the modern world, of which the second, La Notte (The Night, 1961), was arguably the best. The female lead was Jeanne Moreau, playing the wife of a disillusioned novelist (Marcello Mastroianni).
Vitti, on this occasion a brunette, had the significant role of Valentina, a carefree society girl, for which she won a best supporting actress award from the Italian film critics.
In the final film of the trilogy, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962), Vitti was paired with Alain Delon and gave another convincing performance in a complex role. The film was also jeered at Cannes, but it too won the special prize in spite of François Truffaut’s opposition.
In 1964, Vitti returned to the stage, chosen by Franco Zeffirelli to play the Marilyn Monroe character in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall. I was in Naples when Miller came to see the production there and praised Vitti’s performance.
After Red Desert, she had a lead role in Modesty Blaise (1966), directed by Joseph Losey and based on Peter O’Donnell’s comic strip. Her relationship with Antonioni ended in 1967; the following year she won the hearts of audiences – in Italy, at least – in Mario Monicelli’s La Ragazza con la Pistola (The Girl With a Pistol), playing a Sicilian woman who goes to London to seek revenge against the fiance who has abandoned her.
In Ettore Scola’s send-up of Italian stereotypes, Dramma della Gelosia (The Pizza Triangle, 1970), she held her own against Mastroianni and Giancarlo Giannini; she was becoming the only woman to be bracketed (also in salary terms) with the popular Italian male comic actors of the 70s, appearing in one commercial film after another. She often partnered Alberto Sordi, matching his over-the-top performances. One of their best, with him directing, was a sub-Fellini subject, Polvere di Stelle (Stardust, 1973), in which they played two delusional music-hall comics.
By then, she was in a relationship with the Red Desert cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma. He directed her in three films, including Teresa la Ladra (Teresa the Thief, 1973), a comic saga of a waif who survives the second world war thanks to petty crime. In 1974, she appeared in Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty.
Born Maria Luisa to Adele (nee Vittilia) and Angelo Ceciarelli, she later said that her childhood was unhappy, and, when her family emigrated to the US when she was 18, she stayed in Rome and enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Art there. Her stage name came from her mother’s maiden name.
In the summer of her graduation in 1953 came her first theatrical engagement, in the chorus of a Greek tragedy. The first film in which she appeared was Ridere! Ridere! Ridere! (Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!, 1954). She had several small roles in films and plays before meeting Antonioni in a post-synchronisation studio in Rome, where she dubbed the actor Dorian Gray’s part in Il Grido (The Cry, 1957).
Antonioni was also directing a theatre company, and he cast her as Sally Bowles in John van Druten’s play I Am a Camera, for which she received good reviews, before embarking on his trilogy.
Throughout her film career and relationship with Di Palma, Antonioni and Vitti had remained close friends, and in 1980 he directed her for the last time in a TV film of Jean Cocteau’s play The Eagle Has Two Heads, which he called Il Mistero di Oberwald.
Vitti had begun a relationship with the photographer Roberto Russo in 1975, and he directed her in the low-key comedies Flirt (1983) and Francesca è Mia (Francesca’s Mine, 1986), as well as a TV programme in which she compered a debate with film and drama students. She and Russo married in 1995.
In 1990, Vitti directed herself in Scandalo Segreto (Secret Scandal), co-starring Elliott Gould, about a woman who, while keeping a video diary, discovers her husband’s affair. Disappointed when the film was tepidly received, she found a new creative outlet, publishing A Bed Is Like a Rose, a delightful semi-autobiographical book in which she said that nothing could be further from her own personality than the kind of alienation with which she had so often been associated.
In 1995 Vitti was awarded a career Golden Lion award at the Venice film festival. She withdrew, Garbo-like, from public life during her last years and the Italian media respected her privacy as she reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
She is survived by Russo.
Monica Vitti (Maria Luisa Ceciarelli), actor, born 3 November 1931; died 2 February 2022