For a time in the 1960s, Michelangelo Antonioni — who died on July 30 in Rome at age 94 — was the most cryptic of cinematic prophets, and the most cutting-edge. His breakthrough, 1961’s L’Avventura, changed the rules of film narrative with its unresolved ending: A young woman goes missing; she’s never found, and her disappearance is never explained. His follow-ups, including La Notte (1962), L’Eclisse (1962), and Il Deserto Rosso (1964), explored a similar human void by gazing at architecture, vistas, and the blank, gorgeous face of Monica Vitti, his favorite leading lady and onetime companion.
Antonioni’s run peaked with 1966’s Blow-Up, a psychological thriller in which a photographer (David Hemmings) believes he has unwittingly photographed a murder. Poring over a sequence of stills like a conspiracy theorist studying the Zapruder film, he realizes that truth is elusive and perception is reality. Blow-Up — which earned the writer-director two Oscar noms — also captured swinging London when it was the epicenter of hipness (he even caught the Yardbirds on stage with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar). When Mike Myers plays a shutterbug in the Austin Powers films’ ’60s segments, it’s a clear homage.
In 1970’s hippie saga Zabriskie Point, Antonioni seemed unable to tap into American counterculture. He also failed commercially with 1975’s The Passenger, an underrated political potboiler featuring Jack Nicholson. Though impaired by a stroke in his final years, he teamed with Wim Wenders on 1995’s Beyond the Clouds (”Somehow he recovered enough speech to say, ‘Basta! Stupida!”’ recalls star John Malkovich good-naturedly) and with Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar-Wai on 2005’s Eros. ”Antonioni was like an explorer,” says Martin Scorsese, ”who took us into new emotional and visual territory with every new movie.” — Additional reporting by Aubry D’Arminio