Please Note: The images used here are from promotional materials and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
"We always imagine happiness is somewhere other than where we are. That must be why there's so much suffering in this world."
Not nearly as well-known or widely admired as his earlier masterpieces (L'Avventura, most groundbreakingly), the great Italian cine-maestro Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1982 film, Identification of A Woman is an excellent continuation of his better-known work from the '60s and '70s. It finds him once again gazing, with a mixture of wonder, puzzlement, and fear, at the world around him--a world in which his characters numbly pursue their lusts, loves, and projects despite their alienation and nagging awareness of the narrowness verging on futility of what any one person can discern in their limited experience, with the one potential mitigating factor the hope of somehow expanding one's consciousness beyond the narcissistic trap set, in Antonioni's view, by contemporary existence itself.
Niccolò (Tomás Milan), a well-known, just-divorced Italian film director, is at an impasse in his personal and professional lives, which overlap as he obsesses over a billboard in his study onto which he's affixed photos (from magazines and newspapers) of potential female muses for his as-yet-unwritten next project while at the same time becoming increasingly paranoid over Mavi (Daniela Silverio), the beautiful young upper-crust woman he's having an affair with, but with whom he never really seems to connect, and about whom he is disconcertingly warned by a stranger. He never really seems to connect with the lost, self-absorbed Mavi as they drift together through her glamorous, faintly creepy and decrepit aristocratic milieu, and, after an attempted escape to the country during which Niccolò and Mavi lose each other in a heavy fog on the highway (in an extended, transfixing sequence), she seems to just suddenly disappear from Niccolò's life. He spends the rest of the film dwelling on and searching for her, even as he strikes up a new romance with a young actress, Ida (Christine Boisson), who is warm, open, working-class--the opposite of Mavi in almost every way. But just like Mavi and Niccolò, Ida and Niccolò feel driven to attempt an escape from the disconnected anonymity of Rome, this time to the sea instead of the country. When this seems to have the same relationship-ending result as the previous failed respite, it appears that Niccolò is doomed to a circular existence in which his artistic preoccupations and the general emotional distance between people in the worlds he occupies in will inevitably leave him stuck and alone. But all these concerns--creative frustration, troubled love life, alienation--have been, gradually but steadily, sliding toward irrelevance over the course of the film, with seemingly tiny incidental occurrences--an article Niccolò glimpses in the Herald-Tribune about how the sun will eventually expand to wipe out life on earth, his little nephew's persistent nagging over a stamp collection and how Niccolò should make a sci-fi movie--subsume the narrative detritus of Niccolò's dead-end story, possibly offering him, at long last, a chink in the fence that has been so inescapably enclosing his perceptions.
Working with the great cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (who shot his Red Desert and Blow-Up and would go on to collaborate with Woody Allen for a great decade bookended by Hannah and Her Sisters and Deconstructing Harry), Antonioni creates some of the most evocative, enrapturing visuals of his career. One of the most immediately striking things about Antonioni has always been his ability to realize a visual style that corresponds perfectly to his elliptical, de-centered (anti) narratives, and he outdoes himself here, composing frames in which the characters are placed way off to the side, refracted in mirrors, dwarfed by urban backdrops or natural landscapes. After watching the film's trailer, I had feared that the music, all very up-to-the-minute for 1982, would be a problem, and the soundtrack is replete with synthesized ice cubes by Japan, XTC, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, XTC, and Tangerine Dream. But it's all unobstructive and works amazingly well; this music might have been created from exactly the same ennui-plagued sadness and longing that drives Antonioni himself, it fits the film so nicely.
In Identification of A Woman, Antonioni does what he's best at, expertly using the cinematic palette to manifest a vision in which people's individual problems and concerns, however urgent they seem, are placed in an almost vertiginously larger context that shrinks and neutralizes them. But there is nothing cruel or misanthropic in Antonioni's approach; it's a very wide view seen from many steps back, but not from on high, and there is no condescension, just an acute observational quality and shifts in perspective through which, if you pay close attention, you might make out some deep but cautious empathy. Identification of A Woman affects one in a most unusual, trenchant way; it leaves you feeling both emptied-out and uplifted, perplexed yet becalmed.
The AVC/MPEG-4, 1080p, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous, with all of DP Carlo Di Palma's fantastic use of light (whether natural/exterior or artificial/interior) shining through luminously. Dark scenes, colors, and skin tones are rich, solid, and stable throughout, all while retaining as much of the film's celluloid texture as possible. As we've come to expect, Criterion gives us a visually stunning film with all of its glory intact.
For the most part, the PCM uncompressed monaural soundtrack (in Italian with optional English subtitles, which are clearly legible, undisruptive, and mostly well-translated) is very good, but there is one glaring exception: an extended sequence toward the end of the film that is intruded upon by a noticeable, persistent, ongoing background crackle that seems to have resisted attempts at removal, creating an unwanted extra layer of sound for approximately 10-15 minutes of the film. Otherwise, the film's sound design, with its peculiar (though usual for Antonioni) use of ambient sound and music, is full and clear.
Surprisingly for a Criterion release, the extras on the disc itself are fairly bare-bones: just the film's original Italian theatrical trailer. The real "extras" here are to be found in the thick, beautifully designed booklet insert, which features an incisive essay by critic John Powers and--the main thing--an extended print interview with Antonioni from 1982, conducted by critic Gideon Bachmann, in which Antonioni is his usual fascinating, unexpected, maddening self.
Identification of A Woman stands with the rest of the best of Antonioni--L'Eclisse, The Passenger--as a mysterious, disconcerting meditation on human relationships, both interpersonal and between ourselves and the world we feel the need to understand and find our place in, even if the director has his doubts about our ability to do so. As with Antonioni's other great work, it would be a mistake to call Identification of A Woman bleak or pessimistic; there is something coolly observant but also serene about it that gives us the exhilaration not of reassurance, resolution, or "closure," but of a deeply felt, urgent, fully achieved work of art. Highly Recommended.