The gritty melodrama Story of a Love Affair sports an intriguing story of lovers under scrutiny, set in the prosperous but strangely still and bleak streets of 1950 Milan. As the first non-documentary effort from noted Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow Up, L'Avventura), the film doesn't seem to share much in common with his better-known '60s work. Not on the surface, anyhow - it actually plays more like a modest noir with an Italian Neorealist setting.
Story of a Love Affair opens in a Milan detective office, with a man named Carloni (played by Gino Rossi) shuffling through some snapshots of a pretty young woman. The photos were brought to the attention of the detective agency by the husband of the woman in the photos, a wealthy local businessman by the name of Fontana. Although the couple has been married for seven years, the discovery of these photos from before their nuptials arouses Fontana's suspicion (who knows nothing of his wife's early years). Carloni's job is to uncover whatever he can about her pre-marriage life, as discreetly as allowed.
Carloni travels to the town of Ferrara, where the woman spent her youth, to uncover some info about her past. His poking around reveals that Paola, the object of his scrutiny, was best friends with two other girls in the town. He locates one of the friends, Matilde (Vittoria Mondello), now married and living in a squalid apartment. The sullen Matilde doesn't want to cooperate with Carloni, but eventually he learns that Paola and Matilde's friend died in a long-ago accident. The tragedy happened mere days before she was supposed to marry Guido, a local boy that Paola had also been involved with. After the detective leaves, Matilde writes a letter to Guido alerting him to the man's suspicious looking investigation.
Back in Milan, meanwhile, Paola (Lucia Bosé) is seen resplendent in a white fur coat while exiting the opera with her husband, Enrico (Ferdinando Sarmi). Although startled to see Guido (Massimo Girotti) standing across the street, she is delighted to receive a phone call from him later that night. Meeting surreptitiously, Guido (now a luxury car dealer) shares Matilde's letter with Paola. The revelation that someone might be digging into their past frightens Paola, making her think that perhaps Matilde is trying to extort hush money from her. The two lay low, but decide to meet again. As Carloni's investigation intensifies, he finds out more about the mysterious accident in an elevator shaft, Paola's sudden disappearance, and Guido's role in all this.
After a whirlwind of exposition, the film settles into more typical noir territory as we delve into Paola and Guido's mounting paranoia, while their once-casual reconnecting has escalated into a full-blown affair. This is the part where Antonioni's impressive use of outdoor and natural locations comes to the fore. The characters of Paola and Guido may come across as stock noir types (Paola is predatory and greedy; Guido, a regular-guy caught up in circumstances beyond his control), but they gain more depth as the film goes along - and Antonioni's decision to shoot them in the midst of a newly rebuilt but oddly unwelcoming 1950 Milan plays a big part in that. Many scenes with the lovers are set in the luxe trappings of the nouveau riche - fancy restaurants, department stores, even the interior of a flashy new sportscar. The scenes serve as Antonioni's comment on the shallowness of the characters (and Italian society in general), similar to what he would later do with the grimy factory in Red Desert and the forbidding, rocky island in L'Avventura.
Along with the great use of outdoor location shooting, Story of a Love Affair also benefits from some good, meaty performances and a compelling script. Actress Lucia Bosé is quite a stunner as the imperious Paola, decked out in a variety of expensive-looking frocks (surprisingly, the costume designer on this modest-budgeted film was also the actor playing Paola's husband, Ferdinando Sarmi). Massimo Girotti does a satisfying job portraying Guido's getting drawn into Paola's web without playing the sap card. Gino Rossi also contributes a decent acting job as the inspector, Carloni, a character that fades into the background as the story becomes more centered upon the luckless Paola and Guido.
Story of a Love Affair recently underwent a comprehensive restoration - it's this edition of the film that Lorber Films presents here, in a deluxe 2-disc set housed in a standard sized keep case.
Since the original Story of a Love Affair negative was destroyed, this edition was reconstructed from a positive source print that was digitally cleaned of scratches and blemishes. The 1:33 full frame image is not too overwhelming (it was a small-budgeted film, after all), but the DVD presentation is nicely balanced and pleasant with minimal obvious artifacts.
Although the soundtrack also underwent a restoration, it sounds rather thin and shrill. It isn't so bad as to detract from the overall experience of the film, however. The disc sports a single mono Italian soundtrack with optional English subtitles.
The various features that make up the bonus material on disc two are Italian-made, with English subtitles that must be manually selected.
- The Identification of a Masterpiece documentary (112 minutes) is nearly two hours of straightforward interview footage from several Italian film experts and critics, all of whom pontificate on Antonioni and the film's significance. Francesco Maselli, who co-scripted and worked as Antonioni's assistant on the film, supplies the most interesting commentary. He supplies a lot of background info on the real-life trial and other films that inspired Antonioni. The other speakers are beyond boring, unfortunately, and having a cheesy double-exposure effect on the footage does not liven things up at all.
- Story of a Peculiar Night documentary (28 minutes) documents the restored film's Italian premiere, which happened sometime in the recent past (before Antonioni passed away in 2007). This would have made for a tidy 5-minute featurette; as it is the never-ending footage of unidentified people shuffling in and out of a theater has negligible interest. It is nice to see Antonioni, in his 90s, reunited with his leading lady Lucia Bosé.
- The Fragments of a Love Affair featurette (5-1/2 minutes) has a spry Francesco Maselli taking viewers to the apartment where Antonioni lived in 1950, and the hotel lobby where the lead actors' contracts were signed to film Story of a Love Affair. This one was very fascinating, giving lots of insight as to where Antonioni was at this stage in his career.
- The Restoring a Masterpiece featurette (8-1/2 minutes) delves into the film's restoration. Unlike the long-form documentaries, this short was tightly edited and intriguing throughout.
- Finally, Poster and Still Galleries are included. These are done as DVD chapter stops that viewers can skip through at their leisure.
For being his first feature, Michelangelo Antonioni accomplished a great deal with Story of a Love Affair. The story in question is a nifty bit of noir in itself; Antonioni's skill with having the post-WWII Italian setting serve as more than a mere backdrop makes it all the more satisfying. While the extras on this 2-disc set are a disappointment, the overall film and package gets highly recommended, especially for the vintage Italian film buff.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.