Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1961, La Notte follows a wealthy married couple, wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) and her husband, an author named Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni), as they travel around their home city of Milan. Early in the film, they leave a hospital where they've just spent some time with a terminally ill friend named Tommaso Garani (Bernhard Wicki) who is undergoing treatment for cancer. As they put that behind them and go about their business the distance that has obviously replaced what we understand was once warmth between this couple starts to become painfully obvious. Although they are comfortable enough going through the motions, they seem to have fallen out of love.
But again, they will go through the motions, which is exactly what they do when Lidia insists that they attend a lavish party. Giovanni is approached by a few of the attendees, obviously interested in meeting him because of his status as a writer, while Lidia can only watch, again from a distance. Giovanni is clearly enjoying at least part of this, while Lidia can't hide the fact that she most certainly is not. And so they leave the crowded event and head back out only to arrive at another gathering, this time an even larger event hosted by a wealthy man, a book publisher named Gerardini (Vincenzo Corbella), at his extravagant estate in the suburbs. This time around, neither of them do a very good job of pretending to enjoy themselves, that is until Giovanni meets a beautiful young woman named Valentina (Monica Vitti), Gerardini's lovely daughter. He seems instantly intrigued, obsessed even, and Lidia responds in kind by flirting with a handsome man named Roberto (Giorno Negro).
That's about it as far as the storyline goes. This is not a particularly complex film, at least not in terms of its narrative, though it is rich with allegory and symbolism. The most obvious example is the way in which Antonioni uses both architecture and trees to represent the distance that exists and then, over only a few short hours, grows exponentially between Lydia and Giovanni. As it is with these structures that film shows us, so too is it with our central characters: they can't really get closer to one another. They are, in some ways, just as immovable as the buildings that they wander past and which Antonioni uses as visual framing devices to better communicate the tragedy and inevitability of their situation.
Interestingly enough, the deterioration of the marriage that makes up the central storyline unfolds without any drama. You won't see characters yelling at one another or throwing things in a fit of emotionally fueled rage. Rather, the harm is done through intentional ignorance. As our couple hits the two parties that make up much of the film's running time we see them interact with others in ways that are obviously detrimental and which obviously hurt the other partner, but we see them do so without worry or conscience. It's in this way that they make their digs at one another, so far gone are they that the disconnect would seem irreparable.
A visually stunning film, La Notte can be seen as an exercise in style over substance. You could argue that there's no story here and that because the characters are played so lifelessly that there is nothing to latch on to, no reason to care about the relationship we never see in full bloom dying before our eyes. Depending on your own personal experience, there's possibly quite a bit of truth to that, however, for anyone who has been involved in a similar situation and invested of themselves in a relationship, be it a marriage or otherwise, that has died from neglect, it's a poignant picture. Images often mean more than words do in the film and Antonioni does dabble in the pretentious by removing the acting from anything even remotely emotional that the picture does become a bit of a challenge. On top of that, at over two hours it's a bit longer than it needs to be, with plenty of drawn out camera movements and shots that serve simply to repeat what has already been said earlier in the movie. For these reasons, the movie does have some flaws in both narrative and in structure, but the artistry and skillful technique on display in La Notte more than makes up for that.
Criterion presents La Notte in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85.1 widescreen. This is quite a handsome transfer, as the black and white image shows perfect contrast and loads of detail in both the foreground and the background of the image. Blacks are nice and deep throughout the duration of the film and there really isn't any legitimate print damage to complain about, the picture is very crisp and very clean. At the same time, the image remains film-like throughout, so there are no issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement to note. Shadow detail is superb and texture impresses throughout. Grain is evident throughout, as it should be, but it never overpowers or distracts. A great transfer overall, one that does justice to the film's striking visual style.
The sole audio option on the disc is an LPCM Mono track in the film's native Italian language with optional subtitles provided in English only. Like a lot of European films made in the sixties, La Notte was dubbed in post-production, so the dialogue doesn't sound quite as full as you might want. With that having been said, clarity here is very good and levels are nicely balanced. The voices have some good weight behind them and the score has nice presence. There are no issues with any distortion but attentive viewers might pick up on some minor background hiss in a few spots. Otherwise, the movie sounds great.
Extras include an interview with film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo di Carlo that clocks in at twenty-seven minutes. Here the pair offers some insight into Antonioni's career and his style and provide some critical thoughts on his filmography and on La Notte specifically. Additionally, Professor Giuliana Bruno is interviewed in a second featurette for thirty-one minutes about the way that architecture is used in the feature. Here he makes some interesting observations about how the personalities of certain characters in the film could be perceived as being reflected by some of the buildings in Milan which Antonioni chooses to focus on in the picture.
The disc also includes a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is a seventeen page full color booklet that contains an essay on La Notte written by critic Richard Brody as well as an article written by director Michelangelo Antonioni in 1961. Film and Blu-ray credits are also found within.
A lot of Antonioni's films leave things open to interpretation and such is the case with his 1961 picture, La Notte. The performances here, from a beautiful cast, are appropriately distant and that will make it hard for some to connect with the characters, but personal experience plays a lot here and the tragedy will be all the more apparent to those with a certain life experience to pull from. The excellent high definition transfer on this disc does a great job of enhancing just how gorgeous the visuals are in the film, while the lossless audio mix does a fine job with the dialogue and the score. Add to the package a few decent supplements and this release easily comes recommended to anyone with an appreciation for Italian arthouse style.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.