Monica Vitti – Actress
Monica Vitti, who has died aged 90 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, was an actress who transcended her early arthouse image to become an equally charismatic comic turn. Her enigmatic presence in the former came primarily through her lead roles in four films directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. L’Avventura (The Adventure) (1960), La Notte (The Night) (1961), L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962) and Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) (1964) became known collectively in Italy as ‘the quartet of non-communication,’ and made Vitti an international star.
Once she moved into comedy, however, she gave vent to a more expressive theatricality. Where a glance from Vitti could express ice-cool existential ennui and emotional terror in an urban wasteland for Antonioni, many of her films that followed saw her embrace a lighter tone. Vitti spoke of how such seemingly contrary characteristics confused a film world that would rather pigeonhole her one way or another.
Few of Vitti’s films were seen outside Italy, and she only appeared in two English language features. The first saw her take the title role in Modesty Blaise (1966), Joseph Losey’s campy spy spoof, modishly drawn from Peter O’Donnell and Jim Holdaway’s high-kicking comic strip. The second, An Almost Perfect Affair (1979), saw Vitti play a former actress who falls for Keith Carradine’s young filmmaker at the Cannes Film Festival.
La Ragazza con la Pistola (The Girl with a Pistol) (1968) was shot partly in Edinburgh, and saw Vitti play Assunta, a naïve Sicilian woman who chases a local lothario across the world in order to reclaim her honour with his life. Mario Monicelli’s film sees Assunta arrive at Waverley Station, then head to a restaurant on Johnston Terrace, before working as a maid in a swanky New Town flat. On seeing a man in a kilt for the first time, she ends up in hysterics behind the living room door before departing for Sheffield.
A stream of films followed, including Luis Bunuel’s late period feature, The Phantom of Liberty (1974). There were several starring roles too for Carlo Di Palma, with whom she became involved after her split with Antonioni. These included Teresa the Thief (1973), and Lucky Girls (1975), the latter alongside Claudia Cardinale.
A late move into directing saw her first oversee TV movie, La fuggiDiva (1983), which she also wrote and starred in. Vitti also co-wrote and starred in two films by her partner, Roberto Russo; Flirt (1983), and Francesca è mia(1986). Her second film as director was Scandalo segreto (Secret Scandal) (1990), which she again co-wrote, taking the lead role of a woman who discovers footage in her video diary of her husband cheating on her. A film director friend suggests that they use the footage in an actual film.
She appeared in one more film after Scandalo segreto, then all but disappeared from view.
Maria Luisa Ceciarelli was born in Rome to Adele (nee Vittilia) and Angelo Ceciarelli, a civil servant. As a diversion, both from her strict upbringing and the bombs that fell during World War Two, she put on puppet plays to entertain her brothers and others seeking sanctuary in the shelters.
Vitti developed a passion for acting, and she performed in amateur theatre when still a teenager. ‘When my mother introduced her children,’ Vitti said, ‘she always started with my brothers, who were great, strong, and who studied great. When it was my turn, she was lowering her voice, tears came to her eyes and whispered that I wanted to become an actress’.
Vitti enrolled at Rome’s National Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 1953. Taking her stage name partly from her mother’s maiden name, with Monica coming from a book she was reading, she toured Germany with a theatre troupe. Her first professional stage appearance in Rome came in a production of Niccolo Machiavelli’s play, La Mandrag.
Vitti’s husky tones led to voice work, and it was while doing post-synchronisation dubbing for Il Grido (The Cry) (1957), that she met Antonioni. He cast her as Sally Bowles in a stage production of John van Druten’s play, I Am a Camera. L’Avventura followed shortly afterwards, and the pair became romantically involved. Vitti played Claudia, who goes in search of her missing best friend on a deserted volcanic island, only to become involved with her friend’s boyfriend. The shoot was hazardous, and the film’s initial reception negative. Vitti nevertheless became a figurehead of emotional detachment in the next three of Antonioni’s films she appeared in.
In 1980, Antonioni directed Vitti in a big screen adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play, The Eagle Has Two Heads, filmed as Il Mistero di Oberwald (The Mystery of Oberwald), with Vitti playing a reclusive queen .
Over the course of her career, Vitti won five David di Donatello Awards – the Italian equivalent of the BAFTAS – and seven Italian Golden Globes, all for Best Actress. Her final screen appearance came in 1992, in Ma tu mi vuoi bene? (Do You Love Me). In 1995 she was awarded a Career Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. She also wrote three volumes of memoirs. Vitti’s last public appearance was in 2002, when she attended the French premiere of stage musical, Notre-dame de Paris. It was a final glimpse at one of the most captivating performers of her era.
She is survived by her husband, Roberto Russo, who she married in 1995 after they had been together for more than two decades previously.
The Herald, February 4th 2022