We hear a lot about “haunting” images these days, but rarely trouble to ask why we use this word. The New Oxford American Dictionary isn’t much help: it defines haunting as “poignant and evocative; difficult to ignore or forget.” The definition of the root verb to haunt is more telling: “to be persistently and disturbingly present in,” just like the ghost of Hamlet’s father who returns night after night to the same spot. To be haunted by something is to be persistently visited by it—if not always disturbed, at least unsettled.
When I think of the images from Italian cinema that unsettle me, the director who first comes to mind is Michelangelo Antonioni. Whether he was filming his muse Monica Vitti staring down her lover and peering into roiling waters (figures 1 and 2), or a deep-focus Sicilian landscape reminiscent of Homer (figure 3) in L’Avventura (1960), his images remain imprinted on my mind with the force of my favorite photographs or paintings.
Antonioni often holds his camera on an object or a person for a bit longer than would be natural, to create this static or “still-life” effect. Yet his images, at least in his masterpieces of the 1950s and 1960s including L’Avventura, never feel rigid or contrived. They are elegant, often ominous: his cinematic world is a place of mistrust and miscommunication, home to the pursuit of a superficial beauty that rarely satisfies his characters. His power to haunt comes from this unusual combination of visual splendor and melancholy. Beauty is not enough, his images suggest, even when it’s achingly seductive.
Learn more about Antonioni’s cinematic world in my audio course, The Blessed Lens: A History of Italian Film.