REVIEW: DVD Release: Le amiche

Film: Le amiche
Release date: 21st March 2011
Certificate: PG
Running time: 104 mins
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring: Eleanora Rossi-Drago, Gabriele Ferzetti, Franco Fabrizi, Valentina Cortese, Yvonne Furneaux
Genre: Drama/Romance
Studio: Eureka!
Format: DVD
Country: Italy

World renowned filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni will forever be remembered for his masterpieces of the 1960s, most notably L’Avventura and Blow-Up, among others. Before then, the 1950s saw Antonioni developing his style and moving away from neo-realism. An example of this period is Le amiche (1955), an adaptation of the 1949 novella Tra Donne Sole by Cesare Pavese. The result is both moving and alluring.

The film centres on Clelia, who has moved to Turin from Rome to manage a dressmaking store. Through chance, she becomes involved with a group of rich women after finding one of them, Rosetta, in a neighbouring hotel room attempting suicide. Friendship blossoms between Clelia and the women, including Momina (separated from her husband), Nene (a talented artist, engaged but unhappy) and Mariella (flirty and fun-loving).

We follow the ladies, first as they investigate the reasons for Rosetta’s attempted suicide, and then as they all struggle with their relationships, marriages, affairs and unrequited love…

Though Le amiche (The Girlfriends) follows the (mis)fortunes of five women, it would be a mistake to think of it as feminist cinema. Antonioni masterfully portrays a period in the lives of these women, and the struggles they face with their relationships (or lack thereof), but at no point does a male audience feel alienated. It’s true that it is the female characters in Le amiche that are truly three dimensional and the men could be interchangeable, but it feels as though this is intentional, and it doesn’t make the drama any less compelling.

The girlfriends of the title are all superbly cast, perfectly drawn characters. Clelia is as confident in her career as she is unsure about love, particularly with the working class Carlo. Momina devours every scene she is in with her cynicism, wit and masked insecurity. Nene is vulnerable but talented, eclipsing her husband-to-be. Rosetta is weak and naive, and possibly manipulative. Mariella is beautiful and fun loving and despises boredom. Each of them adds layers to the unfolding drama, and their similarities and differences are perfectly portrayed by a truly excellent cast.

The men in the film are portrayed almost as archetypes, each one weak in his own way, and never fully developed as a character, but played to perfection. The notable male roles are the alpha-male Cesare, architect for Clelia’s dressmaking store; Carlo, the working class assistant; and Lorenz, an artist who doesn’t know who he loves, which has tragic consequences.

This mix of archetype and fully rounded characters makes for some truly compelling drama, and they all seem to dance with their dialogue, offering some wonderful on-screen chemistry and tense exchanges.

Character driven as Le amiche may be, Antonioni is still a tangible presence behind the camera. It is as elegant a film as you’re likely to see, with long takes allowing the interaction between characters to flow and draw us in, as the camera moves almost imperceptibly around the scene, giving the whole film a casual pace. The movements of the characters themselves are very deliberate and never does any one character eclipse another during a scene, with subtle shifts and changes of position occurring almost without being noticed. Every shot is very densely populated, either by people or scenery - whether it is a social gathering, an art studio or simply two people in a room, there is plenty to look at with each shot lovingly framed so the characters are not drowned out by the crowded background. The opening titles, appearing over a slow pan of the whole of Turin, are beautifully contrasted with the final, bare and empty shot of a train leaving for Rome. It’s easy to see Antonioni is in the early stages of his career, and developing his style with moments like this.

That said, the subtle camera work and dialogue-heavy scenes do not always make for a very cinematic film. There are times that one can imagine the drama unfolding on a stage, so reliant is the film on dialogue rather than cinematic technique to drive things forward. It is only a minor complaint, however, as Antonioni affectionately handles each character, and allows the drama to unfold in such a way that we follow them all without really missing any groundbreaking behind-the-camera flair or any moments of breathtaking visuals. With Le amiche, what we can see is a truly unique talent in development, and to watch the film after his later works, such as Blow-Up, is a very interesting experience.

Le amiche is a rich and enthralling drama which deals with relationships and the problems faced by very ordinary people, where class and background are as much an issue as whether or not two people are truly in love. Clelia and Carlo’s story is one that is never portrayed as tragic, merely a consequence of the fact they come from different social backgrounds. While this is still relevant today, albeit far less of an issue, there are some themes and moments in the film that definitely feel a little old fashioned, particularly Momina’s declaration that any woman who outshines their man is a “wretch.” This is not so much a complaint as an observation that Le amiche does not stand up to the test of time in the way other Antonioni films have, and neither is it a perfectly captured period piece, which holds the film back from being a classic in the same way we think of Blow-Up and L’Avventura as classics. It is a great film nonetheless, and deserves attention from anyone who wishes to know more about this influential director.

The casual pace and the lack of any truly distinctive flair make Le amiche a bit of a strain, at times, but the excellent performances, superb script and Antonioni’s masterful handling of the drama make for a beautiful and moving statement on relationships. For fans of Antonioni’s later work, it’s definitely worth watching to see where he started. For those who have never seen an Antonioni film, start here and work forwards. You won’t regret it. RM

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