It would great to report that 1995's Beyond the Clouds, the most recent film from iconic Italian '60s New-Wave director Michelangelo Antonioni (1960's L'Avventura, 1966's Blow-Up), is a remarkable achievement, but in fact the story behind its making is ultimately more interesting than the movie itself. In failing health and recovering from a stroke, the director, age 84 at the time, wasn't able to complete the project. It was picked up and finished by German director Wim Wenders (1984's Paris, Texas, 1987's Wings of Desire), who created a framework for its four vignettes, which are based on a quartet of stories from Antonioni's book Quel Bowling sul Tevere (That Bowling Alley on the Tiber). Wenders brought in John Malkovich as a narrator and created exquisite cameos for film greats Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni. The result is more a cinematic curiosity than an engaging piece of art.
It's easy to see that Antonioni feels close to these particular tales. They're intimate and personal, if not particularly meaty. And each story takes on the filmmaker's now-familiar theme of the impossibility of connection, especially between lovers. There's no obvious link between the stories themselves, apart from the narrator, who actually becomes a character in the second piece, "The Girl, The Crime," an unsettling morsel about a guy who follows a woman to work and nearly seduces her. When he meets up with her later, she tells him an astonishing fact about her past. What comes of it? Not much. Like the other tales, it seems more like an idea for a story than a story itself.
In the first vignette, "Chronicle of a Love Affair That Never Existed," the narrator introduces us to a man and a woman who pursue each other until one realizes that nothing can happen because desire is stronger than love. The fourth story, "This Body of Dir," also about a couple who can't quite connect, is well made but slight. Only the third piece, "Don't Look for Me," has staying power. It concerns a love triangle -- a woman, her husband, and his lover -- that struggles along till one party can't stand it any more. That person lands in a situation that embraces a deep, complex heartbreak. With its double-edged turn of events and odd sweetness, "Don't Look for Me" seems more like a film by Antonioni's New-Wave cohort Eric Rohmer.
Anyone who remembers Antonioni from his mid-'60s heyday -- 1964's The Red Desert and the aforementioned Blow-Up -- may well miss the director who made eye-popping tableaux out of banal objects such as apartment buildings. That's not what Antonioni is up to here; he leaves the moody effects to Wenders. Instead Antonioni makes good use of an ensemble cast that includes Fanny Ardant, Irene Jacob, Vincent Perez, and Ines Sastre. There are several dollops of gratuitous female nudity -- the sort that originally gave makers of "foreign films" a reputation for being dirty old men -- and they serve only to make Antonioni seem out-of-date.
Unfortunately for newcomers, the signature Antonioni element that stands out in Beyond the Clouds is its stilted existential dialogue. "I like your eyes because they're empty of everything but sweetness," says one lover to another. "I'm enslaved by your silence," this same character notes later. To anyone under the age of 30, this will sound like a Calvin Klein ad, because -- in truth -- the famous campaign for Klein's Obsession perfume parodied Antonioni.
For those who associate the director with an era when the concepts of disconnection and alienation were still rude and fresh, let me give you a nudge toward For Me, to Make a Movie Is to Live, a 1995 documentary made by Antonioni's wife Enrica. It records the unsinkable spirit of a man, half-paralyzed and unable to speak, giving direction to his actors with hand gestures. It's a better example than the film at hand of why he will be remembered when, alas, he too is beyond the clouds. (Thursday, February 5, 7 p.m.)
-- Robin Dougherty
In the agreeable but very slight comedy-drama Carreteras Secundarias (Back Roads), a widower and his fourteen-year-old son wander the Spanish coastline, abandoning one apartment after another in an effort to stay a step ahead of the father's latest misbegotten business venture.