excerpt The Shape of a Pocket  
the shape of a pocket


Michaelangelo Antonioni comes from Ferrara—in the simple sense that he was born there, but also, in a more complex way, because the city or its spirit is invariably present in his work. (It seems to me that even his face and the way he is handsome is an expression of that city of Ariosto and the house of Este.)

Today a strange city of small luxuries (small in dimension, jewel-like, reminiscent of the objects in the paintings of Cosimo Tura) and great sadness. A city where young women marry and become mothers and then the mothers are inexplicably transformed into stepmothers. A city where fathers unaccountably become strangers to their children. Where nothing, however familiar, is what it appears to be, and everything becomes slowly more and more distant.

I have no right to say this, for I have never lived there, but every visit during forty years has confirmed this impression, and when I began reading the stories of Bassani, I came to the conclusion that it was probably true. A city like a glass case whose panes are always misting up. Containing what? A secret. Maybe a necklace of secrets. Or maybe a weapon, if so, a cruel one.

Whoever says Ferrara, says also the river Po. Other places are more intimate with the river—Cremona, Torino, the little town of Paesana near its source, but Ferrara is its monument, its mortuary headstone. After Ferrara the river begins to negotiate and finally join the beyond. This dimension of the beyond is marvelously held at the end of Antonioni's first nine-minute documentary film, Gente del Po, made between 1943 and 1947.

The plain of the Po has given northern Italy its wealth, but the river is unpredictable, always shifting, meandering, refusing norms. A sprawling story of regular repetitions and unpredictability. It silts up. It pushes the sea back! Its riverbed gets higher and higher—hence the everlasting danger of floods. On the surface she is still (the Po is a feminine river—perhaps the most feminine in the world: by contrast the Danube is male) but deeper down thee are invisible, ferocious currents. Beware all inexperienced boatmen! The Po irrigates, offers harvests and is indifferent, as are all rivers.

In Antonioni's film the river is a chief character, defined by her colossal will, but not her impatience, to reach the sea. When she does, the sea, instead of embracing her, gives her a leg up and she clambers into the white bed of the sky.

The other principal characters in Gente del Po are the captain of the tugboat, hauling five barges down the river, the captain's wife and their daughter, who is down below in her bunk for she has been taken ill. The mother goes ashore to buy a remedy for her daughter in the chemist's shop of a poor riverside village. The tugboat is called Milano and the river is constantly reminds the villagers of elsewhere. This was twenty years before Italy's postwar economic miracle.

In Antonioni's later films the milieu tends to be rich and elegant rather than rural proletarian. Yet isn't it true that in most of them there is a search for a remedy? A remedy which never quite works—despite all the effort.

This first, brief, black-and-white film without spoken dialogue is prophetic in another way too. In it we today recognize Antonioni's special way of framing his shots—as though the focus of his interests is always beside the event shown, and the protagonist is never centered, because the center is a destiny we do not understand and whose outline is not yet clear.

Essentially his cinematic handwriting hasn't changes since he began making this first film when he was thirty-one years old. An immense evolution is to come—including that of color—but the same vision, the same pair of eyes was already there in 1943.

Whoever says Po, says Fog. It is part of the river's character, like the smell of her skin. The Po was the first river—years after this film was made—on which radar was installed, for her worst fogs are impenetrable.

The fogs extend over the plain of the Po, creating a very special atmosphere and tension, which writers like Gianni Celati and, earlier, Césare Pavese have described so well.

To understand this tension one has to ask the question of what is hidden by the fog and what isn't. In the sunlight the plain is flat and wide and long, often stretching to the horizon; the roads are straight; the farmhouses are rectangular; the poplars are in perfect line; the irrigation channels never meander. It's impossible to imagine a less mysterious landscape. (In Holland, for example, the is always a tumult in the sky.) This lack of mystery is not, however, reassuring, for the scale of its plain and its geometry and inevitability dwarf anything that is only 2 m. high—like a man or a woman. The desert dwarfs with the authority of God; the plain of the Po dwarfs with the banality of a remorseless, regulated calendar. And so, somewhere, soul prays for the fog and it's the only prayer to which the Po listens.

The fog comes. The air gets polluted. The isolation becomes insupportable. The lorries have their headlights on, even if they pull over and stop. The claustrophobia mounts. But in the mystery of what's behind the fog there is—nothing as simple and na´ve as a hope for the people of Emilio have watched everything—there is a memory, similar to the memory of a mother. (I do not think in psychoanalytic terms, and have never done so, but in climatic ones.)

I might call this memory the Madonna of the fog. This is the most red, least mystic, least Catholic part of Italy. (Perhaps during the war she was a Partisan.) In any case everyone knows her when the visibility has been reduced to a few meters. Barely discernible, she stands there, arms extended, palms toward us, announcing that the truth is invisible (with all the ambiguity of that phrase) and that we should close our eyes in order to bring everything together.

The film that Antonioni is now making with Wim Wenders begins and finishes with a fog in Ferrara. And its provisional title is Beyond the Clouds. After the four stories, which constitute the film, have been told, the narrator says:

We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one and so on up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see.

Those who admire Antonioni's films often say that he narrates like a novelist. Those who criticize his films often accuse them of being abstract, over-aesthetic, formalist. It seems to me that if one wants to enter the world of his imagination, one should first think of him as a painter. Human behavior and stories interest him, but he begins with what somebody or somewhere looks like. His most important perceptions are pre-verbal. (This is perhaps why he can use silence so well.) Kieslowski, for example, is a real novelist of the cinema because he thinks about the consequence of actions. Antonioni gazes at the silhouette of an action, with all the painter's desire to find in it something that is timeless. I would often go so far as to suggest that he often forgets the consequence.

Since Antonioni exhibits as a painter, I'm not pointing out anything very original here. But if we go back to the Po and the Madonna of the Fog, and if we remember how he's a painter, we discover, I think, a clue to his life's work.

Antonioni's films question the visible until there's not enough light to see anymore. The visible may be Monica Vitti or Marcello Mastroianni or a river bank or a ship's hull or a tree or a tennis court. Unlike a true painter he can't touch their image with his hands; he has to worry it in other ways—by lighting, by movement, by waiting, by a kind of cinematic stealth. His purpose is to make us peer into his films as one peers into the Po as it flows, as Monet peered into the depths of the lily pond, as one walks peering through the fog.

The hope which, I believe, sustained him as he made each film, was that, as we peer, something will come to meet us, something that almost escaped him, something so real it doesn't have a name.

Halfway through Gente del Po a peasant on the river bank sharpens a scythe and a line of women, dressed in black, rake hay. One of the women straightens her back to gaze at the river as the barges pass. She is young. She is like nobody else. She has slightly protruding white teeth when she smiles. And she smiles, because whilst she gazes at the wide river with its colossal will to reach the sea, something comes out to meet her. We can read it on her face. But on the film we can't see it.

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Excerpted from The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger. Copyright © 2001 by John Berger. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.