Watching Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s much maligned 1982 color film, Identification Of A Woman (Identificazione Di Una Donna), for the first time was an odd experience. Although I normally dismiss poor reviews and approach films with an open mind, the fact is that I was fully expecting the film to be yet another old man film, like Ingmar Bergman’s disastrous Saraband, or Federico Fellini’s stale Intervista. And, given the fact that the film was about a film director in a state of confusion, naturally, Fellini’s overrated 8½ and Woody Allen’s criminally underrated Stardust Memories came to mind, and I expected this film to fail both prior works. Happily, I was wrong, as Identification Of A Woman, while it does not reach the heights of Antonioni’s prior masterworks, like La Notte, The Red Desert, nor Blowup, it splits the difference between Fellini’s often excellent ‘failure’ and Allen’s magnum opus. Yes, it does have a poor beginning of fifteen or so minutes, and its denouement, of the main character, film director Niccolo Farra (Tomas Milian), telling his nephew of his plans for a science fiction film about an asteroid turned spaceship flying into the sun, amidst rather poor special effects (think Toho Studio kaiju film level), is puzzling, but, if one redacts the combined twenty or so minutes from the 130 minute long total film, one is left with 110 or so minutes of cinema that is almost as great as the previously mentioned masterpieces Antonioni crafted. In this manner, Antonioni’s film prefigures the very same ills that affected Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree Of Life.
Having stated that, the film is usually dismissed, critically, for its containing several brief scenes of nudity between Farra and his obsessively lusted for socialite paramour, Maria Vittoria (aka Mavi) (Daniela Silverio), in which Farra fingers Mavi, we see several coital positions, and in one shot, under a bed, we see full frontal male and female nudity. Thus stated, this is much ado about nothing, as the sex, here, perfectly serves the tale’s exposition and exploration of these two character: Mavi’s bizarre bisexuality and fear of true intimacy which, as in many Antonioni films, results in her running away, only to be pursued by a male- here Farra, whose own psyche is explored, for we know- according to his gynecologist sister (from whose patient list Farra meets Mavi), that Farra was the cause of his own pre-film marriage’s breakup. Yet, the film paints its portrait of its lead character in a far less symbolic, but far more stylized way than Fellini does his in 8½.
The film opens with what may or may not be a flashback sequence, detailing Farra’s meeting with a mysterious man who seems to be issuing threats against him to stay away from Mavi. It seems these threats emanate from Mavi’s estranged father, who has developed an obsessions with his daughter. Yet, nothing really comes of this, as it seems tossed into the tempestuous start of the film that, cinematographically seems like a 1970s television movie of the week that is scored with the most atrocious bad electronic music imaginable. However, after twenty or so minutes the film’s writing, acting, and visuals increase in quality exponentially, and one is sucked into a mystery that seems a cross between Antonioni’s mystery in L’Avventura and the psychological angst of The Red Desert. After a terrific sequence on a fog smothered highway leads to Mavi’s abrupt departure from his life, Farra takes up with a less emotionally, but more intellectually, complicated woman, an actress named Ida (Christine Boisson), who does not share any explicit sex scenes with Farra, instead is shown in one of the few filmic shots of a person urinating and defecating on a toilet. What this difference suggests is anyone’s guess, but it likely suggests the earth motheriness of Ida, which culminates in two distinct points of departure- a boat ride she takes with him to a Venice lagoon, which acts as both a counterpoint to the earlier fog scene that symbolized Farra’s and Mavi’s relationship, in that there is a clarity in their relationship (and which also recalls the magnificent dream sequence on a beach, in The Red Desert), and the revelation that Ida is pregnant, likely by another man. It is this point, which sets up the film’s ending, where Farra seems to want to abandon his life, and fantasizes of the science fiction ending. The ending, at least on paper, seems like a typical melodramatic twist one might get in a soap opera, yet it is more, and the acting and direction lift it above such a pedestrian take.
Interestingly enough, and unlike 8½ and Stardust Memories, Identification Of A Woman has no scenes within that detail life as a filmmaker. We are told that this is Farra’s profession, but, aside from a few conversations he has with an agent and a producer, we see no evidence that the man is actually working on the film he is purportedly researching: the life of a woman. But, as the man cannot bring himself to utter the words I love you to anyone, it seems that this film of his is a personal research project to try and get to the bottom of his own emotional impotence. Yet, I could be wrong, for the film offers several interpretations possible, and this is what, save for the slow, confused start, and the disappointing ending, argues for its near greatness. In fact, I’m sure that this is a film that will only improve upon multiple viewings.
The forthcoming DVD, put out by The Criterion Collection, is bare bones. In the new age of streaming film, DVD audio commentaries seem to be a thing of the past, and in this post-commentary viewing age, it makes one wonder why anyone, Criterion or another company, even bothers to release DVDs any longer, as they seem to be reverting to their late 1990s era no frills DVD packages, which they seemed intent on rectifying with far more supplements, just a couple years ago. If ever a film needed a commentary it’s this one, for it has enough merits that someone with knowledge of the industry and the art could persuasively argue for its overall excellence and continuing relevance in the 21st Century. And, like a 1990s ‘package’ this DVD has only the film, a theatrical trailer, and an insert booklet with a 1982 interview with Antonioni, conducted by film critic Gideon Bachmann, and film critic John Powers’ essay on the film- a hit and miss affair. The film, shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, is well restored, and, save for the film’s opening scenes, is superbly shot by cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, with a hit and miss score by John Foxx. After the bad music at film’s start, it gets better, but lapses occasionally into muddy electronica. The same hit and miss quality is in the screenplay, penned by Antonioni, longtime collaborator Tonino Guerra, and Gérard Brach.
Identification Of A Woman is a strange film, and, even though it is not a flat out great film, it shows that a great director’s miss is usually significantly better than a bad director’s best, for its many parts and moments are like a jigsaw puzzle waiting to be put together, but whose parts are, as is, slightly askew, thus requiring some work from the viewer to make sense of it all. And here is why it has been so maligned, for despite offering the viewing public a sumptuous work of art that can titillate their minds and reward their engagement of it, the fact is that modern filmgoers are lazy- even more so now than almost three decades ago, therefore the mistaken reviews and absurd claims about the film reveal more about the claimants than the claimed. Bearing that in mind, work with the film and it will work for you.
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.