The American Society of Cinematographers

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Big Miracle
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Blue Velvet
Heavenly Creatures
Id of a Woman
ASC Close-Up
Identification of a Woman (1982)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
The Criterion Collection, $29.95

Filmmakers and scholars alike justly revere the bold, expressive use of color by director-of-photography Carlo Di Palma, AIC, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) and Blow Up (1966), but the accolades bestowed upon those two films have led to an unfortunate critical neglect of Di Palma’s and Antonioni’s third and final collaboration, Identification of a Woman. Often forgotten in discussions of Antonioni’s oeuvre in favor of the aforementioned films as well as early black-and-white treasures like L’Avventura (1960) and L’Eclisse (1962), Identification of a Woman is, nevertheless, a career high point for both its director and its cinematographer. A visually sumptuous, narratively playful and extremely erotic art-house masterpiece, the film brings many of Antonioni’s themes to a culmination while opening new avenues of exploration.

At first glance, Identification of a Woman has something in common with both Federico Fellini’s and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in that it is about a blocked director in a state of crisis. Niccolo is a filmmaker whose recent divorce has left him personally and professionally adrift; in order to find a new direction in life, he embarks on a search for two new women. One, with whom the film barely seems interested, is the woman Niccolo wants to star in his next picture; the second is a woman to fill the void left by Niccolo’s ex-wife. Di Palma’s camera follows Niccolo as he begins an affair with Mavi, a sexually voracious aristocrat, only to lose her and move on to the more stable — but less exciting — working-class actress Ida. Unlike the protagonists of Fellini’s and Allen’s films, Niccolo does not seem all that concerned with his inability to begin a new film. He is more preoccupied with his love life, and this allows Antonioni to mount one of his many profound examinations of modern romantic malaise.

The preoccupation also, ironically, results in a lighter and funnier film than or Stardust Memories, a claim that might sound ridiculous given Antonioni’s reputation as a creator of depressing, heavy studies in alienation. Yet Identification of a Woman finds the director at his most relaxed and energetic — the tone is light; the sex scenes, sensual and explicit, and the style more dependent on montage than the languorous, long takes of L’Avventura and Red Desert. Those films and others from the 1960s earned Antonioni a reputation as a great director of women and women’s stories, like Ingmar Bergman or George Cukor. He continues exploring his usual thematic preoccupations in Identification of a Woman, but from a different perspective: this is one of his few films to feature a male protagonist, yet at its core it is one of Antonioni’s most feminist films. The narrative intersection of Niccolo’s search for a leading lady and his search for a life partner allows Antonioni to construct a scathing critique of male narcissism, as Niccolo proves himself incapable of seeing women as anything other than projections of his own desires.

As usual, Antonioni and Di Palma express the fluid nature of the characters’ identities and journeys by placing them in context with their architectural and natural surroundings. Doors, windows, roads and waterways abound to frame and transport the actors through an Italy that is — like Niccolo toward his women — alternately inviting and distancing. For sheer optical pleasure, it is hard to think of a more satisfying film: Di Palma’s palette contains a wide array of vivid colors, and his architecturally motivated compositions are never less than striking, yet they are not forced. The visual design is such a natural extension of the dramatic tensions that one never feels Di Palma or Antonioni pushing for their effects. Rather, this might be their least pretentious, most fully integrated and rewarding collaboration — a masterpiece far greater than its minor reputation indicates.   

The arrival of Identification of a Woman on Blu-ray offers viewers a welcome opportunity to discover its charms. There are a few more picture issues than one is used to from Criterion in the way of scratches and other imperfections, but these are limited and often seem to have originated in the original camera negative. In terms of color and clarity, the disc is exceptional; scenes that looked murky on previous home-video editions, such as a sequence in which Niccolo and Mavi are lost in fog, are razor-sharp here. The depth and tonal range of Di Palma’s dense frames are impeccably represented, with stable grain, warm skin tones and colors that are vibrant without seeming unnecessarily enhanced. The monaural soundtrack is solid as well, particularly when it comes to the dynamic presentation of the film’s varied music. Unfortunately, the extra features are scant: just a trailer and a booklet that contains an essay by critic John Powers and a 1982 interview with Antonioni. A scholarly commentary track of the sort provided on Criterion’s Red Desert Blu-ray would have been helpful, but supplements (or the lack thereof) aside, the film itself makes this edition of Identification of a Woman a must for any serious collection.

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