B&W, 1950, 98m. / Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni / Starring Massimo Girotti, Lucia Bosť, Ferdinando Sarmi, Gino Rossi / NoShame (US R1 NTSC)

After shooting a number of short films and abandoning a proposed documentary about the inner workings of an asylum, future art house revolutionary Michelangelo Antonioni embarked on his first narrative feature film with Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore), a glossy and engaging post-neorealism film that takes Italian cinema's fascination with film noir (ignited primarily by Luchino Visconti's Ossessione) into psychologically perilous territory. Still ten years away from his international breakthrough with L'avventura, Antonioni already displays an assured directorial style with several touches that foreshadow his future masterpieces.

The story is a fairly typical doomed love affair yarn, revolving around the young, beautiful, and affluent Paola (Satyricon's Bosť), whose older husband, businessman Enrico (Sarmi), decides after a year of marriage that she might be unfaithful after uncovering a clutch of old photographs of her past boyfriends. The suspicious spouse enlists the services of Carloni (Rossi), a private detective whose snooping inadvertently brings Paola back into contact with her former fiance, Guido (Baron Blood's Girotti). Soon the former lovers have ignited a passionate affair, leading to a murder plot and the inevitable tragic consequences.

Though boasting a more traditional and eventful narrative than most of Antonioni's future output, Story of a Love Affair betrays its director's involvement primarily in the quiet, emotionally charged scenes between Paola and Guido; in particular, a pensive moment along a reservoir bank exhibits the same tendency of juxtaposing conflicted characters against stark, linear landscapes later explored in his Monica Vitti film cycle. With two romantic leads in their prime, the film firmly anchors the central emotional relationship with a potentially tricky set of moral conflicts-- especially coming from a predominantly Catholic country where censors kept a close watch on anything involved adulterous murder plots.

Considering the original negative was destroyed in a fire, NoShame has done a very admirable job of restoring this long-neglected film to a semblance of its original luster. As cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno notes in his extensive essay about the film's restoration, a great deal of work was necessary to restore the surviving elements to watchable condition; the results certainly speak for themselves. The delicate monochromatic photography looks very good indeed, and the once considerable flaws have been successfully eliminated.

The two-disc set contains a remarkable number of extras bound to please Antonioni fans as well as casual viewers. Rotunno expands on the restoration procedure even further in the 8-minute "Restoring a Masterpiece," while the half-hour "Story of a Peculiar Night" features video footage of a restoration screening in Rome with remarks from Antonioni, Bosť, and other film principals. Assistant director Francesco Maselli and four critics expound on the film's creation and critical importance in the two-hour(!) "Identification of a Masterpiece," which makes a good case for Antonioni's maiden effort as a vital Italian film but gets a bit long-winded at times. Maselli returns for the 5-minute "Fragments of a Love Affiar," a quick visual survey of the locations used in the film. Other extras include a sizeable gallery of posters, stills and production photos, as well as a thick booklet including a nice Antonioni bio and filmography by Matthew Weisman and two text interviews with Antonioni around the time of the film's release.

Color, 1975, 126m. / Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni / Starring Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff, Ambroise Bia / Sony (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Imagica (Japan R2 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

Despite losing a sinful amount of money on Michelangelo Antonioni's Zabriskie Point in 1970, MGM decided to take a gamble on the admired Italian director again when he managed to secure Jack Nicholson for a long delayed follow up film, Profession: Reporter, or The Passenger as it's known in the U.S. Devoid of the kinky mind games of Blow Up or Chinatown, the film was not a financial hit and has remained difficult to see ever since. However, patient admirers of European cinema and Nicholson fans who want to see him in an atypical subdued role will be more willing to go along for this deliberately paced, beautiful ride.

Reporter and documentarian David Locke (Nicholson) has wandered into a remote area of Africa hoping to interview political extremists about whom he knows little and cares even less. Another man staying at his hotel, the mysterious Mr. Robertson, has no ties to any friends or family, only a book of appointments which he must keep. Locke discovers Robertson dead from a heart attack in his hotel room and, in a fit of midlife crisis soul searching, decides to swap their identities, including a passport photo switch. Locke then embarks on a journey from Africa to Europe, focusing only on keeping the dead man's appointments. Along the way he discovers the true nature of his alternate identity and becomes entangled with a beautiful girl (Maria Schneider) who encourages him on his mission. Meanwhile Locke's estranged wife (Jenny Runacre) and the police attempt to track him down before a band of counter-revolutionaries puts a fatal end to his quest for identity.

A eloquent summation of the themes throughout Antonioni's films to date, The Passenger is equal parts character study, thriller, and travelogue. The methodical pace is difficult to accept at first, but once Antonioni begins to weave his spell, the film pays off with a series of beautiful, unforgettable images, such as Schneider standing up in a convertible while riding through lanes of trees or the stunning uninterrupted six minute shot which forms the climax of the film. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (Tenebre) deserves a huge amount of the credit here; his gift for conjuring up visual magic from the barest elements reaches its peak here. In her first international role since Last Tango in Paris, Schneider looks great but, to the consternation of male viewers everywhere, remains fully clothed. Nicholson is excellent as always, acting more with his facial expressions than dialogue this time around. In fact, maybe twenty words are spoken during the entire first half hour of the film, with most of the story forcing viewers to pay attention and put together the various details they have witnessed.

Though released in the early days of home video by Warner (remember those big clamshell boxes?), The Passenger has been maddeningly neglected, thanks mainly to dull, grainy, and brutally cropped transfers which sap away much of its magic. The Japanese DVD release is therefore a welcome and highly overdue antidote, bearing the title of Profession: Reporter and restoring much of its original luster. The opening few minutes of African exteriors are shot in a deliberately faded style with brownish shadows, but the rest of the film looks excellent, with vivid colors and perfect framing. Some of the reel changes are a little ragged, but this only lasts for a few seconds. The film is in English (mono) with removeable Japanese subtitles, and most notably, this is the complete European print, with seven extra minutes deleted from the U.S. edition. The disc also includes the U.S. theatrical trailer, which focuses on the film's few moments of action and probably led to some very unsatisfied audiences.

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