Remembering the actress who was the epitome of 1960s Euro cool.
What can we say about Monica Vitti? If there was ever a candidate for cinema’s coolest woman, then surely it was her. Vitti – born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli -felt like the female equivalent of a Belmondo or a Mastroianni, someone whose mere presence in a film gave it a hip credibility that often transcended its actual content and who seemed to epitomise the slick, stylish and vibrant European cinema of the 1960s. She worked with the best – her career essentially began with Michaelangelo Antonioni in L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse and Il Deserto Rosso, the pair seemingly intertwined – Vitti notably helped with his productions behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera. The pair split – as both creative and romantic partners – at the end of the 1960s and Antonioni’s work was never quite as impressive afterwards.
Outside her work with Antonioni, she appeared in films for Roger Vadim and Tinto Brass as her international stardom exploded. She proved to have a gift for comedy and light action, and while many of her more commercial 1960s films have been critically dismissed, they are all well worth re-examination. Modesty Blaise is certainly a mess, but it is never less than fascinating in much the same way as Casino Royale – a self-indulgent, messy slice of pop art cinema that is criticised mostly because it simply doesn’t follow the rules of filmmaking yet remains entirely entertaining if you simply stop worrying about narrative cohesion. Even the film’s critics would surely concede that Vitti is spellbinding in it – as great a Modesty as you could hope for. Similarly, the Italian-British film The Girl with a Pistol (La ragazza con la pistola) is a delight – a lightweight study of rather heavy themes (honour killing, bride kidnapping) that transposes Vitti’s feisty Italian village girl to a variety of dour British locations. She’s extraordinary in the film, self-assured and relentlessly single-minded as she finds her own identity while on a mission of revenge against the man who sullied her reputation.
She was in The Chastity Belt with Tony Curtis, The Queens and High Infidelity (two anthology films) and The Pizza Triangle where she again showed her comedic talents, and then in the 1970s worked with Bunuel on The Phantom of Liberty and co-starred with Claudia Cardinale in the unjustly ignored absurdist feminist road-trip movie Blonde in Black Leather. She probably could’ve been huge in American cinema if she wanted to – but like Belmondo, she was reluctant to travel to Hollywood, preferring to stay in Italy. A good choice, we think – the American cinema has a habit of chewing up talent and reducing it to the lowest common denominator and Vitti was too good for that. If her 1970s and 1980s films are not as well-known as her Sixties work, that’s fair enough – and there is much worth seeking out in her later work, including the two films that she co-wrote in the early 1980s (Flirt and Francesca e mia) and 1990’s Scandalo Segreto, which she wrote, directed and starred in alongside Elliott Gould.
In 1984, Vitti was awarded the Order of Arts and Letters by French Culture Minister Jack Lang, in honour of her efforts to revive Italian cinema. “We need Italian cinema to find its health again so that French cinema will not remain an island in the middle of other European countries,” Lang said rather pretentiously – France hardly had a monopoly on movie culture in the early 1980s, unless you disregarded popular cinema. Nevertheless, it was an overdue acknowledgement of Vitti’s impact in European film and her devotion to the art form.
Vitti vanished from public view in 2003 and some years later, it was confirmed that she was suffering from Alzheimer’s. The idea of this vibrant, intelligent actor slowly losing herself seems too awful to contemplate – but as many of us know, Alzheimer’s can tear apart the sharpest of minds. She would hang on, cared for by her husband of 21 years Roberto Russo, before finally succumbing at the age of 90.
We can’t overstate just how much we loved Vitti here at The Reprobate – the Antonioni films certainly, but more than anything those critically ignored lightweight pop culture movies where she showed her comedic chops without ever seeming less than the coolest person you could ever hope to meet. She seems a unique figure – the sort of actress that we’ll never see again, and also never had before. Her death is another link to European cinema’s golden age that has been cut.
Monica Vitti – November 3rd 1931 – February 2nd 2022
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