Four Phases Of De-privatization* Of Amorous Intimacy

“Il Grido” is not, as many like to say, a film glorifying eternal love, but, plainly and simply, a critical film, in which the hero is neither weak nor impotent, but merely alienated. “Il Grido” is a film about the alienation of the feelings… It is perfectly normal that this film should at first appear to be a film about love… This film forces us to reflect on our concepts of love: our madly-in-loves, our passionate loves, our sentimental loves, etc.

Michelangelo Antonioni

Aldo has lived for ten years with Irma, whose husband has gone to Australia. Irma, who is no longer in love with Aldo, hears of her husband’s death and decides to make a new life for herself with another man. She announces this decision to her lover. Aldo tries to keep her, and then ends by beating her in front of the assembled village. With his love shattered, he sets off along the highway, abandoning his job, and taking with him his daughter by Irma, Rosina. He intends to make a new life for himself with another woman and has a number of adventures, but still pursued by the memory of Irma, he finally returns to the village. There he sees Irma happy, with a new child. Aldo climbs the tower of the refinery where he once worked. As Irma rushes up to the tower after him, he tumbles into the empty air.

Pierre Leprohon, “Michelangelo Antonioni”, Simon and Schuster, 1963, p. 190

The internal power of this film is almost never expressed dramatically, but rather through the symphonic character of the film’s construction and through the close unity between the characters and their physical surrounding. This construction has a musical form, with its melodic line, its parallel motifs, and its restatement of themes.

Pierre Leprohon, Ibid, p. 55

The emotion in “Il Grido” does not derive from events but rather our comprehension of the drama through which the hero lives… The emotion lies within the character and not in the actions he performs or the incidents in which he is involved. In “Il Grido”, emotion takes hold when the action is suspended.
Pierre Leprohon, Ibid, p. 50

Living conditions have certainly improved the point of view of revenue, nutrition, freedom and the possibility of traveling abroad. But the price of this improvement has been desertification of daily life, the hyper-acceleration of rhythms, the extreme individualization of biographies, and work precariousness which also means unbridled competition… The intensification of the rhythm of work, the desertification of the landscape and the virtualization of the emotional life are converging to create a level of loneliness and despair that is difficult to consciously deny… Suicide can be considered the ultimate mark of the anthropological mutation linked to digital transformation and precarization.
Franco Bifo Berardi

When your own country becomes a stranger to you, when it turns to you with an unknown, alien face… Irma (Alida Valli) is represented on this poster with her “eyes slanted upwards” – in reality Irma‘s eyes are not like this. The point here is that when Aldo (Irma’s husband) found out that she is having an affair, even her face is slightly changed in his perception. As a motif of the film, Irma is quite semantically loaded character – she refers simultaneously to the woman with this name and to Italy and even to the European culture as a whole which in a period of intense economic development after WWII started to treat people in a new – alienated, indifferent, seductive and corrupting way. Pseudo-prosperity took the place of poverty, life started to lose stability (although this loss was “compensated” with vain consumerism). Today, in the beginning of the 21st century, we the Europeans and Americans find ourselves abandoned and even betrayed by democracy even in a more obvious way – not only by “austerity”, pauperization, and conservative attacks on Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, etc., but by culture which entertains us instead of preparing us to meet the challenges of our epoch.

Aldo is a gentle soul. He is not a brute to dictate Irma what to do and how to behave. He is rather intimidated by her “betrayal”, than feeling resentment and indignation. May be, for this reason later, after their separation, he is not able to “successfully” adapt to the despotic circumstances. It is this gentleness of a simple person as a main hero (who doesn’t belong to the Middle Class and is without humanistic/liberal education) represented without sentimental accents, makes “Il Grido” the film that opened perspective for P.P. Pasolini with his films about the highly gifted people with the low social position (Like “Accatone” – 1961 and “Mamma Roma” – 1962). Appreciate the composition of this shot showing Irma and Aldo’s daughter right between them but separated from their problems by the transparent door of her helpless curiosity.

Incited by his mother who was trying to “help him” and invoked traditional authoritarian values impregnated with misogyny – with a man’s obligation to control woman as underdeveloped human being, Aldo temporarily lost his natural humility and dignity and slapped Irma publicly several times.

Aldo hits Irma.

A desperate Aldo is trying to give Irma a “manly lesson” when “truth” and “justice” assert themselves through “proper” violence considered as adequate tool of imposition of morality on the amoral femininity.

By beating Irma in public Aldo feels himself as a great pedagogue of morality – a typical machoistic delusion of conservative men in relation to women.

Forced to leave Irma after his “public defense” of family values Aldo starts his wanderings in search of love and job. Here we see him emotionally split between Alvia (Betsy Blair) – to the left, and her younger sister Edera.

Aldo and Virginia (with Virginia Aldo is going through the third phase of de-privatization of human intimacy, which, according to the logic of the film’s images, Western culture is imposing on the working people). Mass culture and economic games need not only human brains and muscles but the whole human being (for this reason in today’s culture we have incredible development of manipulative strategies of transformation of archaic modalities of love and sex into ways of self-assertion, fight for domination and consumption).

Aldo’s daughter Rosina who feels neglected in Virginia roadside house near gas-station she owns, has befriended the old Virginia’s father, who feels lonely and not needed and also likes to spend some time with her. We see two marginalized creatures in the society of business and labor – the child and the elderly (today the situation is even worse – in the 21st century Western globally oriented business less and less needs even adults of working age).

Aldo although displaced and in a state of transience, is trying hard to be a good father in his impossible circumstances.

For the sake of Rosina’s wellbeing Aldo has to give up the belief that he is capable of caring and looking after her in spite of them being nomads of intense industrialization.

Visual beauty of Antonioni’s constructions of space are never mute, are always semantically articulate – here we see how human life looks when people are not only somewhere else than their life (in their dreams of stable prosperity and of a more consumerist fun) but when people are not available for each other’s souls, when their inner world is out of reach for their neighbors and co-workers. The fog of nature becomes the fog of a civilization of labor and entertainment, when life as such is boring and like existential waste.

Aldo is going through the fourth phase of de-privatization of intimacy when personal love cannot sustain itself anymore – when concerns for money and appearance of propriety occupy the whole human being – fill the hole the human internal world has been transformed into.

Aldo accepted that it is impossible for him to live searching for temporary jobs and fragmented intimacy. Mythological construction that he can return to Goriano and somehow regain his previous life replaces the reality that he doesn’t have any chance to succeed there, in the same place where Irma lives with her new husband, their newborn baby and Rosina, that he will not be able to stay out of their life. Is Aldo returning to die?

Strike in Goriano as a background of Aldo’s re-appearance is a metaphor of the impossibility to return to the economic pre-modernity, when work and love were in a relative harmony with each other.

The scream of Irma watching Aldo’s fatal fall from the tower of his dream (to her feet) is that of the Western civilization abandoning its people. This Irma’s cry expresses Western civilization’s horror of being aware that it is losing its humanity.

Irma sees how Aldo is falling

Aldo somnambulistically comes to the place of his previous work, from where he was able to see the house he lived with Irma and Rosina, while at work. The luxury of unity of love and work in a relative stability of life is not available anymore. Why is Aldo going to the tower, to a place where once he, confident and happy, felt himself over his own world?

Irma looks at Aldo on top of the tower. Aldo sees her and starts to feel dizzy. He cannot stand anymore. He loses his balance… and falls down. Aldo’s fall is the end of industrial labor’s self-respect, when industrial labor is pushed aside by technological development, when dreams about humane treatment of workers are superseded by a “further economic and technical progress”. The tragic loss of amorous intimacy, of the ability for feeling love because of de-privatization of love is not limited to industrial workers, of course, and impacts everyone who works including money- and the decision-makers.

Western culture seeing death of its children

Witnessing the end – the death of its children, Western civilization is on the verge of self-annihilation. Apocalypse, according to Antonioni of “Il Grido” is not just about death of people – in wars, by environmental catastrophes, from poisoned air and water, from human violence against other humans, but from the death of love between them.

Intense economic development and socio-cultural modernization in Europe and US after WWII creates uncertainties and anomic stresses – migration producing amorous instability, separation of sex from amour, financial and amorous insecurity and fragmentation of psyche as a result of pluralization of consumption (including mass-cultural pleasures). Intensification of economic and technological development with its anarchic waves and cultural innovations and entertainment proves itself to be a challenge to “human personal life”. This is the basic theme of Antonioni’s film.

The situation is not that economic instability itself necessarily and automatically leads to destabilization of amorous relationships, but that cultural atmosphere of higher expectations in economic realm stimulates growth of expectations in other areas including personal relations – it widens scope of what is possible to imagine in terms of lifestyle. Orientation on personal and financial success exhausts the human existential imagination and sometimes dries up the human interest in and the ability for profound intimacy in amorous relationships. While material conditions of life become better, it also takes much more effort to provide for oneself and one’s family. In the process of adapting to the opening economic and cultural potentials, to their own unleashed hopes and dreams, people appear in danger of losing the feeling of their immanent worth and unconditional ontological value.

But split between the two main characters Irma and Aldo started not with economic difficulties and uncertainties – it started with Irma’s love affair with a man younger than Aldo. “Il Grido” is not obviously a political film. And Antonioni is not directly a political analyst of the reality. He acts through his visually aesthetic metaphors. He thinks through honest beauty. His stories and images appeal to our intuition and able to create emotional responses in those whose souls are not yet hardened by fighting for survival, material prosperity and pleasures of economic self-assertion and consumerist self-realization.

Irma is a mature woman – her femininity subsumes and emotionally envelops her sexuality that cannot be recognized in its separateness from her personality. When Aldo learned about change in Irma’s feelings for him, he perceived this severance of personal bonds between them as a cosmic catastrophe, as something like an ontological rupture in the very structure of spiritual universe. Irma’s love is so crucial for Aldo that the end of their relationship made him lose all vitality and hope. Alida Valli who plays the role of Irma – plays not only the woman who decides to leave the father of her daughter and the person she lived with for years, but the personification of Being caught in a condition of Western modernity, the Being that cannot care about its sons anymore. It is from this task to play “abstraction”– a special density of Valli’s emotional power and her gate in this film – rapid, heavy and soft at once. She is the very modern life in front of our eyes, as if, goal-oriented and decisive, but a goal in itself and at the same time clouded by anguish. She is life itself, but because this modern life betrays her sons they must learn how to live without relying on life as wholeness, as a mother. They have to learn how to become the fathers in life, not life’s sons. But it is exactly, what the very psychological atmosphere of modernity prevents them from becoming. Sons, who are betrayed by mothers, cannot become fathers of life – only destroyers of life and themselves in it.

Through depiction of five love relationships (Aldo – Irma, Aldo – Alvia, Aldo – Edera, Aldo – Virginia, and Aldo – Andreina) Antonioni shows how mass-cultural and economic processes intervene, destabilize, shatter and finally replace the sensitive and delicate organism of personal love. Before, the very organism of Western culture could balance the quality of personal relations with orientation on material prosperity and the need for mass-cultural entertainment. But after the WWII, personal love between people was losing its solidity and started to waver (Irma’s worries that her relations with Aldo were losing vitality and were kept going only because of his needs in habitual emotional environment). Irma fell in love with another man, like modern culture abandoned human beings by giving preference to “economic development” and consumerism over human emotional happiness, and to production of technical gadgets/toys while neglecting the condition of human soul and quality of personal love.

Aldo‘s life after Irma is sketches of the destiny of a human being losing his emotional spirituality without which personal love is impossible and which only business calculation and pleasure- and fun-making don’t need. Aldo, like more and more people in the West, was not able to go through the ordeal – in his case of Irma‘s “disloyalty”. Antonioni gives us the opportunity to observe Aldo’s wanders in search of love and job. With each new affair and each temporary job Aldo becomes more desperate, frustrated and less sensitive. He took his daughter with himself, but he became less and less emotionally able to care for her. She had to return to her mother. The degradation of personal ties is immediately reflected in the flattening and vulgarization of social bonds. If the personal relations are such that another person is not treated with spontaneous reverie, in the social realm people will not treat each other with respect and positive attention – with deterioration of private relationships public relations deteriorate as well.

The place of Aldo’s memories about happiness with Irma is a small city permanently impregnated with, rather poetic fog, separating people visually and making human beings ghosts lost between life and not-life. The meaning of this fog as an image (that functions as aesthetic-semantic device) is that in modern life people are less and less available for each other for serious relationships – they can be gregarious or can glue together by sharing identities. But they are not really interested in one another – they are for spending pleasant time together or for enjoying loosing themselves in group enthusiasms. Their individual human souls are less and less discernible for other human souls.

Aldo (Steve Cochran), worked for years at the sugar refinery and could see from the tower of the factory the place he lived with Irma and Rosina. This Antonioni’s symbolic construction (when place of work and home can be enveloped by a single visual perspective) expresses nostalgically idealized pre-modern unity of work and personal life. The loss of this harmony was traumatizing not only for Aldo, but for most Italians caught in economic miracle demanding sacrifices and ready to compensate people with jobs without stability, extra money, with sex free from love, with potato chips and processed meats with beer instead of home cooking and with entertaining movies and sports events instead of healthy and quiet life. Aldo’s every private relationship that follows the previous one, becomes, as if, more transparent, loses its mystery, its unique quality, its superior importance in the life of the protagonists.

Aldo knew that Alvia (Betsy Blair, the legendary American actress) is in love with him, but in her place he met Edera, Alvia’s younger sister. In agreement with the times when sexual freedom is rated higher than love and dedication he allowed himself to fall for Edera under the same roof where Alvia lived, and tormented by shame he left early morning without even saying good bye to either of them. Of course, Aldo and Edera were both a bit drunk, if to try to find alibi for their one nightstand. In the togetherness between Irma and Aldo the factor of their sexual attraction to each other was not separated from their emotional closeness and existential dedication. It was a part of the wholeness of their relations. Situation of Aldo’s confusion between Alvia and Edera emphasizes a division inside Aldo between the sensual part of his personality and the dedication of his soul and heart. He loves Alvia, but he wants Edera. After Irma the wholeness of the world of intimacy is shattered. He has lost the ability to dissolve sex in love and started to feel sexual desire with the sharpness of an independent motivation.

Another Antonioni’s accent is the parallelism between economic and erotic nomadism. With Irma Aldo was erotically sedentary, and so was his socio-economic situation. His love for her provided him with the feeling of ontological security and centrality – the fact that he was able to see his house from the place of his work made his gaze the master of his existential space. Aldo, in spite of their modest means felt himself as a king of his kingdom. Ontological decentralization (compensated with money for vain consumption) introduced by the economic and technological development, was a challenge that had to be met by a humanistically educated human intelligence able to develop spiritually – able to lose the narcissistic pseudo-centrality of the traditional way of life and to develop the self, capable for rebirth and rejuvenation in new circumstances. It demands a special psychological training that Western societies refuse to finance. This is exactly the spot of Aldo’s and endless others’ victimization.

After his experience with Alvia/Edera Aldo’s path crossed with that of Virginia, the owner and attendant of a 24 hrs. roadside gas-station who has to be ready to serve the customers anytime somebody on the road stops to fill-up a tank. In a night she has to be out of bed many times. Aldo is the representative man with confident manners, and Virginia offered him a job which he had to take – Rosina was with him. But when during their weekend picnic in the city, during walk through the construction sites, Rosina spotted her father and Virginia in intimate moment that frightened her, Aldo who demanded from himself to be an impeccable father, became irritated at himself and felt that he has to leave. His belief that it’s possible, in his situation to find a place where Rosina could have normal life collapsed under his self-recriminations. His attempt to live with Virginia had failed – it is impossible to love while being forced to jump out whenever you hear a signaling car in need of gas. It is like to be a corporate salesman in a time of global economy, when you have to “travel” all the time and have to communicate with your wife and children through e-mail and skype.

Aldo’s next landing was a little shack on the outskirt of a tiny provincial city where Andreina, a youthful semi-prostitute, gave him place, food and human warmth. He accepted it for a while, but eventually he started to feel so deprived and guilty that he left… to return back to the place where he felt so happy with Irma and Rosina. This fourth phase of de-privatization of intimacy (after the first, that we can call crack in intimacy as ontological universe [with Irma]; the second – split between love and sexual attraction [with Alvia and Edera]; the third – when love must compete with dictates of work [with Virginia]); we can call the situation when the subject of love has to compete or co-exist with his partner’s business clients.

Today, fifty seven years later after the first public screening of the film, we observe on daily basis desperate people, shattered by chronic unemployment (or fear of it) and humiliation connected with it (for them unemployment is not only “economic problem”, but the question of their personal value – of being somebody or nobody). When upon his return to Goriano, Aldo came to the place of his old work and looked around – he saw Irma (who minutes before seen him looking at her window and run after him, in order to prevent what, she felt, might happen). Seeing Irma made him dizzy, and he fell down from the tower where he worked for years, right in front of Irma. It is the scream of Irma in the very moment of Aldo’s fall what made the title of the film. This impossible scream transcends any scream human being can produce. It is the scream of the Western culture witnessing the victims of economic and technological modernization and ‘cultural development”. But what is sacrificed here even before human lives is human love, too human, too ordinarily human to compete with passion for money-profit and the need for cheap entertainment. The scream Irma produced is the scream of a culture that is losing its humanity.

May be, human beings can live without money, but they cannot live without love. Also, something is wrong is with Aldo’s concept of love. His love is too symbiotic – he gets his own being through love and stability of life around it. It is not that Aldo is not individualistic enough but that his individuality is not existentially spiritual enough. It is, as if, archaic way of life mixed with forced modernization catches people off-guard, unable to react on the new socio-economic problems and cultural gimmicks in sober and adequate way. Today’s people don’t have enough humanistic education (psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, serious arts, etc.) to learn how to become effective non-conformists instead of becoming victims of a system that becomes more and more sophisticated in manipulating people. Aldo’s death is not inevitable if he, the person of pre-modern ways, could be less narcissistic. Then the anomie created by the wealthy entrepreneurs and financial decision-makers’ irrational need for profit couldn’t throw him and most others out of balance.

Socio-economic and erotic nomadism described by Antonioni, have two relatives, two similar expressions of the nomadic impulse as attempts to adapt to economic-technological modernization (without being either destroyed by it or transformed into its slaves/robots). Almost in all Antonioni’s films the leading male characters are slightly caricature versions of a nomad in love (amorous nomads with vain peculiarities of their amorous style). It is, as if, the chaotic, anomic and entropic modernity stroke at the very heart of their emotional and ontological stability. Behind all the reasons for amorous wandering lies a destroyed psychological matrix corresponding to the inability to love inside intimate relationship with spiritual refinement. But Antonioni, as if, suggests the existence of a still another kind of existential and amorous nomadism – without a compensatory quality, the one of self-delivery and self-realization. Antonioni depicts this planetary nomadism in two forms – identity nomadism: the human beings’ attempt to change their identity (this topic is directly elaborated in his “Passenger” – 1975), and Antonioni’s own stylistic orientation to make the cinematographic space of his films meaningful regardless of the plot and capable to carry a substantial symbolic weight of sense and beauty (the aesthetics of the cinematic space then becomes the metaphor of human ability for spiritual experience which, as if, nomadically leaves psychologically traumatized heroes and becomes incarnated into pure visuality or dense symbolism). Endless shifts from narration to authorial contemplations are a form of nomadic search to find new and better incarnations for spiritual potentials of human intimacy in aesthetic and philosophical images.

The very scream of Irma at the end of “Il Grido” is such an image Antonioni’s artistic-philosophical intuition found to go ahead of the dead end in his heroes’ attempts to resolve their problems.

*Economico-political term “privatization” is the opposite of “socialization” and in the beginning of the 21st century, especially in US, it carries a positive connotation of taking the basic services the democratic government provides to citizens of democracy and putting it in private hands of the profit-makers. Psychological term – “de-privatization” doesn’t have any semantic proximity to the concept of “privatization”. It has a very strong negative connotation as designating the loss of privacy, intimacy, uniqueness of private relationships, mainly, amorous ones. De-privatization as a socio-psychological phenomenon has nothing to do with “socialization”. It means the loss of the ability for having a refined, rich and unique emotional relationship between amorous partners. De-privatization of amorous bonds is flattening and trivializing human love in an epoch when all the energies of human beings have to be mobilized by the necessity to succeed in an economically adversary socio-political environment and under the monarchy of mass-cultural patterns of perception of the world, which has made consumption of things, services and entertainment the basic human occupation and by this has radically closed the possibility for human relations with disinterested education and factual truths.

Posted on Oct 2 2014 –   ”Il Grido/The Cry” (1957) By Michelangelo Antonioni by Acting-Out Politics