Scotsman Obituaries: Monica Vitti, Italian screen queen

Monica Vitti, actress. Born: 3 November 1931 in Rome. Died: 2 February 2022, in Rome, aged 90.

Few actresses could smoulder like Monica Vitti, pictured around 1961. (Picture: Getty Images)
Few actresses could smoulder like Monica Vitti, pictured around 1961. (Picture: Getty Images)

Variously dubbed the “Queen of Italian Cinema” and, more enigmatically, the “Muse of Incommunicability”, Monica Vitti was one of the leading actresses in that wave of exotic European cinema that hit British film theatres in the 1960s.

The luxuriantly haired, husky-voiced Vitti made a string of films with her long-time lover, director Michelangelo Antonioni, bursting onto the scene as the star of his enigmatic 1960 classic L’Avventura, though perhaps “gliding” would be a better term than “bursting”.

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Vitti was the epitome of dispassionate, unhurried, unflustered cool or simply of alienation and indifference, depending on perspective, very much a symbol of a time and place.

She worked again with Antonioni on La Notte, L’Eclisse and Il Deserto Rosso, before being cast in the lead role as the female secret agent in the James Bond spoof Modesty Blaise, alongside Terence Stamp, very much at the top of his career but playing her sidekick here.

Based on a popular comic strip, Modesty Blaise was shot in England, Italy and Amsterdam and directed by Joseph Losey, or at least it was officially directed by the highly respected Losey. However, Vitti ruffled feathers by bringing Antonioni on set with her and getting advice from him.

Modesty Blaise might well have heralded a Hollywood career to rival that of Sophia Loren, but Vitti did not like long-haul travel and she also felt her English was not good enough. It would be more than a decade before she made another English-language film.

She concentrated instead on Italian cinema and between 1969 and 1979 she won five David di Donatello awards (the Italian equivalent of the Oscars) as best actress, latterly switching from the slow, moody dramas that had characterised her time with Antonioni to frothy comedy.

She was born Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in 1931 in Rome, though she spent much of her childhood in Messina, where her father was a customs official.

Her parents were very strict and she did not recall it as a particularly happy time. The family emigrated to the US when she was 18 but she stayed in Rome and enrolled in drama school. After graduating she worked mainly in theatre at first.

There is a story that Antonioni was attracted by her neck when he sat behind her at a screening and told her she should be in films – and then cast her in them. Vitti had already had several small roles in films and television before meeting Antonioni and she joined his theatre company a few years before they made L’Avventura. Her distinctive voice also made her popular for dubbing work.

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While L’Avventura was not the first film for either Vitti or Antonioni, it was the one that brought them both to international attention. Her character goes on a sailing holiday with a friend and the friend’s boyfriend. The friend goes missing and, while continuing to search for her, the remaining two characters slip into a relationship. Antonioni told Vitti very little about her character or the character’s feelings, because he wanted her to appear emotionally blank and unreadable. It was striking, dramatic and different; slow with an emphasis on mood.

Critics and audiences were not quite sure what to make of it. It was jeered at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, reducing Vitti to tears. But it won a share of the Jury Prize, which is a sort of runners-up prize to the Palme d’Or. The main prize that year was won by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Just two years later, L’Avventura ranked second in the prestigious Sight and Sound critics poll of the greatest movies of all time, behind regular winner Citizen Kane.

Vitti co-starred with Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni in La Notte (The Night), with Alain Delon in L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) and with Richard Harris in Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), all of which became popular arthouse movies in the UK. And Modesty Blaise might have opened the door to Hollywood, but didn’t.

Her relationship with Antonioni ended and she rather faded from the international stage. But Vitti remained hugely popular in her native Italy, where the public lapped up her new enthusiasm for comedy – a genre that she said better reflected her personality than the roles in which Antonioni had cast her.

Her early comedies included The Chastity Belt, with Tony Curtis, and The Girl with a Pistol, which had a cast that included Stanley Baker, Corin Redgrave and Cherie Blair’s father, Anthony Booth.

She played a Sicilian woman who goes to the UK to track down the man who has dishonoured and abandoned her. She ends up in Edinburgh and locations included Waverley Station, Princes Street and the Lawnmarket.

In 1990 Vitti directed and starred in Scandalo Segreto (Secret Scandal), playing a woman who discovers her husband, played by Elliott Gould, is having an affair, but the film made little impact with critics or at the box office. Vitti retired from movies shortly after Scandalo Segreto.

She had Alzheimer’s disease for many years and withdrew from public life. She was cared for by her husband, photographer Roberto Russo, who survives her. They did not have children.

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