Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni dies

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ROME -- Director Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the founders of modern Italian cinema and an Oscar nominee for 1966's "Blowup," died late Monday at his home in Rome. He was 94.

Antonioni's family made the announcement Tuesday, and as the news spread across Italy, public figures lined up to pay their respects to the celebrated director.

Director Marco Bellocchio called Antonioni "a pillar" of Italian cinema, and Rome Mayor and film buff Walter Veltroni said that "with Antonioni dies not only one of the greatest directors but also a master of modernity."

In 1995, Jack Nicholson, who starred in Antonioni's "The Passenger," presented him with an honorary Oscar.

Antonioni was not prolific, producing only two dozen features in a career that spanned more than six decades, but his influence on Italian cinema is enormous, and he was regarded as the main counterbalance to the neorealism of such contemporary Italian directors as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ermanno Olmi.

Rather than identifying society's flaws by focusing on outcasts and the working class as the neorealists did, Antonioni instead focused on the country's elite, often exposing them as bored and aimless in films known for their spare plots, limited dialogue and long takes.

Antonioni died on the same day as Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and the two men are said to have been great admirers of each other's work.

Bergman said "Blowup," an English-language film about a photographer who stumbles on evidence of a murder, and 1961's "La Notte" (The Night), which explores how the death of a family friend affects a couple's relationship, were among the 20th century's "great masterpieces."

Antonioni was born Sept. 29, 1912, in the affluent northern city of Ferrara, Italy. He studied at the University of Bologna and graduated in economics, landing a job as a bank teller. He also wrote film criticism for the local newspaper. In his late 20s he moved to Rome, where he worked as an editorial secretary at Cinema, an entertainment magazine published by the Fascist Entertainment Guild, which was edited by Benito Mussolini's son. He turned to screenwriting during the early years of World War II, collaborating with Roberto Rossellini on "Un Pilota Ritorna" (The Pilot Returns). He was soon drafted to serve in the Italian Army but continued to write, including a documentary on the Po Valley titled "Gente del Po" (1943).

On the strength of his documentary talents, he obtained financing to make his first feature film, "Cronaca di un amore" (Story of a Love Affair), a saga of doomed past lovers that focused on a B-list actress unable to control her life.

Antonioni's breakthrough came in 1960 with "L'Avventura" (The Adventure), which explores existential malaise through a story based on a woman's disappearance during a boating trip. Although the film was booed when it was first screened at the Festival de Cannes, it went on to win the Jury Prize.

In 1964's "Il Desserto rosso" (The Red Desert), his first color film, the director offered an equally stark landscape, using stylized, intense colors that gave the film an unnatural, acidic hue.

"Blowup," the director's first English-language film, was set among the swinging London of the '60s, with David Hemmings starring as a hip fashion photographer who unwittingly captures images suggesting a murder while shooting pictures of Vanessa Redgrave in a park. It earned Antonioni Oscar nominations for best director and best original screenplay, and its frank sexuality proved something of a sensation.

However, when Antonioni traveled to America to film "Zabriskie Point," a critique of the U.S. filmed in Death Valley, Calif., he failed to capture a similar sense of the zeitgeist.

Antonioni had been in poor health since a 1985 stroke left him unable to speak. But he continued working, directing a segment of the 2004 film "Eros," which also featured segments from Steven Soderbergh and Wong Kar Wai -- who were both more than 45 years his junior.

Antonioni is survived by his wife, Enrica. He had no children.

The city of Rome said his body would lie in state Wednesday at City Hall before a funeral scheduled for Thursday in Ferrara.

Duane Byrge and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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