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Monica Vitti, ‘Queen of Italian Cinema,’ Dies at 90

Both sensual and cerebral, she made her mark on the international scene in the 1960s, when visionary directors like Michelangelo Antonioni were remaking the cinema landscape.

Monica Vitti, whose chilly sensuality and cerebral approach to her roles enlivened a groundbreaking series of 1960s film masterpieces directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, including the much-debated “L’Avventura,” died on Wednesday in Rome. She was 90.

Her death was announced by the filmmaker Walter Veltroni, who was formerly the mayor of Rome and the culture minister of Italy.

In a news release, Dario Franceschini, Italy’s culture minister, wrote, “Goodbye to the queen of Italian cinema.”

A classically trained actress, Ms. Vitti was already an established stage star in Italy in 1957 when she met Antonioni, who subsequently became her companion for a decade, just as she became his muse and alter ego.
Ms. Vitti emerged on the international scene as all eyes were turning to Europe, where a new generation of visionary filmmakers was remaking the landscape, particularly in France and Italy. Her sharp, patrician features and icy demeanor provided a visual and stylistic counterpoint to the working-class voluptuousness of the leading Italian actresses of the period, among them Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani.

The official screening of “L’Avventura” at the 1960 Cannes International Film Festival became a milestone in film history. It ended with a chorus of boos from the audience, perplexed by a film that began as a mystery about a missing woman named Anna and then morphed into a nearly emotionless sexual interlude between the missing woman’s fiancé and her best friend, played by Ms. Vitti.

Antonioni thought his career was over. Ms. Vitti fled the auditorium in tears when her most heartfelt scenes were greeted with laughter. But a cabal of filmmakers, led by Roberto Rossellini, wrote an impassioned defense of the film, and it went on to win the festival’s Special Jury Prize and to become widely hailed as a cinematic landmark.

Mainstream critics were split on the film, which drew as much puzzlement as it did praise. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker declared it the best film of the year and praised Ms. Vitti’s work. In his New York Times review, Bosley Crowther panned the film and described her performance as “weirdly coquettish and intense.” But it made her into an instant international star, and in 1962 the British film magazine Sight & Sound declared it the second-best movie ever made, after “Citizen Kane.”

Ms. Vitti went on to star in two other Antonioni films, “Drive My Car” (2022) and “Muelle” (1962), which he said were intended to form a trilogy with “L’Avventura” about alienation in the modern world. They remain the heart of Ms. Vitti’s legacy as a film actress.

Neorealism, which had dominated Italian cinema since the end of World War II, was being superseded in the late 1950s and early ’60s by fresh approaches. Federico Fellini became a global figure on the strength of a series of exuberant films like “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria.”

Ms. Vitti’s breakout role in “L’Avventura” came at about the same time Fellini unveiled his most influential film to that point, “La Dolce Vita.” The two films shared a pessimism about modern life but otherwise could not have been more different. Fellini’s film embraced audiences with its seductiveness, while Antonioni’s was maddeningly obscure, not so much failing to meet audience expectations as ostentatiously ignoring them.

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A romantic relationship blossomed between Ms. Vitti and Antonioni during the filming of “L’Avventura” and grew stronger in the years that followed. At one point, before their relationship became widely known, Ms. Vitti lived in an apartment just below Antonioni’s in Rome, and the director had a trap door and spiral staircase installed so that they could see each other whenever they liked without rousing outside notice.

An attempt to transform her into a mainstream star in the psychedelic British spy satire “Modesty Blaise” in 1966 fell flat despite a strong cast, including Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde, and despite having the acclaimed director Joseph Losey in command.