Michelangelo Antonioni’s influence on the world of cinema is irrefutable.
The Italian filmmaker is best known for directing enigmatic films with elusive plots and open-ended narratives with an emphasis on visual storytelling.
Antonioni is the only film director to have received the Palme d’Or, the Golden Lion, Berlin Bear award, as well as the Golden Leopard.
Below we’ve listed 70 of our favorite quotes from the legendary filmmaker. If you find this quote article helpful then we would be grateful if you could share with other filmmakers.
Michelangelo Antonioni Filmmaking Quotes
The world, the reality in which we live is invisible; hence we have to be satisfied with what we see.
After you’ve learned two or three basic rules of cinema grammar, you can do what you like – including breaking those rules.
I began taking liberties a long time ago; now it is standard practice for most directors to ignore the rules.
A director is a man, therefore he has ideas; he is also an artist, therefore he has imagination. Whether they are good or bad, it seems to me that I have an abundance of stories to tell. And the things I see, the things that happen to me, continually renew the supply.
I am not a theoretician of the cinema. If you ask me what directing is, the first answer that comes into my head is that I don’t know. The second, all my opinions on the subject are in my films.
I feel like a father towards my old films. You bring children into the world, then they grow up and go off on their own. From time to time you get together, and it’s always a pleasure to see them again.
My films teach me a lot, not because I make them, but because they are the sum total of experiences which I otherwise would not have had. Talking about this society, this reality, is for me a way of understanding them more profoundly.
Reality changes so rapidly that if one theme is not dealt with, another presents itself. Allowing one’s attention to be attracted by each little thing has become a vice of the imagination. All one has to do is to keep one’s eyes open: everything becomes full of meaning; everything cries out to be interpreted, reproduced. Thus, there is no one particular film that I would like to make; there is one for every single theme I perceive. And I am excited by these themes, day and night. However, opportunity and other practical considerations limit and direct the choice…
The principle behind the cinema, like that behind all the arts, rests on a choice. It is, in Camus’ words, “the revolt of the artist against the real.” If one holds to this principle, what difference can it make by what means reality is revealed? Whether the author of a film seizes on the real in a novel, in a newspaper story or in his own imagination, what counts is the way he isolates it, stylizes it, makes it his own.
Starting a New Film Project
For me, from the moment when the first, still unformed, idea comes into my head until the projection of the rushes, the process of making a film constitutes a single piece of work. I mean that I cannot become interested in anything, day or night, which is not that film. Let no one imagine that this is a romantic pose — on the contrary. I become relatively more lucid, more attentive, and almost feel as if I were intelligent and more ready to understand.
I always want to tell stories. But they must be stories that evolve, like our own lives. Perhaps what I seek is a new kind of story.
People often ask us, “How is a picture born?” A picture probably has its birth in the disorder within us, and that’s the difficulty: putting things in order.
I don’t know anything about the way a film is born, nothing about the manner of it, the lying-in, the ‘big bang’, the first three minutes. Whether the images in those first three minutes are born out of their author’s deep desire, or if – in an ontological sense – they merely are what they are. I wake up one morning with my head full of images. I don’t know where they come from, or how or why. They recur in the following days and months; I can’t do anything about them, and I do nothing to drive them away. I’m happy to contemplate them and I make notes in my mind, which I write down in a book some time.
It’s very difficult to explain what I do. It is much more instinctive than you realize; much, much more… the reasons that make me interested in a subject are, how shall I say, fickle. Many times I have chosen, among three stories, one for reasons that are entirely accidental: I get up and think this one will be stupendous because the night before I had a certain dream. Or perhaps I put it better by saying that I had found inside myself reasons why this particular story seems more valid. … I always have motives, but I forget them.
I’ve made films about the middle classes because I know them best. Everyone talks about what he knows best.
When I’m sure I have a story, I call my collaborators and we begin to discuss it. And we conduct studies of certain subjects to make sure of our terrain. Then, finally, in the last month or two, I write the story.
My work is like digging, it’s archaeological research among the arid materials of our times.
I have to admit that I have no method of creating [the story for my] films; a film simply occurs to me. Il grido (1957) occurred to me while I was looking at a wall, L’avventura (1960) while I was on board a yacht, heading toward an island in the Mediterranean. A girl that I knew, a friend of my wife’s, had disappeared. A thorough search was conducted but they found nothing. She had just disappeared. The idea for the film came to me all of a sudden while we were sailing toward that island. I said to myself, “What if that girl was on the island?” That’s how I thought of the story for L’Avventura. At first the film was called The Island. In short, there is no fixed method. In 1962, I was in Florence filming a solar eclipse. There was a silence different from all other silences, an ashen light, and then darkness – total stillness. I thought that during an eclipse even our feelings stop. Out of this came part of the idea for L’eclisse (1962).
The Importance of Characters
When we say a character in my films doesn’t function, we mean he doesn’t function as a person, but he does function as a character — that is, until you take him as a symbol. At that point it is you who are not functioning. Why not simply accept him as a character, without judging him? Accept him for what he is. Accept him as a character in a story, without claiming that he derives or acquires meaning from that story. There may be meanings, but they are different for all of us.
My characters are ambiguous. Call them that. I don’t mind. I am ambiguous myself. Who isn’t?
Is it important to show why a character is what he is? No. He is. That’s all.
Shooting the Film
I’ve never had a method of working. I change according to circumstances; I don’t employ any particular technique or style. I make films instinctively, more with my belly than with my brain.
I believe in the autobiographical concept only to the degree that I am able to put onto film all that’s passing through my head at the moment of shooting.
I try to avoid repetitions of any shot. It isn’t easy to find one in my films. You might, I suppose, see something twice, but it would be rare. And then, you know, every line requires its own kind of shot. The American method of shooting one actor continuously, then moving to the other, then intercutting both – this method is wrong. A scene has to have a rhythm of its own, a structure of its own.
When I am shooting a film I never think of how I want to shoot something; I simply shoot it. My technique, which differs from film to film, is wholly instinctive and never based on prior considerations.
Before each new setup, I chase everyone off the set in order to be alone and look through the camera. In that moment, the film seems quite easy. But then the others come in and everything becomes difficult.
Everything depends on what you put in front of the camera, what perspectives you create, contrasts, colors. The cameraman can do great things, provided he is well grounded technically. If a person hasn’t the raw material, I obviously couldn’t do anything with him. But all I ask of a cameraman is technical experience. Everything else is up to me. I was amazed to find that in America cameramen are surprised that this is the way I work.
I have always imposed my wishes on the cameraman. Moreover, I have always picked them at the outset of their careers and, to a certain extent, have formed them myself.
Innovation comes spontaneously. I don’t know if I’ve done anything new. If I have, it’s just because I had begun to feel for some time that I couldn’t stand certain films, certain modes, certain ways of telling a story, certain tricks of plot development, all of it predictable and useless.
When a scene is being shot, it is very difficult to know what one wants it to say, and even if one does know, there is always a difference between what one has in mind and the result on film. I never think ahead of the shot I’m going to make the following day because if I did, I’d only produce a bad imitation of the original image in my mind. So what you see on the screen doesn’t represent my exact meaning, but only my possibilities of expression, with all the limitations implied in that phrase. Perhaps the scene reveals my incapacity to do better; perhaps I felt subconsciously ironic toward it. But it is on film; the rest is up to you.
I find that it is very useful to look over the location and to feel out the atmosphere while waiting for the actors. It may happen that the images before my eyes coincide with those I had in my mind, but this is not frequently the case. It more often happens that there is something insincere or artificial about the image one has thought of. Here again is another way of improvising.
Often to understand, we have to look into emptiness.
I never discuss the plots of my films. I never release a synopsis before I begin shooting. How could I? Until the film is edited, I have no idea myself what it will be about. And perhaps not even then. Perhaps the film will only be a mood, or a statement about a style of life. Perhaps it has no plot at all. I depart from the script constantly. I may film scenes I had no intention of filming; things suggest themselves on location, and we improvise. I try not to think about it too much. Then, in the cutting room, I take the film and start to put it together and only then do I begin to get an idea of what it is about.
Whenever I make a film I have a confusion in the pit of my stomach, a sort of tumor I cure by making the film. If I forget that tumor, I lie. It is easy to forget, even if I subconsciously realize I am forgetting. Very easy. Suppose I have to film a character coming down those stairs. I want to focus on his face because his expression while seeing a second character is very important in this moment. So I make him come down, but then my fancy is caught by that Lichtenstein. I like that, too. So I make the character stand for a moment before the Lichtenstein, with its glowing greens and whites. I like that. I’m tempted by it, but it is a mistake. It means making the painting important at the very moment that the only important thing is the character.
When we find ourselves up against practical obstacles that can’t be overcome, we must go forward. You either make the film as you can or don’t make it at all.
On Working with Actors
The first quality of a director is to see. This quality is also valuable in dealing with actors. The actor is one of the elements of the image.
Actors are like cows. You have to lead them through a fence.
I’ve always said that the actor is only an element of the image, rarely the most important. The actor is important with his dialogue, with the landscape, with a gesture – but the actor in himself is nothing.
When you work on a character, you form in your mind an image of what he ought to look like. Then you go and find one who resembles him.
The actor who thinks too much is troubled by one ambition: to be great. This is a terrible obstacle and it carries with it the risk that his playing may be deprived of much of its truthfulness.
I want an actor to try to give me what I ask in the best and most exact way possible. He mustn’t try to find out more, because then there’s the danger that he’ll become his own director.
I’ve always played down the drama in my films. In my main scenes, there’s never an opportunity for an actor to let go of everything he’s got inside. I always try to tone down the acting, because my stories demand it, to the point where I might change a script so that an actor has no opportunity to come out well.
Actors are always a little high at work. Acting is their drug. So when you put the brakes on, they’re naturally a little disappointed.
I never film a lot: only three or four takes per scene. I rehearse even less – maybe twice, but not more. I am convinced that this is better for the actors. I want the actors to be fresh, not tired. This way they are more natural. To achieve simplicity through exhaustive preparation requires a certain amount of experience and technique. I prefer instead to have the actors in a more ‘unrehearsed’ state when they first encounter the scene. Many times the first take is the best. But sometimes I like to shoot beyond that scene. Once the actors have done all they had to do and said all they had to say, they still keep on going, by force of inertia, until they hit what I call ‘dead moments’. At these moments actors often commit ‘errors’, which in some way are also part of the scene. I think that these are very sincere moments.
Sometimes an actor is intelligent enough to overcome his limitations and discover for himself the proper path to follow – that is, he uses his own intelligence… When this happens, he has the qualities of a director.
[on Professione: reporter (1975)] It was difficult working with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider at the same time because they are such completely different actors. They are natural in opposite ways: Nicholson knows where the camera is and acts accordingly. But Maria doesn’t know where the camera is – she doesn’t know anything; she just lives the scene. Which is great. Sometimes she just moves and no one knows how to follow her. She has a gift for improvising, and I like that – I like to improvise.
You know what I would like to do? Make a film with actors standing in empty space so that the spectator would have to imagine the background of the characters. Till now I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance. I mean simply to say that I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space.
Michelangelo Antonioni on His Films
[on the ending of L’avventura (1960)] Here are two people who have their own stories – rather dissimilar ones – but who are, for the moment, rather close. What their future is I don’t know. I couldn’t say anything about it and wouldn’t be interested in the subject.
[on Identificazione di una donna (1982)] I wanted to make a complete departure from any issues over colour or setting. This time, I wanted to focus attention on the characters. If there is some visual beauty, then it’s due to the truth value of the emotions I have given the characters. Before this film, I gave too much importance to the setting. But now it’s become too easy to make pretty movies. Everybody is doing it.
You mustn’t ask me to explain everything I do. I can’t. That’s that. How can I say why at a certain moment I needed this. How can I explain why I needed a confusion of colors?
I detest films that have a “message.” I simply try to tell, or, more precisely, show, certain vicissitudes that take place, then hope they will hold the viewer’s interest no matter how much bitterness they may reveal. Life is not always happy, and one must have the courage to look at it from all sides.
What happens to the characters in my films is not important. I could have them do one thing, or another thing. People think that the events in a film are what the film is about. Not true. A film is about the characters, about changes going on inside them. The experiences they have during the course of the film are simply things that ‘happen to happen’ to characters who do not begin and end when the film does. In Blow-Up (1966), a lot of energy was wasted by people trying to decide if there was a murder, or wasn’t a murder, when in fact the film was not about a murder but about a photographer. Those pictures he took were simply one of the things that happened to him, but anything could have happened to him: he was a person living in that world, possessing that personality.
By developing with enlargers things emerge that we probably don’t see with the naked eye. The photographer in Blow-Up (1966), who is not a philosopher, wants to see things closer up. But it so happens that by enlarging too far, the object itself decomposes and disappears. Hence there’s a moment in which we grasp reality, but then the moment passes. This was in part the meaning of Blowup.
We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.
Antonioni on Other Filmmakers
[on François Truffaut] I think his films are like a river, lovely to see, to bathe in, extraordinarily refreshing and pleasant. Then the water flows and is gone. Very little of the pleasant feeling remains because I soon feel dirty again and need another bath. His images are as powerful as those of Resnais or Godard, but his stories are frivolous. I suppose that’s what I object to. René Clair told light stories too, but they touch me more. I don’t know why Truffaut’s leave me unmoved. I’m not trying to say that he has no significance. I only mean that the way he tells a story doesn’t come to anything. Perhaps he doesn’t tell my kind of story. Perhaps that’s it.
Present-day people can’t adapt to technology. Ravenna, near the sea, has a stretch of factories, refineries, smokestacks, etc on one side and a pine forest on the other. The pine forest is much the more boring feature. So you see, I’m an admirer of technology. From an outsider’s view the insides of a computer are marvelous – not just its functioning but the way it is made, which is beautiful in itself. If we pull a man apart, he is revolting; do the same thing to a computer and it remains beautiful. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you know, the best things in the film are the machines, which are much more splendid than the idiotic humans. In Il deserto rosso (1964), I also confronted this technology and these machines with human beings who are morally and psychologically retarded and this utterly unable to cope with modern life. In my films it is the men who don’t function properly – not the machines.
[1985 interview] I thought that Fellini’s latest film, E la nave va (1983) was absolutely splendid. It’s the work of a director who knows what he wants and how to achieve it on film. Apparently, nothing extraordinary happens on board that ship; after all, nothing really unusual can happen on a ship. In the space of a few days the passengers get to know each other. And yet, of course, there are all sorts of things going on – from individual existential crises to conflict between social classes to political conspiracies to war. In that film you see all life represented; it caught my attention right from the beginning. It’s a very perceptive work, conducted with great intelligence and “discretion,” without any of the pompousness that Fellini doesn’t always manage to avoid. You feel that the filmmaker is looking at the world with a great deal of respect. After 8½ (1963), it’s my favourite film by Fellini.
[1983 interview] In my professional life I have regrets in the sense that when I see one of my films again I do not always like it. That is, I might not like the whole film, but rather just parts of it – certain sequences, or maybe its subject matter. I would not say that I am satisfied with the entire film. There has not been a film of mine that has completely satisfied me. Professione: reporter (1975) would have completely satisfied me if I had been able to include all of the parts that I was forced to cut out because of its length. And let’s not talk of the final version for the English-speaking market which I cannot accept, and would have removed my name from, if I could have. But even the European edition – which is the one I signed, and which I consider the only acceptable version of the film, even that version, I believe, is mutilated because the story is not well explained. For example, a sequence is omitted that explains the relationship between the protagonist and his wife, thus making it possible to understand how the failure of their marriage has an impact. If I could have included that sequence, the narrative would have been much better.
The Film Business, Hollywood and Critics
The greatest danger for those working in the cinema is the extraordinary possibility it offers for lying.
I always try to follow a certain pattern and work without thinking of the audience. It is not that I dislike my audience; I am not an intellectual, but I believe that films should not be made to entertain the audience, earn money or achieve popularity. I think that films should be made to be as good as possible. And it seems to me that this is the best way to work and to be trustworthy in the world of cinema
When I see a good film, it’s like a whiplash. I run away, in order not to be influenced. Thus, the films I liked most are those I think least about.
I dislike judging myself, but I will say I would be wealthy today if I had accepted all the films that have been offered to me with large sums of money. But I’ve always refused, in order to do what I felt like doing.
[on offers he received after the success of Blow-Up (1966)] An American producer wanted me to shoot a fairy tale, Peter Pan. Can you see me doing Peter Pan? He called me into his office, and on the one side there was Mia Farrow, who was to take the lead role, on the other side was the composer and the artistic director (the music and scenery were all ready), and in front of me there was this producer with his check book out, offering one million and three hundred thousand dollars. And then I just asked: “Since everything is ready, what do you need me for?” Those guys never understood why I turned them down. So many of my colleagues would have accepted. I have to say that sacrifices of a material kind have never really affected me much. The sacrifices that matter have to do with our view of life, they are of the moral kind. It’s when you lie to yourself, when you compromise, that you really pay for it.
Hollywood is like being nowhere and talking to nobody about nothing.
Sometimes I pick up a magazine and read a piece of film criticism — to the end only if I like it. I don’t like those which are too free with praise because their reasons seem wrong and that annoys me. Critics who attack me do so for such contradictory reasons that they confuse me, and I am afraid that if I am influenced by one, I will sin according to the standards of the other.
Michelangelo Antonioni Quotes Final Words
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