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Girl power in ‘50s Italy

Decades before the phenomena of Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” would redefine girl power in such sexually assertive terms, there was Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Girlfriends,” a brisk tale about a clique of fashion-forward, independent-thinking young women in Turin, who went to all the best parties and slept with the men they wanted to. The year was 1955, the legendary Italian filmmaker was 43 and just 13 years into a career that would have a rich ride for an additional 40 before a stroke would slow him. He died in 2007.

Perhaps informed by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 “The Second Sex,” the filmmaker was still ahead of the ‘60s feminist wave here that would initially be framed by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” with its shocking what-women-really-want candor.

“The Girlfriends” (Le Amiche) was revolutionary for the times in both its story — every decision of import, whether it be life, death, love or career, made by the women — and its telling, with Antonioni creating moments strung together so lightly, watching it has the feel of casual updates from a series of friends. As if the filmmaker knew that one day there would be foursquare on Facebook: “Just checked into the hotel in Turin, nice, but the housekeeping staff won’t leave me alone…"

And so it begins for Clelia, played by Italian beauty Eleonora Rossi Drago, the young professional come back to her hometown to open a high-end fashion boutique that will feature the latest from the Milan runways. As to the question of what will be more important in her life, friends or lovers, the title says it all.

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The same year, Hollywood’s view of the female predicament was more of the Doris Day “Love Me or Leave Me” brand, or of young lovelies surrounding Frank Sinatra in “The Tender Trap”, or the Marilyn Monroe classic “The Seven Year Itch,” her character named The Girl. Basically, all the traditional male-female relationship tropes were trotted out.

“The Girlfriends” was never released in this country, although it did have a handful of showings in New York in 1962. Though Antonioni would do several English-language films, including the Jack Nicholson thriller “The Passenger” in 1975 and his epic on the ‘60s counterculture in America, “Zabriskie Point,” he remains best known here for 1966’s “Blow-Up,” his Oscar-nominated treatise on the power of a photograph, starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings.

Now, a newly restored print of “The Girlfriends,” which promises to make its black and white images even more stunningly beautiful, is making a slow swing through a handful of U.S. cities. On Friday, “The Girlfriends” will make its L.A. debut with a short run at LACMA’s Bing Theater.

Clelia is the personality that anchors the film. Before she can unpack, she finds herself drawn into the drama of another young woman’s overdose in the adjoining room — the housekeeping intrusion that started it all. Love was the problem for Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), who’s collapsed on the bed in her party dress, fetching even near death. Sleeping pills had seemed the solution to the young model’s dilemma, with Clelia having enough of a head about her to phone for an ambulance.

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The action truly begins when Rosetta’s worldly and slightly older friend Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) shows up. Her solution for whatever ails Rosetta — or anyone else, for that matter — is to pour the martinis and get the party started. She’s separated from her husband, has a hot local architect for a lover, the latest designer dresses and a saucy sense of life ruled by the heart’s desire and enough money to fund it. Momina is very much in the “Sex and the City” Samantha school that Kim Cattrall would turn into such raunchy fun a lifetime later.

Meanwhile, Clelia is very much the career girl, determined to get the shop opened on time and make a success in the city, though she does allow herself an affair with the architect’s assistant, Carlo, a hunk but working class and not a good fit for her new circle of friends. The shop’s main architect turns out to be the hot one Momina is amused by, in that big-city, small-world way.

In a bit of real-world, small-world irony, the reason for Rosetta’s melancholy, Lorenzo, is played by Gabriele Ferzetti, who just recently portrayed the patriarch who sets devastation in motion in this summer’s emotional feast of “I Am Love.” Lorenzo’s a painter, but in yet another set of modern problems, he’s not nearly as talented as his wife, Nene (Valentina Cortese), a ceramic artist of growing acclaim whom he both loves and resents and is another of Momina’s confidantes.

So you see it really is “Sex and the City"-style intrigues that Antonioni has imagined for us. Having created this world, he sets it spinning, both embracing and critiquing the characters’ bourgeois lifestyle, which he grew up in but never stopped being troubled by. The director lets his characters meander through their scenes, creating beautiful set pieces. And in one of his first attempts at what would become a stylistic trademark in “Eclipse,” “L’avventura” and — most memorably — “La notte,” he lingers long enough to let you examine it, breathe in the imagery, see what’s going on around the characters.

What is nevertheless most remarkable is the way he has empowered each of the women, whatever their flaws or foibles, especially Clelia. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood where laundry still hangs on lines outside. When she strolls it again with Carlo, without a word you know it is a reminder of her past and will in some way frame her every choice.

The character is particularly unusual for the immediate post- World War II era, when cultural forces both here and abroad were pressing for safety, traditional families and retrenchment. Few yearned for a life on the edge and conformity ruled the day. Women who had worked during the war went home, married, had babies. Men were the breadwinners, or at least that was the popular scenario.

Of course, Antonioni did not create “The Girlfriends’” provocations out of vapor. It was based on Cesare Pavese’s 1949 novel, “Among Women Only,” with the filmmaker writing the screenplay with two women: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, who died just last month after an acclaimed career that included her collaboration on Vittorio De Sica’s classic “Bicycle Thieves,” and Alba De Cespedes, who was primarily a novelist.

Whatever the origins, this story about sex and the city, high fashion and love is not to be missed — so delightful it will charm you, so prescient it will scare you, a slice of cultural commentary in the hands of a cinematic master that will remind you that history does indeed repeat itself in the most startling ways.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com


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