For a director of his stature, Michelangelo Antonioni has never been well represented on home video in the United States. In the years since his death (at age 94 in 2007), a few releases have helped fill in the gaps. "Zabriskie Point" (1970), his queasy, vivid portrait of the American counterculture's death throes, is available from Warner Home Video. The Criterion Collection last year issued — in both standard-definition and Blu-ray formats — Antonioni's first color film, the modernist classic "Red Desert" (1964); two of his most important '60s works, "L'Avventura" and "L'Eclisse," are also available through Criterion.
Antonioni's career can be divided into the periods before and after "L'Avventura" (1960), an oblique, existential mystery whose heroine goes missing midmovie, never to return. By the time that film was booed and championed at Cannes, putting him on the global map, he had been active for well more than a decade — though his formative work always has remained in the shadows of his more influential later films, which essentially invented a cinematic vocabulary for alienation.
Now thanks to Raro Video, Antonioni's second feature from 1953, "I Vinti" (The Vanquished), a muddled triptych of stories that nonetheless anticipates the themes and methods of his better-known films, is finally available for the first time on DVD here. An Italian label that recently launched an American division, Raro also has just released Federico Fellini's pseudo-documentary "The Clowns" (1970) and a boxed set devoted to the genre auteur Fernando Di Leo.
"I Vinti" tells three stories — all loosely based on real-life cases — of murders committed by young men in France, Italy and England. A French-Italian coproduction that repeatedly ran into trouble with producers and censors, the film bears the obvious scars of compromise. It was also subjected to a series of title changes: first called "Our Sons," then "Prohibited to Minors," then "Betrayed Youth," and released in Britain as "Youth and Perversion."
Antonioni's career-long concerns with youth culture and its discontents are evident here — in fact, they're spelled out. Among the producer-mandated additions is the didactic voiceover that bookends "I Vinti," identifying its stories as emblematic of a "burnt-out" postwar generation and promising to tell them without embellishment and to present instead "a squalid reality unable to seduce anyone."
Despite the message-movie trappings, Antonioni, true to form, is less interested in social problems than existential dilemmas. The protagonists of "I Vinti" are closer to sociopaths than juvenile delinquents. The French episode, which opens the film, follows a group of high schoolers on a day trip, the ringleaders targeting a classmate whom they believe to be well off but who has lied to them about his wealth and status.
In the concluding segment, a young English poet kills a middle-aged prostitute for the media attention — as in "Blow-Up," Antonioni's 1967 paean to Swinging London, the corpse is discovered in a park.
Censors requested changes to both the French and English sections, but the Italian one, which had political elements in its script, is the most severely mangled. The Raro DVD includes an earlier cut that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1953, in which the antihero is a confused radical who blows up a munitions factory.
The producers responded to the negative reception at the festival by asking for substantial changes — in the release version, the character is a cigarette smuggler who kills a warehouse guard in a shootout. Scenes were cut, added and reordered, and the protagonist's big emotional speech, in which he explains himself to his girlfriend, is redubbed so that he's no longer motivated by ideology but by rank materialism.
Neither version is especially convincing, but the original makes more evocative use of location cinematography, lingering in the construction sites on the desolate outskirts of Rome. Indeed "I Vinti," despite its flaws, is a striking early showcase for Antonioni's signature emphasis on the psychology of architecture and landscape: the external world is inevitably linked to the interior life of his characters.
Raro's disc includes a rare short, also from 1953, called "Attempted Suicide" (and foreshadowing the suicidal tendencies of many Antonioni characters to come). In this formally inventive semi-documentary work, several women who had tried to kill themselves recount their stories through reenactments and by answering the questions of an off-camera interviewer.
The opening voice-over is right out of an educational social-issue film, but in filtering these real accounts through layers of performance and artifice, Antonioni also evokes one of his great themes: the unknowability of truth.