Apr 12, 2012
I saw N.U. for the first time on film as part of the recent Antonioni Centenary conference; and what a revelation it was. Though it clocks in at around ten minutes, it qualifies as a miniature masterpiece.
N.U. is set in Rome. The first frames go by in flashes without any apparent link and without the rhythmic games of montage. We then discover the city through the eyes of the sanitation workers, and our eye is drawn to minute details as well as grand monuments, such as a homeless man and the Spanish steps of the Trinità dei Monti. The sweepers’ work is routine and their gestures seem automated, but Antonioni imbues even the simple act of sweeping with poetry and humanity. With minimal voiceover, Antonioni focuses on the immobility of the workers when he isolates figures in space. Time is suspended, accompanied by a contrapuntal and aesthetically discordant (but for that reason very effective) jazz soundtrack. There is a reflexive pause when Antonioni cuts to a shot of a soldier lingering in front of a cinema. Note the last deep focus, extra-long take on the poles receding into the distance in a painterly, perspectival manner.
Antonioni explained why there were few internal shots of the homes: “It would have required lighting which we did not have at our disposal: therefore we remained on the street. Let’s say that I constructed an aesthetic system from this fact. Even the other Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel within the space he was assigned.”
Directors were more sensitive than the critics to Antonioni’s documentary work, which is at the very heart of his aesthetic. Valerio Zurlini states: “For us who were then busy with documentaries, N.U. was the revelation of a master. It made an extraordinary effect on us, like the great films of De Sica and Rossellini. We didn’t have eyes suited to looking at the city. Antonioni made us see it for the first time. All my documentaries, and not only mine, are indebted to N.U.“