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“Milestones”: In Memoriam

Michelangelo Antonioni once famously remarked that, as a filmmaker, he was completely innocent of theory or preconception. “I never think of how I want to shoot something,” he said. “I simply shoot it. My technique, which differs from film to film, is wholly instinctive and never based on prior considerations.” Much of Antonioni’s particular originality and power can be summed up in such a statement — yet the same willful, intuitive “indirection” holds no less true for Ousmane Sembene, Edward Yang and Ingmar Bergman, three other great filmmakers who pursued truth without a map. All four men died this past year — Bergman and Antonioni even contrived to do so within the same 24 hours — and are the subjects of tribute screenings at this year’s AFI Fest.

Apart from Yang, who died of cancer in July at age 59, these cinema giants lived to great ages, and were lucid and productive right up to the end. That makes Yang’s loss all the sadder, especially as his final film, Yi Yi (2000), was a family saga which illuminated universal griefs with such unique humor that it deservedly landed its maker a world-wide audience. (I still smile whenever I think back on its most engaging character, a small boy with an iron determination to photograph only the backs of people’s heads.) The Terrorizer (1986), an earlier Yang film praised for its complex narrative structure, will be screened as part of AFI’s tribute.

Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene (born in 1923) triumphed late in life with Moolade (2004),the tale of a robust mother fighting to protect village girls from ritual circumcision. AFI presents Sembene’s penultimate Faat Kine (2000), in which a 40-year-old West African woman navigates a gauntlet of bigotry and frustration to make it as a single unwed mother. Although blunt in his political loyalties (“The development of Africa,” he said, “will not happen without the effective participation of women”), Sembene was foremost a humanist in the tradition of Jean Renoir and his belief that “Everybody has his reasons.”

Antonioni’s fierce refusal to fence himself in from film to film is a trait he certainly shared with Yang and Sembene, but his truest colleague in posterity is Bergman. The two rose to prominence at the same time, and both had achieved such fame by their early 40s that, for several decades, their names were virtually synonymous with cinema. But Bergman was no more content than Antonioni to become a name carved reverentially in marble. They were intrigued by the violence of their souls, and those of others.

Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) is the tale of a man’s impulsive effort to shed his outwardly successful life in exchange for the far more exotic but dangerous one of a secretive stranger who chances to die in a neighboring hotel room. Jack Nicholson gives one of the subtlest, most silent performances of his career as Antonioni steers him through the labyrinth of this man’s radical adventure.

Bergman was interested in the same kinds of impulses, the same mysterious turnabouts which define any person’s inner life. The sensitive couple in Shame (1968) try desperately to hide themselves from a world hell-bent on going to war, but that war (set in an undated year, between countries never identified) nevertheless poisons them from the inside out, turning them both cruel, turning them each into the opposite of who they thought they were.

One cannot mourn such artists, for in terms of imaginative force and philosophical weight, they haven’t died. They will be with us for centuries to come, just as we will continue to approach their films, free of theory and preconception, to see what new riches they yield.

AFI Fest will screenFaat Kine on Sat., Nov. 3 at 3:15 p.m.; The Terrorizer on Sat., Nov. 3 at 4 p.m.;Shame on Thurs., Nov. 8 at 3 p.m., all at the ArcLight. The Passenger will screen on Fri., Nov. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the Academy of Motion Picture Artsand Sciences’ Linwood Dunn Theatre.