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The Mystery Of Oberwald


The Mystery Of Oberwald

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As a passel of contemporary filmmakers scrambles to proclaim digital video the future of movies, it's worth pausing to consider how other methods of recording the moving image have been touted and then essentially abandoned. In 1980, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni attempted a feature film shot on TV-quality videotape, and endeavored to give the video production the artful arrangement of color and the profound tone he had brought to such acknowledged celluloid classics as L'Avventura, Blowup, and The Passenger. Antonioni adapted Jean Cocteau's 19th-century romance The Eagle Has Two Heads into The Mystery Of Oberwald, and cast former flame (and star of Antonioni's Red Desert, among others) Monica Vitti as a reclusive queen who falls in love with would-be assassin Franco Branciaroli, mostly because he reminds Vitti of her late husband. Theatrical in form and content, The Mystery Of Oberwald takes place in drafty castle chambers, in long conversations between thwarted lovers and political malcontents. The story is fairly stolid, and apparently of little interest to the director, who utilizes the simple scenario as a platform from which he can demonstrate what can be done with videotape. Antonioni uses optical effects to insert ghostly figures into the background of scenes, and to add layers of haze. Most dramatically, he experiments with color filters, indicating everything from weather changes to interior emotional states via red, blue, green, and gray tints. The visual play is interesting, but it doesn't make the director's case that video is as viable as film for artful storytelling. The main drawback is that video tends to look too harshly "real," and the lifelike presentation of Oberwald's sets and costumes makes the film more evocative of 1980 than the 1800s. Even Antonioni's deliberate effects have developed some mold over the past two decades; what might have seemed exciting at the time now has the quaintness of a Todd Rundgren video. Which is not to say that movies shot on film can't look dated, too. But, given that Antonioni put more stock in his technique than in the dry historical love story it was meant to enhance, he'd probably be dismayed to find that those techniques seem dry and historical today.