The Passenger (1975) marked the end of Antonioni’s three picture deal with MGM, and simultaneously the end of his mainstream acceptance. Although revered now as one of his finest works, The Passenger had lukewarm reception at best, with most of the American critics still bitter of Antonioni’s caricaturing of American capitalism in Zabriskie Point (1969). Since those two films had been costly flops, Antonioni found himself unable to secure investors for the arthouse pictures he’d become known for. Five years past, and still not a film, until finally Antonioni settled on The Oberwald Mystery.
Like The Red Desert (1964) over fifteen years prior, this was to be yet another groundbreaking experiment with color. Rather than experiment with Technicolor, this would be an all-new experiment with the infant video photography. Rather than physically paint his sets, like he had done since Desert, he could now paint them in the camera, altering pitch and hue on the spot, with the mere turn of a dial. Antonioni championed this as the most direct way for precise personal expression, likening it to the instant colors a painter has on hand with their palette. Thus, The Oberwald Mystery (1980) would become the first feature film shot entirely on video and transferred to 35mm for theatrical exhibition.
Despite reuniting the director with Monica Vitti, The Oberwald Mystery would have far less an impact than their previous collaboration together. Auteur cinema was dead in 1980, the year of Heaven’s Gate, and filmgoers had tired especially of the esoteric cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni. Arthouse connoisseurs would find little of interest, either, since the film was a total deviation from all the principles one would expect from Antonioni. It is his first period film, his first film written by another (the esteemed Jean Cocteau), and his first film with nearly wall-to-wall dialogue. Pensive pauses or dwellings on architecture are almost nonexistent, as Antonioni instead remains faithful to Cocteau’s “L’Aigle a Deux Tetes”. Antonioni said that because this was such a stylistic experiment for him, he could only do it if it were to a work he were not subjectively tied to. One could also argue it was the only project he could get financing for, given his others were expensive and poorly received.
The Oberwald Mystery has little mystery at all, especially not the elusive openness that would define his ennui trilogy and his later MGM pictures. Don’t expect the quiet of L’Eclisse or the idle observance of Blow-up. This is a costume drama with trite, stuffy dialogue. While definitely a black sheep for Antonioni, especially since his next film, 1982’s Identification of a Woman, would mark a glorious return to form, there are still qualities which can be appreciated in the Antonioni canon. The doubling in the story, where a slain king (and husband to Vitti’s queen) manifests himself as a burglar, adds particular resonance with Antonioni’s belief that substitution can help us cope with our emotional malaise. Monica Vitti becomes a substitute for Lea Massari in L’Avventura and Jack Nicholson substitutes himself for a dead man in The Passenger. Even if they are visually dissimilar, the qualities they represent for others often makes them perfect facsimiles. The visual reincarnation of the king in Oberwald gives Vitti the power to command the throne, and ultimately face the destiny she had always willed.
The experimentation with color, of course, is another Antonioni preoccupation, and while it is far less effective here, it isn’t entirely without interest. Characters will bring in a certain hue when they enter, like the scheming Count a cold blue hue, or the minster a finance a monetary green. The metaphors are made obvious (far more than say, The Red Desert), and can be achieved easily today by just turning knobs on the bottom of your television. Still, at that time it was novel, and in ways expressive, experimenting with digital coloring techniques in a way that had never been done before. While this technology hardly caught on in mainstream filmmaking, it proves once again that Antonioni was always leading the pack, paving the way for new means of cinematic expression. He tore apart the three act structure with L’Avventura, Technicolor with The Red Desert and Oberwald makes nearly as bold an attempt.
On its own, The Oberwald Mystery is theatrical, amateur and fairly routine, which is decidedly against everything Antonioni has come to stand for. In context with Antonioni’s oeuvre, it will no doubt be remembered as his worst, too. Historically, however, it marks a time when art was out, and entertainment was out to make a buck on sure things, like franchised characters, remakes and all the other things the Lucas-Spielberg train brought. This is Antonioni’s commentary on the time, where if he couldn’t experiment narratively without intervention from the suits, then he’d try to do it cosmetically with the alteration of color. He largely failed, but he tried all the same, and this proves that even at his worst, Antonioni was and is a man who always put the art above everything else, pushing the boundaries of cinema when so many others were comfortably complacent.