In scientific research, the researcher's ideal is the experiment in which all but one variable is controlled. In such an experiment, varying the single parameter can tell the researcher the precise results of changes, small or large. Artists, on the other hand, tend to experiment with abandon, introducing a multitude of factors. The effects of any given part of an artistic experiment become clear only after many experiments include it, so that experience about the results can be validated. Michelangelo Antonioni, one of the bolder cinematic experimenters of the 1960's, however, has chosen a more scientific method in The Oberwald Mystery. He presents a film that is utterly conventional in all ways - except one.
The Oberwald Mystery is based on a play by Jean Cocteau. The story concerns a queen of an unspecified Middle European country who retired into solitude following the assassination of her husband. An encounter with another assassin forces the queen to re-examine her choice, and accept responsibility for her country's fate. The story, faithfully followed by Antonioni and his co-screenwriter, Tonino Guerra, is a sub-standard piece of early twentieth century intellectual claptrap. Antonioni and Guerra even preserve such stagebound devices as the opening scene between two minor characters who explain the background of the plot, shabbily concealed behind a relationship that proves of no importance whatsoever to the story. The play (called The Eagle Has Two Heads) was obviously not Cocteau's finest hour.
Similarly, acting, editing, and score have no surprises. Monica Vitti gives a dull, respectable performance as the queen, and the supporting cast goes through the motions in a manner familiar to anyone who has seen many old Hollywood melodramas. The editing is professional, but unexciting. The music is culled from classics by Strauss, Schoenberg, and Brahms, and is used in the most conventional ways. Were this the entire story, The Oberwald Mystery would be a bafflingly stodgy addition to Antonioni's credits, doubly baffling as Antonioni has never done anything so obvious and old-fashioned before.
But there is one unique element - the cinematography, or, perhaps more accurately, the videophotography. Even here, much is standard, and reminiscent of the work of the untalented. The camera is permitted no interesting angles or movements. (Well, almost none. A director with as instinctive an eye as Antonioni's is hard-put to eliminate every shred of interest from his camerawork.) The only innovation is in the use of color and video special effects.
Antonioni and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shot The Oberwald Mystery on videotape. They then performed odd permutations on the video image for three years, and transferred the results to film. Actors are bathed in colored lights suggestive of moods and motives. Ghostly figures appear and disappear, obedient to the characters' memories. Backgrounds fade and are replaced with images suitable to the feeling of the scene. It's all quite peculiar.
And, alas, ineffective. Some experiments, unfortunately, are failures. The Oberwald Mystery must count as one such. The coloring of the characters is more silly than artistically satisfying, especially the blue filtering perpetually placed over the villainous head of the government's secret police. The ghostly images are puzzling. The switch of backgrounds is sometimes too subtle to be effective, otherwise too obvious in its intentions. Moreover, the visual quality of videotape is too poor to stand up to a 35mm blowup. The color, when not washed out with Antonioni's little experiments, is garish; at its best, it suggests a rather faded print of a Roger Corman Poe movie. Sudden movements cause easily visible breakup of the image into scan lines. And, as usual, video lends a flat, boring texture to almost any scene.
Antonioni might simply be ahead of his time in the use of videotape. For some years, Hollywood filmmakers have been talking about high-definition videotape, and extolling its virtues. (Most of which have to do with the ease of editing.) The results have not been too impressive, so far. The special effects Antonioni incorporates through the use of special video processing machines are no great shakes. Selective tinting of scenes has been around since the silents. It wasn't a very effective technique then, being the poor man's color film, and it shows little potential for ever being any more effective. Superposition of images is a well-developed technology for film, and the video version shown off in The Oberwald Mystery is not nearly as good as mediocre film work in this area. And that's about it for Antonioni's bag of video tricks.
As an experiment, The Oberwald Mystery has some interest for those few who care about the technology of filmmaking and the future of video. The mere fact that such a prominent European filmmaker would spend so much time and effort on video has to be of some interest, in and of itself. However, beyond this small band, and the equally small band of Antonioni completists, The Oberwald Mystery has little to offer. Its tired story and run-of-the-mill production provide little entertainment value. Its intellectual underpinnings are musty. Antonioni has put all his efforts into playing with one variable, leaving the rest untouched. It's a pity that he didn't set those other variables to more interesting values.
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