'Queen of Italian cinema' Monica Vitti is dead at 90

Italian actor Monica Vitti at the Venice Film Festival in 1964. [AP]

Monica Vitti, the versatile movie star of Michelangelo Antonioni's “L'Avventura” and other Italian alienation films of the 1960s, and later a leading comic actress, has died. She was 90.

Her death was announced Wednesday on Twitter by a former culture minister, Walter Veltroni, who said he had been asked to communicate her death by her husband, the photographer Roberto Russo.

“Goodbye to the queen of Italian cinema,” the current culture minister, Dario Franceschini, wrote in a statement.

Vitti had been out of the public spotlight for years, living quietly in Rome with her husband. She reportedly suffered from a form of dementia.

In her glamour days in the 1960s, she was best known for her starring roles in “L'Avventura,” “La Notte,” “Eclisse” (“Eclipse”) and “Red Desert,” all films directed by Antonioni, her lover at that time. The two were constant targets of paparazzi.

“L'Avventura” won her international attention and praise for her role as an icy cool woman drifting into a relationship with the lover of her missing girlfriend. In “Red Desert,” the last of the cycle, she plays a woman suffering from a deep, elusive neurosis as she struggled to deal with a transformed industrial world.

Vitti's blond hair and blue eyes set her apart from classic Mediterranean screen stars such as the brown-haired Sophia Loren.

Antonioni himself paid tribute to her performance at a special screening in New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1999 to mark completion of a restoration project for Italian film.

“The protagonist, Giuliana, goes through a profound personal crisis because of her inability to adapt,” he said, in remarks read by his wife, Enrica.

After Vitti's relationship with Antonioni ended, they didn't work together again until 1980. At that point, she changed focus sharply and began making comedies, working with top directors and some of Italy's leading actors, including Alberto Sordi, a tragi-comic one, in films whose characters often personified Italians' strengths and foibles.

While many of the films didn't gain international distribution or acclaim, her performances were greeted with success at home.

In 1970, Vitti starred with Marcello Mastroianni in Ettore Scola's romantic comedy “Dramma della gelosia” (“The Pizza Triangle.”) In 1974, she won the equivalent of an Italian Oscar, a David di Donatello award, for best actress in Sordi's “Polvere di Stelle,” one of five such prizes in her career.

She starred in Luis Bunuel's “Le Fantome de la liberte” (“The Phantom of Liberty”) in 1974, a surrealistic treatment of middle-class hypocrisies, considered her last major film.

Her versatility distinguished her from other actresses of her period.

In a memorable scene in “Amore mio aiutami” (“Help me, my love,”) she and Sordi roll in the sand trading slaps and punches. In one of her only two English-language films, she found herself in a spy spoof with Terence Stamp and Dirk Bogarde in the 1966 “Modesty Blaise.”

Vitti was born as Maria Luisa Ceciarelli in Rome in 1931. As a teenager, she appeared in amateur stage productions, then studied as an actor in Rome's National Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her first film role was in Scola's “Ridere Ridere Ridere” (“Laugh Laugh Laugh”) in 1954. Her last was “Scandalo Segreto” in 1989, which she wrote, directed and starred in.

Her reclusive life led to much speculation about the state of her health. In 1988, Le Monde reported she died from an overdose of barbiturates. She was very popular in France and her fans were outraged.

Her last public appearance was in 2002 for the premiere of “Notre Dame de Paris.”

In 1995, the Venice Film Festival awarded her a Golden Lion award for career achievement.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi remembered Vitti as “an actress of great irony and extraordinary talent, who won over generations of Italians with her spirit, bravura and beauty. She brought prestige to the Italian cinema around the globe.”