ONE DOESN'T WATCH the twilight works of a great artist with expectations of viewing masterpieces, but instead out of a mixture of obeisance and hope. In 1985, at the age of 73, Michelangelo Antonioni suffered a stroke, and given his age and health, it was universally assumed he'd given us his final moments on film. Ten years later, with French financing and Wim Wenders courteously stepping in to film scenes Antonioni couldn't handle in his condition, he directed Beyond the Clouds. I'd dearly love to report he's still in top form, but of course I cannot.

Much here is rambling, boring, pretentious -- Antonioni's familiar empty streets and piers, minus the clarity and precision that once made these images transcendent. But the director of Il Grido, L'avventura, L'Eclisse, and The Passenger -- to name just some peaks from a truly mountainous career -- does reappear in small bursts throughout the film.

Adapted from That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, his marvelous collection of film sketches and stories, Beyond the Clouds stars John Malkovich as a wearily philosophizing movie director observing life passing as he imagines his next movie: a series of elliptical characters who court, sleep with, and inadvertently hurt one another. A young man and woman meet and fall in love, but the man avoids consummation. The director hears out a shopgirl who stabbed her father 12 times, then sleeps with her. A man allows himself to passively drift between wife and mistress. A street flirtation becomes a stirring debate on happiness, contentment, and God. There is a five-minute bit in a cleared-out apartment between two jilted spouses that is as funny and sad as Antonioni has ever been; and the final segment is a tiny masterpiece.

There's still hope for him. Word is he's working on not one but two more movies right now -- one with Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder, the other a science fiction film from the writer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers -- but why wait to see a movie by one of cinema's masters? It's up to you, of course, whether to put up with the dreary patches in return for Antonioni's finer moments, but if you ask me, you owe it to him.

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