I was recently on a Michelangelo Antonioni kick, watching many of his films for the first time and revisiting others that I had already seen. Antonioni remains one of my favorite filmmakers and his cinematic style is completely unique. Often considered one of the fathers of contemplative cinema, Antonioni crafted films that are slow, existentialist works, often concerned with the inability of people to connect in our modern age.
His camera lingers on a shot long after an action has occurred and scrutinizes its subject. On a visual level, his films are beautiful. In fact, one could freeze frame nearly any shot in an Antonioni film and witness a beautiful photograph. Anyone who is looking for a conventional film narrative though will need to look elsewhere. Most modern day moviegoers will find Antonioni’s work frustrating, cryptic, or meaningless. But someone with an appreciation for cinema will probably find Antonioni’s films to be incredibly rich and powerful meditations on our modern malaise.
By the time L’avventura was released in 1960, Antonioni was well known in his native Italy. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, it was notoriously booed by audience members. However, before the Festival was over, L’avventura received praise from an array of filmmakers and critics and won the Festival’s Jury Prize for creating “a new movie language and the beauty of its images.”
The 1960s was such a pivotal time in the history of film, a decade in which film conventions were constantly being challenged. L’avventura was one of the most influential films of the decade for it did indeed create a new film language, one that did not rely on a traditional narrative discourse.
Antonioni begins the film with a female character, Anna (Lea Massari), who seems to be the main focus of the story, until her narrative is abandoned completely. One might be reminded of another 1960 classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the film’s protagonist is brutally murdered within the first hour. However, in L’avventura, Antonioni does not provide the viewer with an explanation or resolution to Anna’s narrative. She simply disappears. Her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti) search for the missing woman but they gradually abandon their search and fall for one another.
L’avventura is a film full of long stretches in which nothing seems to happen. I guess this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film for me. At any given moment in the film, nothing and everything is happening all at once. On its surface, L’avventura bears some resemblance to another 1960 film, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Both films show the moral ambivalence of the bourgeoisie but L’avventura is more about the impossibility of love in the modern age. These characters want desperately to connect but find that ultimately, they are unable to have authentic, meaningful relationships. This would continue to be one of Antonioni’s chief concerns in his body of work. This thematic concern links L’avventura to Antonioni’s following films, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). This trifecta of films is often referred to as Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation.”
In Antonioni’s cinema, landscape plays a pivotal role. There is often a correlation between a character’s feelings, or emotional state and their surroundings. This thematic concern would become even more pronounced in Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964), which is sometimes linked to his alienation trilogy. The location for each scene seems to fit the thematic material perfectly, such as the barren volcanic island in which Anna disappears. Antonioni has stated that he often starts conceiving of films first in terms of place.
Antonioni was incredibly gifted at conveying moods and atmosphere by purely visual means. One of my favorite shots in the film occurs after Sandro and Claudia have visited an empty church in a seemingly empty town. The duo leave the site but instead of following them, Antonioni’s camera lingers on the location in a slow tracking shot. What is the main feeling that this shot and the entire film conveys? Alienation seems to be the popular choice but it is a word that has perhaps, been a little overused when discussing L’avventura. I do not think one can reduce L’avventura down to one word for it is so much more.
Antonioni’s films have memorable endings that are by no means traditional. The human touch is such an important aspect of Antonioni’s cinema so it is fitting that it becomes the subject of L’avventura’s conclusion. The camera focuses on Claudia’s hand as she hesitatingly touches Sandro who has just betrayed her. She chooses to forgive him despite his shortcomings that have stemmed from his societal and gender roles.
Silence is another important aspect of Antonioni’s cinema. Music is used very sparingly in L’avventura but when it is utilized, it is extremely effective as in the film’s ending. The performances in Antonioni’s films are incredibly subdued. The trio of Vitti, Ferzetti, and Massari is excellent with all three giving great performances. Vitti would go on to become Antonini’s muse, appearing in several of his films.
If it is not evident already, I could go on and on about L’avventura, an incredibly rich film experience that is haunting and profound. This was on my “must see” list for years and when I finally watched and digested it, I was incredibly moved and the film stayed with me for a long time thereafter, not unlike the character of Anna. Even though she vanishes from the film’s narrative, she always remains present in the viewer’s and characters’ subconscious.
Rating (out of ****)-****
La Notte (1961)
If L’avventura was about the inability to have authentic and loving human relationships then La Notte is about the inability to sustain a relationship over time. The narrative or what little there is of it concerns a period of approximately twenty four hours in the life of an estranged married couple.
Like Antonioni’s other films, the narrative is not as important as the way the story is told and the visual landscape directly correlates with the interior lives of the characters. In La Notte, that visual landscape is the city of Milan. In the hands of Antonioni, Milan becomes alien and remote and the stark architecture envelopes the characters. This becomes particularly evident in a sequence that follows Lidia as she wanders around the city.
Usually, the protagonist in an Antonioni film is a woman. These female protagonists are lost in their lives and can only find brief moments of happiness, such as when Lidia sees some boys launching rockets in a field. This brief moment provides a distraction for her.
Ultimately, La Notte is a tragic film that shows the collapse of a marriage. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, known for their dramatic flair, are incredibly subdued here and both are excellent. Vitti also returns in a smaller role. Many people will view La Notte as a film in which nothing happens. Sadly, these viewers are missing the point. If one looks beneath its surface, there is so much happening in La Notte as Antonioni continues to explore the themes established in his previous work, L’avventura.
Rating (out of ****): ****
Along with his following film Red Desert (1964), L’Eclisse may be Antonioni’s most abstract work. There is very little story to speak of except that Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon) are young lovers who struggle to have an authentic relationship.
The ending, which seems like a relative term here, is one of the most famous sequences in all of Antonioni’s cinema. The camera shows Vittoria and Piero’s usual meeting place. In fact, the two young lovers are supposed to meet there and the viewer anticipates their appearance but neither of them shows. However, the camera lingers on all the details that the viewer associates with Vittoria and Piero. It is a strange and bewildering sequence that perplexes and fascinates.
Few films capture such a feeling of emptiness, of alienation, and of the need to find human connection without being able to fulfill that basic human desire.
Rating (out of ****): ****
Red Desert (1964)
I watched my first Antonioni film, Blow-Up (1966) and my second, The Passenger (1975) when I was in high school. I really liked these films but it was not until my third Antonioni film, Red Desert that I fully appreciated his style. I was a junior in college, taking a world cinema course. Each week, we focused on a different filmmaker. The second week was focused on Antonioni and we were required to view Red Desert outside of class. After watching the film, I was truly blown away and for the first time, I realized that Antonioni seemed to get at something much deeper than most filmmakers. So, Red Desert is a special film for me. In fact, I already posted an analysis of the film. I will present a truncated version of that here with some additional points to offer.
Red Desert is a character study of a woman who is on the verge of insanity. Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is married to a successful industrial manager named Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). Although Ugo supports Giuliana financially, he is often away on business endeavors and is not emotionally supportive of her. In fact, Ugo takes on an almost robotic appearance, and does not have much to say to Giuliana. Ugo and Valerio (Valerio Bartholeschi), their son, are adapted to their industrial environment. Giuliana, on the other hand, is unable to adapt to her surroundings and never seems comfortable. She plans on opening a ceramics gallery in the neighborhood, hoping this will help her become acclimated to her environment. Antonioni is able to inform the viewer of Giuliana’s mental state through purely visual means. His camera moves slowly through this landscape, studying and scrutinizing its subjects and their movements.
One must consider the historical context in which the film was made. World War II had a drastic effect on Italy’s economic, moral, and social life. Red Desert was released nearly twenty years after the end of the war. Italy had recovered from the devastation of the war and was on its way toward economic prosperity. The country’s petrochemical industry was on the rise, reducing vast, natural land into industrial wasteland, which is the world that the film inhabits. The diegetic world of the film at times seems like a remote, desolate landscape from an alien or future world.
The film’s opening credits sequence is out of focus, foreshadowing Giuliana’s emotional state. The opening scene establishes the dialectic between the forward movement of scientific and industrial progress and the resistance to that movement, or in other words, the old world versus the new world.
Red Desert was shot using a telephoto lens to match Giuliana’s fractured mental state. In one scene, a noise coming from another room awakens Giuliana from a nightmare. The composition of the scene conveys a sense of imprisonment. The foreground is dominated by a blue railing that runs horizontally across the image. Giuliana is standing in the background, framed as if she is in a prison cell. The source of the noise that awakens Giuliana is revealed first to the viewer and then to Giuliana. It is Valerio’s toy robot, which moves back and forth in the boy’s room. In contrast to Giuliana, the robot does not awaken Valerio, showing that he is adjusted and comfortable in this technological world. Giuliana turns the toy off and shuts the door. The only thing that is visible is the robot’s eyes, which are watching Giuliana, who cannot escape its technological gaze. Giuliana walks down the stairs and then back up, looking frightened. The bars of the railing surround her. Ugo emerges from the bedroom and looks at the thermometer, telling her that it is normal. This reflects Ugo’s position throughout the film, which is one who constantly asserts that things are normal or the same as they were before Giuliana’s accident when they are obviously not. Giuliana puts her head on his shoulder, desperately looking for comfort that she cannot attain. She says that she dreamt she was in a bed that was sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand. Contrary to the oblivious Ugo’s belief, she is slipping deeper and deeper into madness. This scene and others in the film are framed in a way that place the viewer in an awkward, uncomfortable, and claustrophobic position. Similarly, Giuliana is continually in a state of discomfort and does not seem to know what to do. She stands up against a wall in the room. Rather than console her emotionally, Ugo tries to console her sexually, which she obviously does not need at the moment, or want.
Giuliana meets Ugo’s colleague, Corrado (Richard Harris), who is another lost soul. Corrado tells Giuliana, “It’s never still…I can’t look at the sea too long otherwise I lose interest in what’s happening here on land.” Unlike Ugo, Corrado takes the time to listen to Giuliana and comfort her. However, his true intentions are never entirely clear. On the one hand, Corrado seems to show a genuine concern for Giuliana’s mental health. On the other hand, he takes advantage of Giuliana’s disturbed mental state to have sex with her.
My favorite scene in the film occurs when Giuliana tells Valerio a story of a young girl on a desert island. It would have been more logical for Giuliana to tell Valerio a story with a male protagonist so that he could relate more to the tale. However, Giuliana’s choice to use a female protagonist reflects her own psychological state. Giuliana wants to escape her industrial environment and inhabit the world of the story in all of its simplistic beauty. In the story, the rocks take on an eerie human like form, and sing to the girl. Because the look of the film is so bleak, this scene assaults the viewer’s senses with the beautiful colors and sounds of nature. This is also the only scene in which, visually, things look normal.
The film shows society’s disconnect with nature. Despite mankind’s technological progression, people overlook the beauty of nature and the basic simplicities of life. The film seems even more pertinent in today’s world, in which technological progress is moving at an accelerated rate. Antonioni has stated on several occasions that he is not against industry, but rather finds it to be inevitable and, at times, beautiful. However, the film’s unintended message is that there is nothing beautiful about this industrial wasteland. As people’s lives become more reliant on technology, they lose sight of the natural world around them, jeopardizing their spiritual health.
This is Giuliana’s case. She feels she can no longer connect with the world around her and she longs for a simpler life that no longer exists for her. When describing the film, Antonioni said that, “There are people who do adapt and others who can’t manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are now out-of-date. This is Giuliana’s problem. What brought on her personal crisis was the irreconcilable divide, the gap between her sensibility, intelligence, and psychology and the way of life that was imposed on her. It’s a crisis that has to do not just with her surface relationships with the world-her perception of sounds, colors, and the coldness of the people around her-but with her whole system of values-social, moral, religious-which are by now out-of-date and can no longer support her. She therefore finds that she has to reinvent herself completely as a woman. That is the advice her doctor gives her and that she tries to follow. The film, in a sense, is the history of that effort.”
The film’s soundtrack employs sounds that often seem alien and otherworldly, and signal Giuliana’s madness. In one scene, a point of view shot shows Giuliana’s isolation when a fog swallows Ugo and his friends. It is one of the film’s most striking compositions. The architecture in the film is also a trigger for Giuliana’s discomfort with the modern world. Her house, for example, looks just as bleak and foreboding as the interiors of the factories.
Monica Vitti does not play Giuliana as a crazed psychopath. Rather, she gives a much more subtle performance, showing a woman who is slowly losing her sanity. Vitti is beautiful and riveting as the disturbed woman. All of the performances in the film are naturalized, reflecting Antonioni’s gift for blocking. The movement of the actors is always natural and adds to the film’s authenticity.
In Ravenna, Italy, where the film was shot, the companies SAROM and ANIC actually did transform the landscape into an industrial wasteland. Antonioni is interested in depicting aspects of modern life. He shows the spiritual confusion that results from not being able to adapt in this ever-changing landscape. Antonioni said, “Our lives are dominated by industry…I don’t just mean the factories themselves but also their products. They are all over our houses, made of plastic or materials that, up to a few years ago, were totally unknown.”
Red Desert is notable for being Antonioni’s first color film. He has received much praise for his use of color, for which he develops specific metonymic patterns. With his director of photography, Carlo Di Palma, he experiments with color by manipulating the image in a variety of ways. He uses filters, lenses at different focal lengths, and out of focus shots to manipulate colors. In some cases, these colors directly correlate with Giuliana’s mood. Antonioni takes on the persona of a painter, literally painting the landscape with dull colors to make it more bleak and menacing.
The absence of color in some scenes is contrasted with moments in which color features predominantly and demands the viewer’s attention, such as when Giuliana shows Corrado the space where she plans on opening a ceramics gallery. Giuliana wants the gallery to be painted either cool blue or green. The film’s original title was going to be Pale Blue and Green, but Antonioni dropped the title because he felt it was not strong enough and was too attached to the idea of color. Giuliana prefers cool colors like blue and green because they will calm her and the things that she wants to sell will stand out better. Blue and green are also the colors of nature, reflecting Giuliana’s inner desires to escape her reality and go to a more natural world, like the one she recounts for Valerio later in the film.
In another scene, Giuliana, Corrado, Ugo, and his friends spend time in a room that is painted bright red, symbolizing strong emotions and passion. In this sexually charged scene, the group converses about aphrodisiacs. However, the tightness of the crowded space makes it uncomfortable for Giuliana and, by extension, the viewer.
Antonioni’s inspiration for the film came on a visit to Ravenna. He had been there all his life. On one particular visit, he realized that Ravenna had transformed from a natural estuarine into the industrial landscape that the film so vividly depicts. Antonioni has also made it clear that the industrial landscape did not cause Giuliana’s neuroses. They simply aggravated her preexisting condition.
One of the film’s most unsettling sequences marks the culmination of Giuliana and Corrado’s mutual attraction. Giuliana seems more unsettled than ever before and Corrado consoles her sexually even though she clearly does not want it. This is one of the most uncomfortable and emotionally cold sex scenes ever put to celluloid. Antonioni uses several out of focus close-up shots to heighten the tension and discomfort for the viewer. In Corrado’s final scene, Giuliana tells him that he did not help her. Corrado’s solution to Giuliana’s problems was sex, which did not help her and may have only made her more disoriented and confused.
The ending of the film is as ambiguous as everything that preceded it. Giuliana is wearing the same green overcoat that she wore at the start of the film, suggesting that she has not made any progress. However, her comment to Valerio about the bird that has learned to avoid the yellow smoke implies that she has begun to adapt to her environment. Antonioni said, “She may find a compromise, but the neuroses will stay with her forever. I wanted to hint at this idea of continuing sickness with the slightly unfocused images. She is in a static phase of her life.” I gathered from the film that there is hope for Giuliana, just as there is hope for the rest of humanity.
In conclusion, Red Desert is a haunting, complex, and powerful meditation on modernity and its effect on the human spirit. It offers no easy answers. Instead, it induces the viewer to think and contemplate its complexity. It is an authentication of film as art and displays the creative possibilities of the medium. If one considers all that it has to offer beneath its surface, Red Desert can be a rewarding experience about the alienated self and one’s relationship with the modern world.
Rating (out of ****): ****