Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Photography: Aldo Scarvada
Music: Giovanni Fusco
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cast: Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti, Lea Massari, Dominique Blanchar, James Addams, Lelio Luttazi.
The last time I looked at L’Avventura, I found to my surprise that it went by lickety-split fast for a slow-moving movie nearly two and a half hours long. It struck me as lean and supple and basically in full control of its powers. Yet it’s very likely that L’Avventura may be the single most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen when I saw it the first time, looking forward from its length and reputation and the general contours of its storyline to something narratively engaging, and instead finding what looked and felt like a puffed-up (and boring) piece of cruelly deliberate aimlessness.
It might have had something to do with the circumstances—that first look was at a VHS tape checked out from the library. I’m sure most would agree that’s not the way to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s widely hailed and highly regarded masterpiece. In fact, I haven’t yet had (or anyway taken) the opportunity to see it on a big screen; the sense I get, not just from the tenor of the praise but from the way the visuals have since caught me, is that this is one that likely improves with size, and the bigger the screen and the house and the more packed you can get it, the better. Otherwise it’s a little bit of a crapshoot.
I think now that the problems anyone might have with L’Avventura mostly boil down to problems of expectations. After all the acclaim, which is beguiling enough to anyone like me so easily swayed by critics and their pronunciamentos, I think it’s the storyline that’s the primary culprit in the confusion. I made a note the last time I looked that a plot summary with this one is a bit beside the point—in fact, might even fairly be called misleading (much as quoting Newt Gingrich directly is a distortion of his words). “The mystery is that the mystery isn’t a mystery, so much.” Why is it even there at all? You would have to talk to Michelangelo about that.
Regardless, here’s what you’re looking at (I hasten to add again, don’t be misled into thinking this is a thriller): A group of peevish and wealthy Italian friends goes on a yachting cruise that includes a stop at a small rocky volcanic island, where they spread out to explore. When it’s time to leave again one of their party, a woman named Anna (played by Lea Massari), is missing. They search for her with no result, and for much of the rest of the film her one-time fiancé Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (the luminescent Monica Vitti) continue to search for her together until they stop, even as they begin to slip into a relationship with one another.
The crisis Antonioni appears to be addressing, if I may be so bold as to characterize it as a crisis, is a kind of slow-moving yet inexorable spiritual pestilence infecting the privileged classes—or, more likely, infecting all of us, but the privileged must play the role of those well-known canaries in coal mines, warning of sickness. The rest of us struggle for survival and fragments of the refined leisures with which our heroes live so comfortably here. Our great efforts are thus blessed with concrete ends, whereas that is not the case for the privileged as a matter of class status. In fact, it is precisely what opens them up to the dread wasting-away malaise of ennui and emptiness and meaninglessness.
I hope this gives you some idea of how annoying L’Avventura can be, because in a way that’s the trick to the whole thing, for me anyway. When I go into it expecting to be annoyed and bored I find the picture working so much better. It’s remarkably beautiful, for one thing. The silvery glowing black and white manages space with a freshness and economy that is often surprising, and can be audacious and breathtaking. Objects and people may be close enough to touch on one side of the (wide)screen, while on the other a doorway frames a horizon that stretches away forever. Yins and yangs continually yaw away at you visually.
The juxtapositions, of space and object, background and foreground, light and dark, man and woman, are something to which Antonioni resorts often, dividing and conquering within the big-canvas frame, which I recall De Sica doing as well in Bicycle Thieves with a necessarily more boxy outline. Indeed, Antonioni takes the big picture to places you never imagined. The sequences on the volcanic island in the first hour are wonders of perspective, with boulders and people’s heads and inlets of churning water shot from above all balancing one another adroitly. The figures are positioned carefully on the landscape and wander across it like pieces on a board game. Back on the mainland, imposing architecture is omnipresent, lovely and impressive, somehow suffocatingly oppressive too. It’s probably even worth taking a look at L’Avventura with sound and subtitles turned off, just watching the way Antonioni moves his characters around and the various discourses of gesture and affect.
Maybe I’ll get around to that one day. I can’t say this is a movie I love—I’m not sure making anyone love it was ever among its intentions. But it has an allure and a real compactness in the way it goes about maximizing exactly its seductive impulse. In some ways, once expectations are set appropriately, you can’t take your eyes off it. A note at the very front crows that the picture won a Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960 “for a new movie language” (also for “the beauty of its images”). With Fellini and De Sica and Rossellini and Leone (and maybe even Mario Bava and Dario Argento), I can see where there’s a case to be made that Italian filmmakers have a pretty good knack for new movie languages. Antonioni, who authors a whole new slant on the “slow” film with this, certainly takes his place with them here.
JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.