The long (145-minute) 1960 “L’Avventura” directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007) is considered by many cinéastes as his masterpiece. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival was greeted by boos from many in the audience. The film was given a Special Jury Prize for creating a new cinematic language (which is nonsense: alienation in deep focus was prominent in “Citizen Kane” and “The Little Foxes” (both shot by Gregg Toland), or in Douglas Sirk’s 1950s films, especially “There’s Always Tomorrow” ) and for the beauty of its visual compositions (which would be difficult to dispute). Those who are bored and/or frustrated by the film were and still are contested by those impressed by its artistry.
At the risk of coming across as wishy-washy, I neither love nor hate “L’Avventura.” Although not as quite as talky as Antonioni’s 1950s films, “L’Avventura” is still quite talky – and the dialogue is crushingly banal. Very little happens. (Antonioni gave himself screen credit for an original story as well as shared credit for the scenario. I wonder what there can have been in the way of a story to credit!)
The film opens with the dark-tressed Anna (Lea Massari) telling her father (Renzo Ricci) she’s going away. After he expresses resignation, Anna is joined by her friend Claudia (the blonde Monica Vitti) and they are driven off.
They are dropped off outside the apartment of Anna’s fiancee, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). The affianced two have not seen each other for a month and Anna decides to go to bed with him even though Anna is waiting (visibly through the window). Eventually Sandro drives the three of them away.
Cut to a yacht of bored rich folks (whether Claudia is one or a friend of Claudia from a less affluent background is not altogether clear). With the boat at cruising speed, Anna plunges into the Mediterranean near one of the Aeolian islands off Sicily. Sandro and Claudia follow her. After a bit, Anna claims to have seen a shark and everyone gets out of the water.
The group disembarks on a barren, steep-cliffed island, and Anna disappears. Some show of searching for her follows (various members of the group wandering about the lunar landscape crying “Anna”).
Skipping over another sexual pairing from which Claudia is excluded, while they ostensibly are searching for Anna, Claudia replaces Anna as Sandro’s main squeeze. She shows ambivalence (as well she should, since Sandro is a shallow, dependent cad), but at the end seems to accept mothering him as he continues to seek new conquests.
I don’t really understand the animus directed (by some) at the final scene. It is hyper-composed with Sandro facing a blank wall, Claudia facing the for-the-moment-dormant volcano of Mount Etna. It seems to me as clear where they are emotionally as where they are in space (Taormina). And what is best about the film is background (architecture and/or geology) seen behind characters. iI would be very difficult to care anything about (even Vitti’s, who is called on to emote a bit).
I find the “story” tedious, and bristle at the “new language” claim and the claim that Claudia provides an unprecedented female subjectivity. In regard to the first, I have to wonder whether those making it had seen the classics of the silent screen. In regard to the second, Claudia is far more passive and subservient than many Hollywood films, including the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges et al. and “women’s pictures” both before the Production Code (see Mick LaSalle’s Difficult Women) and in 1940s “women’s pictures” starring Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rosalind Russell. And the Marlene Dietrich of Josef von Sternberg (compare the end of Shanghai Express to the end of “L’avventura”! Shanghai Lil gets her way; Claudia seems to accept a sour philanderer).
Antonioni did not make those claims, and I try not to hold them against him. There is much with which I disagree in Gene Youngblood’s commentary track on the good-looking Criterion transfer, but at least it is stimulating (plus I welcomed detail on what was filmed where in Sicily). It seems rather elephantine to an aficionado of noirs (as I am), though providing some angular bones on which to gnaw. The scene on top of the church and the one of Claudia being eaten by the gaze of seemingly all the men in the town are masterful in my view, but the basic vision is lacking in interest.
I find Antonioni’s fascination with the fripperies of the idle rich (in this and other films, including the outing to the beach in “Les amiches” ) suspect (and tedious)… and observing their ennui induces ennui in me. His eye for visual composition was strong, but one-dimensional characters quickly become tiresome, and his ability to develop characters was stunted. (Which came first, the lack of interest in them or the character-flattening direction? or, more hostilely, lack of ability or lack of interest?)
This is the fourth in my series of revisits to the famed “puzzle films” of the 1960s. The others are “Last Year at Marienbad” (Resnais, 1960), “Persona” (Bergman, 1967), and Antonioni’s own 1966 “Blow-Up.”