Monday, 23 April 2012

Looking for someone... L’Avventura (1960)

This blog can be a bit wayward sometimes I’ll admit, but if there’s one thing that links most of the posts it is that the films in question are “contemplative”. It’s not just “silent” movies that make you slow down, focus and have to “read” them…the same is true for world cinema (for subtitles equal intertitles…) and for cinema which relies as much as if not more on the sight rather than the sounds.

This is certainly the case in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. The dialogue doesn’t always reflect the action and you have to interpret the significance of the scenes from how the characters look and also how they are positioned in relation to the scenery.

There are many great examples of this is L’Avventura the director’s meditation on identity and our ability to truly know ourselves. In the opening sequence Anna has a conversation with her father against a backdrop of old and new architecture in Rome: he is firmly aligned with the old and she, like the new buildings, is incomplete and still to be realised.

Later, the architect, Sandro and Claudia hold conversations that are completely at odds with their actions as they search for their friend: they’re not talking about Anna nor are they talking about themselves. Is this the difference between their ability to express their needs and their honesty or the difference between consciously planned action and instinctive behaviour?

With Antonioni nothing is ever definitive and that’s what makes his films fascinating and re-watchable experiences.

The film begins with Anna (Lea Massari) a diffident young woman in an unsatisfying relationship with an architect, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is even less directed. The two meet in his apartment and he seems only able to communicate through sex or is it another means of him avoiding real communication.

The two set off on a cruise with their upper class acquaintances to the Aeolian Islands with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) in tow. The characters are as barren as the volcanic islands their ship passes by; bored, directionless…hating each other. Trapped.

Anna, at least, has reached the point of wanting to pull away from Sandro. She cannot sense any feeling from him and fakes a makes a fuss over a pretend shark sighting perhaps out of spite but also to be alone with her friend Maria – the one person she is sure of. There follows a strange sequence in which Anna reveals the truth to Claudia and gives her a shirt...the two stand with ttheir backs to camera....almost as if they're inter-changeable.

Soon after Anna and Sandro have a row and, when we least expect it…she is no longer there. After less than half an hour what we thought of as the main character leaves the film, never to return… and we don’t know what happens. Does she escape by boat, throw herself onto the rocks… it almost doesn’t matter (although I suspect the former). You can understand why some audiences found this difficult to deal with then and it would certainly challenge a modern audience.

But, maybe Anna has resolved her story, by leaving her unhappy relationship, and in doing so, has left space for the others to sort out their own direction. From this point Claudia comes to the fore and begins to replace Anna in Sandro's mind...

A search begins of the barren island and increasingly the group are distracted, Sandro especially by the presence of Claudia…but the latter is not ready to give up on her friend. Anna’s father joins them taking comfort in her having a copy of the Bible with her (as well as a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night ).The police arrive and most of the guests depart leaving Anna’s real friend to continue the search.

We cut to the mainland and the police interviewing some suspicious fishermen, the first of many red herrings and distractions. Sandro encounters an all-male crowd who are in a frenzy trying to catch a glimpse of “model”/celebrity Gloria Perkins (Dorothy de Poliolo)… he follows the crowd and unthinking male impulse.

Then he bribes a journalist to release a story about a possible sighting in an attempt to lure Claudia to where he is.

Claudia is by this stage, staying with the rest of their party in the Villa of a Princess they know. She witnesses the childish flirtations of one of the group with the Young Prince: these people are all lost and maybe even more so than Anna.

Claudia resolves to leave them to it and to follow Sandro’s hyped lead. She’s also becoming drawn to him: seeing the potential he has, she later says, “to create great beauty”. The film has by now become Claudia’s journey and she is the only character who appears capable of change.

Claudia and Sandro interview a pharmacist and his wife who seem to know little…another red herring and another dysfunction relationship.

They visit a deserted village (a cassa del mezzogiorno) designed and built during Il Duce’s time: stark fascist lines and empty of sentiment as well as people. They find nothing there yet Antonioni cuts from their car on the silent church piazza to the couple embracing and a sequence of outstanding shots showing their love-making (in the broader and not “technical”, sense). A train passes by not as an obvious metaphor but a signal that they are being rushed along by fate…

Claudia waits for Sandro in Noto and is quickly surrounded by leering men, not unlike Gloria Perkins, their behaviour not that far away from Sandro’s own. Then the two find a more spiritual union atop the bell tower of Noto's catherdral. Even there Sandro is shown against a background of architectural complexity.

Sandro goes for a walk to study the architecture and deliberately spills ink over a young man’s architectural drawing… he is a void and a disappointment to himself. He used to annoy me but now I can only feel pity for his lost promise and his inability to accept, recognise and evolve.

Claudia is digging for a deeper connection to Sandro and he can only respond in superficial ways. Finally he is revealed as a lost cause after he is distracted by Gloria Perkins at a hotel party. He tries to hide like a child from Claudia and is distraught. Claudia finds strength in this moment of crisis and, dry-eyed, extends her hand more in maternal pity than romantic consolation.

Antonioni felt that women were more emotionally honest than men and therefore better protagonists to explain a story through. Not all of the women are brave in this film but all seem to know the truth of their situations with the men all too willing to take refuge in sexual feelings and other distractions (architecture, business, socialising and so on.) Not for nothing has this director been referred to as a “woman’s director”.

Anna and Claudia both take progressive action and it is highly likely that the latter will follow the former in leaving the man who cannot commit.

These themes are underpinned by some stunning cinematography as Antonioni uses the landscapes as an extension of his actors. Half a century on, it can be difficult to establish which of his rule-breaking motifs are the most impressive but his control of the “sight” is near absolute and still impressive to the modern viewer.

We don’t always see characters as we expect to, they have their backs to us, their faces cannot be taken in completely in close-up and they often relate in jarring ways with the environment.

He also gets great performances from his cast with his main actresses (his lover at the time) Monica Vitti, being especially skilful. Her theatrical training comes to the fore as she responds in a controlled way and draws the viewer into to her inner thoughts.

A lot of the film passes in silence and L’Avventura is not that far off from being a silent film.

There’s certainly very little musical soundtrack although there are some haunting pieces contributed by Giovanni Fusco. As with the dialogue, Antonioni expects the viewer to work out his film from the all the elements and he doesn’t seem to want to gift the viewer too many obvious clues either in musical or verbal form.

L’Avventura is one of the key films of its age and indeed in all of cinema. I watched it for the umpteenth time on the excellent Criterion double DVD set which features an great commentary from Gene Youngblood as well as a French feature on the director and a reading on the director from Jack Nicholson (star of maybe the last great Antonioni film, The Passenger).


  1. I had to wait till the very last line to find something I disagreed with: I don't like The Passenger at all, or anything post-Blow Up, really.
    Another excellent piece; I especially liked the bits about how Antonioni juxtaposes his human figures with the environment, as if resisting the dramatist's urge to prioritise them, an idea perfected at the end of L'Eclisse, where the presence of the characters in the drama is shown via their absence in the actual space.
    Just as masterly is the way this film turns a movie plot into an actual lived experience by abandoning the former entirely.

    I must say I'm amazed at the rate at which you turn out such excellent pieces: long may it continue!

  2. Thanks Matthew! My secret is a long commute - never happier than sitting with a large coffee and the laptop on one of our excellent trains as it bides its time during signal failure...

    I don't think The Passenger is up there with L'Eclisse, La Notte or L'Avventura but it has its moments, especially that extraordinary single take at the end. I also struggle with Zabriskie Point - although I like the Floyd soundtracked slow motion explosions!

    Thanks for your support, I very much appreciate the feedback!