After exploring the art of remakes, I’m embarking on a quest for some bona fide art cinema. Here’s the last of five articles on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007). I wrote this while sipping coffee product I can neither spell nor pronounce.
By Joe Valdez
Pampered rich girl Anna (Lea Massari) joins her best friend – the vibrant Claudia (Monica Vitti) – on a cruise of the Aeolian Sea off the coast of Sicily. Among those joining them on the private yacht is Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), an architect Anna has been carrying on a long distance relationship with. While Sandro seems incapable of being without a woman and dotes on her, Anna longs for escape.
The yacht stops on a deserted island of volcanic rock. Anna expresses her restlessness to her boyfriend, but Sandro insists everything will be fine once they get married. As the party prepares to leave, Anna is nowhere to be found. A search of the island reveals a shelter, but no Anna. Claudia, Sandro and another man stay in the shelter while the others go for help.
The authorities can find no trace of Anna, and her disappearance becomes a mystery. While her decadent friends have no difficulty moving on, Claudia investigates alleged sightings of Anna on the mainland. Sandro accompanies her and the two fall in love. But Claudia succumbs to the same restless feelings as her missing friend, and senses that Anna is out there somewhere, watching her.
Michelangelo Antonioni was a critic and screenwriter in Rome during the 1940s. After making nine short documentaries, he was able to finance a feature called Cronaca di un Amore in 1950. It appeared to be a murder mystery, but abandoned any plotline to focus on the emotions of its characters. The film also featured meticulously framed compositions. Antonioni directed three more features, but none were commercially successful.
Antonioni next teamed with Elio Bartolini & Tonino Guerra to write L’Avventura. Shooting commenced in August 1959, but moved so slowly that money ran out and his producers abandoned him. The unpaid crew deserted him at least twice, but Antonioni was able to locate financing and continue, finally wrapping the film in January 1960.
When screened at the Cannes Film Festival, the film met with boos and walkouts. It was such a disaster that Antonioni and Monica Vitti had to flee the theater. A second screening was arranged, and L’Avventura was awarded a Prix le Premier Regard, “For the beauty of its images, and for seeking to create a new film language.” It became an international box office hit, and in 1962, the prestigious critics poll in Sight & Sound magazine ranked the film second greatest of all time, behind Citizen Kane.
With a running time of 145 minutes, a languid pace, and a mystery that is never solved – not to mention subtitles – this is not a film intended as a mass entertainment. I had to hit pause after each hour to take a break. But once the film ended, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I watched it three times before sending it back to Greencine and can plainly see why critics ranked this as one of the greatest films ever made for years after it was released.
L’Avventura is a masterpiece, a beguiling film, one you might need to watch more than once for its beauty and power to sink in. The cast is immensely photogenic, while the premise – escape from a life of the ordinary – is one that many should be able to identify with. But Antonioni abandons conventional plot in order to express the emotions of his characters with some of the most stunning compositions ever devoted to film.
Images drift by like a moving art gallery: women riding in a convertible as it passes into a courtyard, Monica Vitti letting the surf lap over their feet, or later, stretching across her open suitcase as if she wants to be taken somewhere far away. Maybe it is too long, but L’Avventura has a strong feminist current that I liked. Many have also credited the picture – like Citizen Kane – with reshaping the fundamental way movies look. Most highly recommended.
“Memorable, remarkable images appear periodically and make an impact, but I would fall short of labeling L’Avventura a Great Movie,” says Dan Heaton at Erasing Clouds.
Danel Griffin at Film as Art writes, “Some wise old man (probably Ebert) once said the greatest films can be revisited time and time again with the promise that each new viewing will be a fresh encounter. L’Avventura is the kind of film that I suspect will always be brand new to me.”
“L’Avventura is a film that appears quite strange, almost alien, in its insistence on toying with audience expectations … and then heading off in completely new directions. For those willing to take up a challenge, Antonioni is more than worth the effort,” says Mike Pinsky at DVD Verdict.
“How boring. Why all of this fuss over a swim?” View Lea Massari and Monica Vitti get their hair wet.