(1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
It took me a long time to get around to seeing any Michaelangelo Antonioni films, but finally a couple of years back, I started with Blow-Up (1966) and then The Passenger (1975), two of his later English language films. But still, I hadn’t ever seen any of his earlier work in his native Italian, nor really enough to get any kind of real grasp on one of the major names of mid-20th century European cinema. Which brings me to L’Avventura.
L’Avventura is another of the major works of Antonioni’s career. In fact, by many it is considered a turning point for the director, who received both negative reaction and ultimately the Jury Prize in Cannes in 1960. It’s a perplexing and challenging film that starts out seeming like it’s perhaps more conventional, especially in its story. But as the story plays out, against expectation, against narrative closure, it’s easy to see how this film pushed the avant-garde of the time.
The story follows young woman of a wealthy family, who goes along with a number of other couples and a friend and her boyfriend on a yacht trip near the isle of Sicily. There is dramatic tension from the beginning because her rootless boyfriend and her are at odds over their non-committal relationship, and she signals ambiguously but no less clearly that she perhaps is in or senses trouble. Then, landed on a largely desolate volcanic island for a rest, the girl disappears. Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? Was there an accident? Did she intentionally disappear and take off on another boat?
Her best friend and her boyfriend, as well as the whole party of somewhat disconnected well-to-do Italians all search for her, pulling in the authorities and her father, making news in the local press. But she is nowhere to be found. And for a long while, this disappearance seems to be the heart of the movie. But then the girl’s boyfriend begins to try to “make love” to her best friend, and the “adventure” of romance, an affair, blossoms among the rocky outrcrops of their fruitless search and her meaningless disappearance gone cold.
There is a considered air of danger around, especially in the form of leering men and masculinity. Starting with the remorseless boyfriend, but piled on by the busy male denizen of the cities, leering openly, crowding around the young woman, asking after her like wolves around a luscious lamb. One of the film’s most effective moments is when the young woman is left on her own in the street, then suddenly surrounded by the leering locals.
The whole film though is much more than any one element of its parts. The cinematography is very controlled and focused, moving the camera around in many shots, also at times using the movement of the boat on the sea to give a seasickened dizziness to the atmosphere. Antonioni uses the rugged rocky landscape of the island effectively, but even more effectively, he employs the architectural landscapes of the cities and towns, framing and contrasting the characters in their various moments of passion or disconnection. And perhaps most interestingly is how Antonioni uses doorways, windows, and other aperatures to frame characters in and out of rooms, buildings, looking in, but separated from what is happening. Sometimes they are eavesdropping or spying, sometimes they are seen through windows or open doors. I didn’t get a complete handle on the potential significance of these specific visual effects, but it’s clearly complex mise-en-scene.
In that sense, the film is rapturously interesting, strange, loaded, and unsimplified. At the same time, the film is long and intentionally frustrating in its drift of focus, its lack of closure on many major narrative lines, and is not simple easy viewing. I can see themes that continue in the later films that I have seen, of disappearance, disconnect, with a tonality of internal seeking among physical landscapes. I actually really found the film quite intriguing and interesting, perhaps liking it more than the other two films that I’d seen previously.
L’Avventura is the first of three films that critics have come to refer to as a trilogy of alienation (including La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962)), which was not in any way an intent of Antonioni’s. Then again, I think that alienation is a theme in all three of the films that I have seen. Certainly, these are rich and challenging films, not for the conventional filmgoer. Which I think is a testament to their value.