Last night Patt and I had the rare opportunity to see Michelangelo Antononi’s film “L’Avventura” as a 35mm film print at the Northwest Film Center. It was shown as part of the Italian Style exhibition at the Portland Art Museum. A few years ago, I wrote of my love for Antonioni and his first color film “Red Desert“. Today, I’d like to tell you why L’Avventura is one of my favorite films of all time.
Antonioni seems, to me, to be the opposite of many earlier Italian filmmakers. Before Antonioni and his generation were the Italian neo-realists like Visconti and Rosselini. Neo-realist filmmakers share some common production traits such as using amateur actors, on-site cinematography, outlines instead of formal storyboards and scripts, socialist themes about the working class and their struggles, and the physical effects of historical events. As one would expect from the name “neo-realism” these films were almost a form of interpretive historiography.
Antonioni’s films, however, use well-trained professional actors (Monica Vitti!!!), expensive locations, highly stylized aesthetics, upper class protagonists, and a strong focus on the psychological (versus physical) effects of events. To my mind , Antonioni is the antithesis of a neo-realist. But I love Rosselini, so, clearly being antithetical to Rosselini and Visconti isn’t what I love about L’Avventura. That is simply one among many of the things that makes Antonioni and this particular film, unique.
Honestly, L’Avventura is pretty light on plot-lines. But here is what Janus Films has to say: “A girl mysteriously disappears on a yachting trip. While her lover and her best friend search for her across Italy, they begin an affair. Antonioni’s penetrating study of the idle upper class offers stinging observations on spiritual isolation and the many meanings of love.” That’s the extent of it. The “missing girl” is “Anna”, her lover is “Sandro”, and the best friend is “Claudia”. Sounds pretty damn dull, huh? My wife sums it up even more succinctly. The Patt Bilow synopsis is this:
“Anna disappears and Sandro is a scumbag“. You pretty well nailed the plot, babe. That is one reason I love you so much! :-)
Seriously, though, the film does have a bit more structure than I’m flippantly implying. L’Avventura should be viewed more as a “composition” in the musical sense than as a traditional film. In that context, L’Avventura could be said to have five “movements”. Each movement, then, has it’s own unique mood and environmental structure. Each ends with some event that changes how we view the characters; each alters the narrative direction. This is not my own private analysis. It is widely accepted that there are 5 sections to the film.
- 1. Anna goes to the Island
- 2. The search of the Island, for Anna
- 3. Claudia and Sandro follow Anna’s trail
- 4. The new relationship between Claudia and Sandro
- 5. The return
The film also has much more character complexity than simply to say that Sandro is a scumbag. He is. But he is also weak, more insecure than he is willing to portray, needy, and angry. Sandro cries at the end of the film and, oddly, Claudia comforts him. This implies that he is weak, lonely, and for all his money, alienated. So, frankly, is Claudia. After all, she does become Sandro’s lover much more readily than one would hope.
So, ok. Look… It’s not much of a plot. Surely, that is why it was booed at its first ever showing at Cannes in 1960. But, it does have structure and meaning; even if its greatest meaning is little more than to say that everyone suffers from post-modern alienation. There are more important aspects to the film and I’ll readily admit that it is not plot that makes L’Avventura great.
What then? Does it have a super-secret encrypted message? Well… I can’t answer that question any better than the greatest of film critics, Roger Ebert. In 1997, Ebert said this:
These people were bored by a lifestyle beyond my wildest dreams. When I taught the film in a class 15 years later, it seemed affected and contrived, a feature-length idea but not a movie. Only recently, seeing it again, did I realize how much clarity and passion Antonioni brought to the film’s silent cry of despair.
His characters were parasites whose money allowed them to clear away the distractions of work, responsibility, goals and purposes, and exposed the utter emptiness within. It is possible to be rich and happy, of course, but for that you need a mind, and interests. It is impossible to be happy simply because one is ceaselessly entertained. “L’Avventura” becomes a place in our imagination–a melancholy moral desert.
This is not all that different from the many other interpretations which say that L’Avventura is a direct shot at the Italian upper-middle class who Antonioni the socialist really does dislike. But, when it comes to wasting time and money, the upper-middle class may also be an allegorical representation of a larger problem. I propose that it is. I propose that the film forces us to ask the larger question of meaning in human life in general. How do we make a meaningful life? Antonioni does not answer that. But he does do one heck of a good job of demonstrating that idleness, inaction, lack of productiveness, complacency, and meaningless sexual promiscuity are not the constituent parts. About that, we must ponder long and hard.
I still have not explained why I love the film. Unless I simply enjoy static plot-free films about angst, there must be more. So, let’s forget about plot and meaning; let’s focus on aesthetics. There are 3 fundamental aesthetic characteristics that make this film great. I’ll share them now. Hopefully, you will see why I’m in love with this film despite the minimalist plot and slow pace of its 473 shots.
1. Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to visual detail. As a competent photographer, I think I’m adequately trained to speak to the compositional style in Antonioni’s ouerve. I propose that if you were to print of every frame in L’Avventura, the majority of those prints would contain a near-perfectly composed image. That results from Antonioni’s extraordinary attention to detail.
2. Without being overt or cheeky, Antonioni uses superbly crafted iconography and even simple visual cues in very powerful ways. We begin to see this as early as shot 2. We can tell that Anna and her father don’t have a particularly good relationship because they speak to each other’s backs, with no eye contact. That’s not really the iconography I’m talking about but it quickly demonstrates how Antonioni uses imagery to tell us more than words or action.
Much of the visual, and even verbal, language that is used (in a much more advanced way) to depict allegory in L’Avventura comes from Catholicism. Last night, the entire theater laughed when Claudia, in shot 202, hands Anna’s father Anna’s Bible. He takes it as a good sign that she would not commit suicide. He says: “I believe than anyone who reads the Bible could never do anything so rash!“.That is a sort of verbal joke. But consider the later scene where Sandro purposely spills ink on a young architect’s drawing and then escapes a fight with the young man by scrambling into line with a large group of black-clad school boys and their priests. Ahhh! Saved by the priests!
But, by no means is all the allegory Catholic. In fact, the penultimate (and not so subtle) iconography comes at the end of the film where Sandro is represented by a church tower and Claudia by the cavernous womb of a church. Sexual allegory? Naw… never! :-)
3.Antonioni borrows an almost anti-teleological aesthetic commonly used in Japanese literature and abstract expressionistic music like that of Morton Feldman. He spends more time on character and psychological effect than enacting plot and action. His camera often stays on a shot for several seconds after the action has ended; creating a teleological version of “negative space”.Like L’Avventura, Japanese novels are often also static, and the same is true of music by an abstract expressionist composer like one of my old teachers, Morton Feldman. like Feldman’s music and Japanese novels, the lack of a temporal dynamism in L’Avventura is actually the source of its utter beauty. Instead of bouncing through quick cuts and fast-paced action, the viewer must watch the film long enough to adapt to its pace and time extension; having settled in to the pacing, we can experience the subtlety and detail almost like a meditation on perfectly composed images floating in a clear lake of temporal stasis.
I don’t just make this stuff up. Antonioni himself explains his philosophy of time, events, and images in an essay called “The Event and the Image“. He states explicitly that he wants to present an “event” and then dispense with it quickly in order to use related images to depict the EFFECT of the event. In L’Avventura the “event” is the disappearance of Anna; the “image” is the entire remainder of the film; imagery and iconography are used to to explore the effect of Anna’s disappearance on Claudia and Sandro. It make for a very beautiful experience if you let yourself have the time to immerse in it.
I’m used to watching this film on a Criterion Collection DVD. Watching the 35mm film print was both good and bad. It was good because it is historically significant and film does have a particular look. Unfortunately, I sometimes found it difficult to read the white subtitles. Also, I was a bit surprised at the lip sync issues and how much the audio synchronization problems bothered me.That is just a characteristic of the available technology. Still, there are plenty of films from long before 1960 that have well dubbed audio tracks. I do have to say, though, that even with the poorly sync’d audio track it was sure a blessing to get to see a film print of one of my all-time favorite flicks!
All-in-all it was a great thing to see L’Avventura on film. Thank you to the Northwest Film Center for showing it, to the Portland Art Museum for letting members in free, and to my lovely wife for being the only friend interested in coming to watch it with me! Now I need another 2 1/2 hours to devote to this film. I really want to go back to my DVD and watch it with the secondary audio track; therein my old friend and video professor Gene Youngblood provides a play-by-play commentary. It might be time for some serious cinematic geekdom!