Red Desert (1964)

red desert 1John Donne is noted for writing that no man is an island, but if this film is any indication, there might be a need to qualify that statement to suggest that some women are islands — at least when portrayed by the elegiac Monica Vitti. Red Desert begins with blurred images and a high-pitched piercing melody playing over the credits. From its opening moments, two things are evident. It gives off the general sense of industry and it features one of the most extraordinary uses of color ever with the blues and grays contrasting sharply with the brighter pigments.

In fact, it’s oftentimes easy to think of Michelangelo Antonioni as a filmmaker well-versed in the poetic imagery of black and white but you have only to see Monica Vitti in her green coat standing with her son like two solitary beacons, to know that he is equally fit for color. He is a master equally skilled with a new palette.

You could make the assumption that the world has become a sort of wasteland. More comic depictions of these themes are obvious in the works of Chaplin and Tati. In my own mind, a bit of Modern Times and Playtime began to float to the fore. There were bits and pieces of those films that felt like they could be analogous to what Antonioni is trying to accomplish here with his images of the industrial Ravenna. There are smokestacks, bells, whistles, factories, machines and so on.

It’s easy to quickly surmise that this is all a condemnation of the world slowly going to hell because there’s no doubt that many of the opening visuals are bland and austere. But underlying Red Desert is a stark beauty that permeates the entire landscape. Thus, Antonioni’s perspective is perhaps a lot more nuance that the viewer will even acknowledge at first.

In an interview, he once said the following, “It’s too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable.”

red desert 2However, even if this word does reflect its share of beauty, it is Monica Vitti’s character who still embodies paranoia and disorientation with the modern civilization. In other words, she is the one out of step with the contemporary world that she finds herself in, due in part to an auto accident and a subsequent stint in a hospital. She is struggling to readjust to reality.

And it’s no wonder that Antonioni made a string of four films with her because she has a remarkable gift for personifying all that is distant and aloof in a human being, while still bearing immense powers of attraction. In this case, it’s the visiting recruiter (Richard Harris) who is taken with her. But not even a fling with him can remedy what she is struggling through. There’s no one who can fully understand her, not even the audience.

red desert 3As per usual with Antonioni, his film invariably feels to be altogether more preoccupied with form over content and that’s what is most interesting. It’s fascinating some of the environments he develops. Atmospheres full of billowing fog, wispy trees, stark alleyways, gridiron structures, and all the while the color red pops in every sequence. There’s no score in the typical sense, instead, the dialogue is backed by foghorns, machinery, and an occasional electronic sound effect.

We get a little better understanding of her psyche when she recounts a mesmerizing story to her young son about a young girl who spends her afternoons swimming in the glassy water off the coast of an immaculate island. The pantheistic fantasy she so vividly paints for him is strikingly juxtaposed with the world around her — a world she has yet to feel fully comfortable in. However, both worlds somehow seem empty.

4.5/5 Stars

L’Eclisse (1962)

leclisse3Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But, then, maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.” – Vittoria

When it comes to being aloof, apathetic, and distant Monica Vitti knew no equal, and she works so marvelously against the worlds that Michelangelo Antonioni creates. Her sultry pair of eyes speaks volumes as far as sensuality and charm — making words hardly necessary. When we look at her and how she moves so indifferently through this romantic space with her former lover, it becomes all too obvious. There’s no feeling there. There’s no magic left to be tapped into. That happens with love sometimes, and it’s excruciatingly painful, even to watch.

In these opening minutes, nothing is said yet it’s hardly boring. There’s something tantalizing about sitting and waiting for some piece of exposition to come our way. Besides Antonioni’s extended shot length, a steadily smooth camera, use of mirrors, and a wonderful manipulation of the interior space to frame shots keep us constantly engaged.

leclisse5The initial scene in the stock exchange is gloriously tumultuous and it never lets up. This is the dashing young Piero’s (Alain Delon) domain that he rushes through with lithe business savvy. What this arena becomes is the quintessential Italian marketplace, a hectic theater of business made up of all kinds, involved parties and observers alike. Vittoria (Vitti) is one of those who looks on with mild interest and really throughout the entire film she is a keen observer as much as she is a person of action.

Through the mutual connection of her distraught mother, she and Piero become acquaintances. No more, no less. But we expect there to be more, because how could you waste stars like Vitti and Delon without at least a few romantic interludes? But we are made to wait patiently as they share a little contact, watch the extraction of Piero’s car from its underwater mortuary, and take a long walk.

Again, Antonioni continues with glorious panoramas, a meticulous framing of shots, and exquisite overall composition of mise-en-scene. It makes every image that comes onscreen hold merit and they stay onscreen certainly long enough for you to truly appreciate them. He’s audacious enough not to feel the need to have his figures centered in the frame, and he dances around them, placing them really wherever he pleases, but there’s still something strangely satisfying about it. Doorways, trees, pillars, heads all work nicely.

leclisse1And the narrative becomes perhaps even more tantalizing than love because it’s the prospect of romance that keeps it going. But it never seems fully realized. It’s frustrating, unfulfilling in a sense, like most of his films. Whether it’s an unsolved mystery or the most perplexing conundrum mankind has ever faced romantic attraction, he always leaves us an open-ended denouement.

There are laughs and moments of immense satisfaction, but they are transient — invariably lasting for only a very brief instant. In fact, this film’s finale is a dour twist that submerges L’Eclisse even lower than we could ever expect. With a title such as “Eclipse,” there’s a potential for foresight, but there also are very few warning signs. Then, all of a sudden, we are privy to a newspaper dotted with headlines like “nuclear arms race” and “fragile peace.” That is all.

It’s in these final moments that L’Eclisse takes a far more haunting turn than Dr. Strangelove and any of its compatriots. It just stops. No explanation. Not even a sign of our protagonists. Again, it’s that maddening ambiguity that comes with waiting out this lull. But the ultimate joke is that there is nothing after the lull. The frame literally gets darker and quieter and then everything ends altogether. There is nothing more. Enveloped in darkness, it simply ceases to be, another enigmatic visual tour de force from one of Italy’s most fascinating titans.

4.5/5 Stars

La Notte (1961)

36075-lanotteposterHere is a film full of glitz reminiscent of La Dolce Vita, a cast starring the likes of Mastroianni, Moreau, and Vitti, with a meandering plot courtesy of Michelangelo Antonioni and gorgeous black and white visuals.

This film is certainly not for the action fanatic because we are given very little. In fact the story revolves around a couple who have trouble communicating so even the dialogue seems sparse at times. The marriage is slowly going down the tubes and neither partner is ready to acknowledge it until the end when the wife finally does.

Moreau definitely had stronger performances like Jules and Jim because here she hardly talks and is highly misanthropic. Monica Vitti is more interesting in her role simply because she has more energy infused into her.

One of my favorite moment in the film had to be at the party where Mastroianni first sees  Vitti playing a rudimentary shuffle board. We are watching just like he is except there is a strange sensation that something is doctored with the image. It turns out that we are only looking at the reflection and then the camera swivels to the right to actually show reality. It was one of the noticeable artistic shots that really stood out to me.

La Notte is a subdued film, more often than not, and so if you go expecting that type of pacing you start to enjoy the little pieces here in there that are given to you. By the end it is rather sad because the marriage not working. There is no huge fight, no bickering, just apathy and that is in many ways more painful to see.

4/5 Stars

L’avventura (1960)

L'avventuraSmallL’avventura is one of those films that it is difficult to make a cohesive review for. If you are watching it purely to be entertained, you have it all wrong, because that is not its main purpose. Its greatest attribute is the special place it has in the pantheon of film art.

It is a film about a group of high society adventurers who go on a boat trip through some islands, only to have a woman passenger literally disappear, practically into thin air. Her boyfriend and her best friend search for her in the ensuing days, only to fall for each other, and that is about it. This is, of course, the most superficial level possible.

L’avventura is quite interesting visually and I wish I could have seen it on the big screen. The reality is, oftentimes, not a whole lot is happening, but it causes you to actually focus on the images in the frame. Michelangelo Antonioni gives us numerous settings all over Italy, and most have something to do with the wanderings of natural beauty Claudia (Monica Vitti) or her companion Sandro.

Anna (Lea Massari), despite her early importance, is hardly in the film. She is only a wisp in the wind and the mystery surrounding her is of lesser importance. The outcome is what matters as her friend and boyfriend become lovers. Theirs is the relationship that is explored as it develops, evolves, and becomes fully tested.

In the final moments, Antonioni toys with us, suggesting just possibly that Anna might be in the picture again. In fact, he must have a very cruel sense of humor indeed. Here in L’avventura as well as Blow-up (1966) he waves a mystery in front of our nose and leaves it unresolved. It is absolutely maddening, in some respects, and yet he makes us look at something else altogether. He also had the gall to name a film with a meandering plot like this L’Avventura! The nerve of it all, and yet I respect him for it because it messes with our conventions and forces us to be uncomfortable.

It is understandable that this was a polarizing film at Cannes in 1960, and I can only imagine that it has the same effect over 50 years later. One thing is for sure. This is no Gilligan’s Island with a three-hour cruise set in Italy. There is a lot more to it than the plot. Not my favorite adventure, but I respect its pure audaciousness of form.

4.5/5 Stars