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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

L’Avventura

lavventura_vitti

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Country: Italy
Year: 1960

“I need to follow my characters beyond the moments conventionally considered important, to show them even when everything appears to have been said.”
Michelangelo Antonioni

“In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places of our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”
Jack Nicholson, presenting Antonioni
with Lifetime Achievement Oscar, 1995

Background

Michelangelo Antonioni was born in 1912, to land-owning parents in northern Italy. In 1940, he moved to Rome and wrote for the (officially fascist) film magazine, Cinema, which was edited by the son of Benito Mussolini. He was soon fired, after which he studied film technique at an Italian college with a very long name, but this effort was similarly doomed; he dropped out after three months and was drafted into the army. During the 1940’s, Antonioni co-wrote and co-directed films with two legends of the Italian film industry: Roberto Rossellini (Isabella’s dad) and Marcel Carné. At the same time, he began making his own films; short neo-realist semi-documentaries about poor fishermen and the like. (If this were any kind of respectable journal, I would include a section on the Italian Neo-Realist movement, but – let’s face it – you can use that Google button just as easily as I can.) By 1950, however, Antonioni’s interests had swung away from the hardscrabble lives of the disenfranchised back to the ennui-drenched lives of attractive middle class (white) people. Which brings us (eventually) to 1960’s L’Avventura.

The production of L’Avventura was a litany of financial ruin, personal injury and heartbreak, as disastrous in its time as the production of Apocalypse Now 20 years later. Coppola had to contend with monsoon-destroyed sets, a drug-addled Dennis Hopper, and Martin Sheen’s heart attack; Antonioni persevered through violent storms, crew strikes, and Lea Massari’s heart attack and subsequent two-day coma. (If you have not seen Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s film about the Apocalypse Now shoot, please do so now. While you’re at it, also check out the song “Oh Sorrow, Oh Shame” by Canadian power-pop group Odds, because it’s a great song and because it name-checks “…a whirling, painted Martin Sheen”). Antonioni did not have to deal with the Filipino government occasionally repossessing their helicopters to decimate bands of rebels, primarily because L’Avventura is set among the wealthy socialites of northern Italy, and contains no scenes featuring military helicopters or jungle warfare.

Finally, L’Avventura was completed and scheduled to be screened at Cannes in 1960. During its first showing, the film was greeted with a near-constant barrage of boos and catcalls. Why the long, portentous silences? asked enraged audience members. Why should we care what happens to a bunch of spoiled, unlikable rich people? Most importantly: How dare you set up a central mystery and then refuse to resolve it? A group of film critics, convinced they had just seen a “harbinger of modern film language,” issued a joint statement praising L’Avventura’s “exceptional importance” and clucking their tongues at the ugly “displays of hostility” by less sophisticated Cannes rabble. Antonioni issued his own statement, cryptically declaring “Eros is sick.” A waggish member of the press responded by giving the director a derisive nickname: Antoniennui, which, in retrospect, seems kind of weak. Any derisive nickname that I have to practice several times in order to say it correctly is not worth saying in the first place. Better to stick with something simple and to the point, like “pretentious asshat.”

Despite, or because of, the controversy, L’Avventura won the Cannes Special Jury Prize “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images,” went on to become an international box office success, and is today regarded almost universally (except perhaps by my wife) as a masterpiece, a “harbinger of modern film language, perhaps the major catalyst of the new decade’s changing cinematic landscape.” It was also Antonioni’s breakthrough film.

Synopsis

The film opens with credits and the glib title: “The Adventure”. The urgent music playing under the credits tells us that a tense, exciting thriller will follow. This is the first sign that the director is fucking with us; the film that unfolds over the next two and a half hours willfully refuses to become the thriller we have been led to expect. At its heart, this was the complaint of that angry Cannes audience.

After the credits, we meet an obviously wealthy businessman, talking to an associate. He looks out across a suburban wasteland, and comments bitterly that “there were woods here once… now there’s nowhere to run.” This idea that the world is changing, and not for the better, will echo throughout the film. The businessman’s daughter, the sullen, dark-haired Anna approaches. The following conversation between father and daughter is fraught with unexplained tension. “That guy, he’ll never marry you,” announces Anna’s father. Correctly, as it turns out.

Anna’s friend, the equally beautiful (but blonde) Claudia, arrives, and the two young women leave together for a weekend trip. They plan to meet up with Anna’s fiancé, Sandro, who has been away on business for many months. “It’s difficult keeping a relationship going, while one is here and the other there,” Anna tells her friend. “But it’s easy, too. Because you are free to think the way you want, about what you want… Whereas when somebody’s there facing you… that’s all you get.”

Arriving at the hotel where Sandro is staying, Anna rushes upstairs to meet her lover. Claudia is left to wander the streets aimlessly while Anna and Sandro have angry, confusing reunion sex. Before leaving to meet the rest of their rich and bored friends, Anna gives Claudia a shirt. Again, the mood is tense, but why? Anna, Claudia, and Sandro drive to the marina in stultified silence. Sandro drives much too fast.

The following morning on the boat, Anna tells Claudia, “Last night I went to bed thinking I would be able to reflect on so many things… and then I fell asleep.” The rest of the group on the boat are equally conflicted, bored, frustrated and spoiled. “These islands are all volcanic,” comments the vapid Giulia. “You said the exact same thing twelve years ago,” snipes her passive-aggressive husband Corrado.

There is some discussion about whether it is safe to swim. Anna angrily jumps overboard, forcing the captain to stop the boat and circle back. After several of her shipmates follow her into the turbulent water, Anna screams that she has seen a shark, prompting a brief panic. Anna later confides to Claudia that there was no shark. Why would Anna lie about such a thing? Her manipulative, petulant behavior in these scenes will throw the meaning of later events into doubt.

The group lands on a rocky island. “I don’t feel you anymore,” Anna announces to Sandro. “We have plenty of time to talk,” counters Sandro. “We’re getting married.” In any case, he continues, “words are becoming less and less necessary… they create misunderstandings.” As they spar, storm clouds gather ominously.

Some time later, Sandro is asleep on the rocks. “We should leave now,” suggests the captain. “The sea is getting rough.” The travelers agree, and gather at the boat.

But Anna is nowhere to be found. “This is one of those typical ‘Anna behaviors’ that drives me mad!” shouts a flustered Sandro. The group fans out across the island, searching for Anna, but find only ephemeral clues: a small fisherman’s hut, a broken twig. Some insist that they heard the engine of a small boat; could Anna have been on that boat? If so, why? Corrado becomes sidetracked by the discovery of some ancient pottery. The storm grows more violent, and the police are summoned. The island is a vast, rock-strewn, blasted landscape. Waves explode against the cliffs. Where could Anna have gone? Claudia believes that Sandro is to blame. She demands that Sandro explain what he and Anna had been arguing about earlier. “The only thing, if I remember correctly, is that she wanted to be alone” answers Sandro, looking defeated and foolish. Awkward glances and physical proximity alert us to the fact that there is a budding sexual chemistry between Sandro and Claudia. Claudia is now wearing Anna’s shirt. When they find themselves alone for a moment, Sandro kisses Claudia hungrily.

As the search for Anna back on the mainland begins, Sandro continues to pursue Claudia, despite her protestations. “I know it’s complicated. But if you carry on this way, it becomes even more so.” Sandro is persistent, however, and Claudia eventually succumbs. “How can it be that it takes so little to change, to forget…” she muses. “It’s so sad.”

While looking for a journalist who may have a lead, Sandro is sidetracked by the appearance of a curvy author/spirit medium with a torn dress. The men in the town, hundreds of them, follow her like dogs on the scent of a wounded fox. The journalist confides to Sandro that the woman is not so much a writer as what you might call a sort of, well, “prostitute.”

Traveling across Italy, Claudia meets up again with the group of people from the boat. She seems to be the only one among them still thinking about the missing Anna. Giulia, despondent over her husband’s cruelty, drifts into an affair with an effete and callow seventeen-year-old painter. Dressing for a party, Claudia tries on a brunette wig. It is now clear that L’Avventura is less about the Disappearance of Anna, and more about the Disappearance of the Disappearance of Anna.

Sandro and Claudia resume their search, following meaningless clues that lead to abandoned towns. As she grows more entangled with Sandro, Claudia begins to hope that they will never find Anna. The recognition of her own fickle, selfish nature mortifies Claudia. “Only a few days ago, only at the thought that Anna might be dead, I felt I could have died too. Now I won’t even cry. I am afraid she might be alive! Everything is becoming so hideously simple. Even to get rid of a pain.”

Atop a church bell tower, Sandro proposes and Claudia refuses. As she reconsiders and opens herself to Sandro, however, he grows distant and melancholy.

Sandro wanders, sullen and alone, through a plaza. He looks jealously at the intricate pen-and-ink architectural sketches of a young artist. Bitterly, Sandro knocks over an ink bottle, destroying the artist’s work.

At another hotel in another city, Sandro goes downstairs to a party while Claudia goes to bed. Agitated and unable to sleep, Claudia searches through the hotel for her lover, with increasing hysteria. In the lobby, she finds Sandro on a couch, dry-humping the writer/prostitute from earlier in the film. Sandro hides his face in shame. Claudia runs and Sandro chases, after contemptuously throwing some cash on the couch.

Sandro catches up with Claudia outside, as the sun rises. They sit on a bench, Sandro weeping dejectedly, Claudia eerily calm. She places her hand on his head in… forgiveness? pity? resignation? The final shot divides the screen neatly in half: On Sandro’s side, a blank wall; On Claudia’s side, a dormant volcano. Discuss.

What I Liked

L’Avventura is suffused with dread and crackles with unexpressed or misdirected anger, but never stoops to pedantic psychological “explanations” of the characters’ behavior. Antonioni assumes that you have a grasp of film language and a moderately sophisticated understanding of human behavior; events in L’Avventura simply unfold at their own pace, and there is no fascist director’s voice to tell you what it all “means” or how you ought to feel about it. Characters surprise us with their unpredictable responses to Anna’s disappearance, just as they would in real life. Antonioni doesn’t particularly care whether you “like” these characters or approve of their actions; they do whatever they do, for their own inscrutable reasons, free of the manacles of traditional film narrative, which makes L’Avventura endlessly fascinating (to me).

Despite the fact that this is precisely the kind of Italian “art film” that Monty Python – and countless other satirists – have skewered, L’Avventura never feels pretentious to me. The characters seem real, I believe in them, and I’m interested to see what happens next. They are undoubtedly suffering through an existential crisis, but this isn’t hammered home in the same way that it might be in, say, a Bergman film. This is primarily (I think) because L’Avventura lures you in with the outlines of a thriller. By the time you realize that “The Adventure” was a bit of a misnomer, and that the film you are watching has morphed into something else entirely, it’s too late; you’re already hooked. (I should personalize: I’m hooked.) What the hell happened to Anna? Are Claudia and Sandro really going to hook up? As the final scene fades out, you’ll realize that neither of those questions have been answered, but you’ll also realize (hopefully) that answering those questions was not ever the point.

L’Avventura won the Cannes prize, in part, “for the beauty of its images,” and deservedly so. The first part of the film, on the rock-strewn, wind-blasted island, is a masterpiece of black-and-white composition. In retrospect, the desolate landscape and the ominous weather are obviously visual metaphors, but it hardly matters if you recognize this: The images are stunningly beautiful. Later in the film, the search wanders through abandoned towns, vast open plazas, and mysterious churches, and every shot is worthy of contemplation – elegant, detached, observant of small details. L’Avventura may be the most beautiful black-and-white film I have ever seen.

Finally: Monica Vitti. L’Avventura is the only film I’ve seen her in, and she is mesmerizing. She is certainly beautiful (oh sweet lord is she beautiful), but Monica Vitti is no remote supermodel; she gives a fully-invested, finely-tuned performance. As the focus of the film gradually shifts, we ally ourselves more and more with Claudia; every volley of the film’s moral back-and-forth plays out across her face. As her self-awareness grows, we empathize with Claudia despite her possibly unethical behavior. Her struggle to reconcile her desires with her principles, to navigate the moral gray areas of modern eros, hopefully prompts us to interrogate our own consciences: In the same situation, what would I do?

What I Didn’t Like So Much

You’ve probably gathered by now that I love L’Avventura. It’s a difficult film (for me) to criticize, since it seems so perfectly, precisely… itself. There are idiosyncratic films – Eraserhead comes to mind – that you may or may not enjoy, but which are so hermetically sealed, such precise recreations of a director’s vision that they are resistant to the usual forms of criticism. You may say, well, L’Avventura is lethargically paced… but I would respond that this is clearly intentional, and so on.

I can list, however, the things that will likely turn you off, if you are not into this sort of thing: L’Avventura is slow, black and white, subtitled, and two and a half hours long. The characters aren’t particularly likable. The central mystery is never solved. The ending is ambiguous. There are several digressions that don’t advance the plot in any way. You have been warned.

Should You See It?

Yes, yes, yes. I’ve already given you the list of things that you might gripe about, but ferchrissakes, push yourself for once. Invest a few hours absorbing a landmark of World (okay, European) Cinema, instead of mastering the next level in RockBand. L’Avventura is gorgeous, hypnotic, and highly influential (Vertigo, Twin Peaks, oh I could go on…). After watching it, come back here and tell me what you thought.

Next: Ballad of a Soldier

5 Comments

  1. Hi I just watched the film and I loved it but I ended googling the ending cause I’m a nut about closure and at first I thought that Anna was the prostitute and he slept with her one last time and was crying in end because of disappointed in what Anna became boy was I wrong though that would been great ending and would have at least solved that but leaving the cliffhanger nobody knowing Claudia will stay but he goes after Anna or leaves her alone to me would been perfect and all would have enjoyed

  2. I do agree that Antonioni should have relocated Anna’s mole closer to her mouth, so that she would look more like Cindy Crawford. Sigh, Cindy Crawford…

  3. Yay! An Italian adventure! I knew I was going to love it, and I watched it as soon as it arrived from Netflix. My grandpa on my mom’s side was Italian, and one of my nieces has been living in Italy for the last seven years or so. I’ve traveled there three times, and although there have been many challenges during my trips, I’ve felt incredibly privileged to have seen the things I’ve seen and met the people I’ve met. Italians are just so super-cool. Even the not-so-beautiful people have more elegance in their little finger than has all of me. So when I eagerly commandeered the couch and remote with great anticipation, I was looking forward to watching some of the most beautiful people in the world on a grand adventure in one of the lands that I love.

    Well, guess what? I hated it! It was one of the most tedious films I’ve ever watched, right up there with La Dolce Vita. I know, I know, I can hear you gasp from here, but what can I say? I just hate watching privileged people do things – or do nothing, as is more often the case – when they have all the means in the world to do something. Jeesh, even the cool Italian car wasn’t so cool!

    I understand that these films were pioneering a very different way of portraying some of the deep and difficult questions that we can be faced with in life, like:

    Anna — Should I stay with Sandro? [No!]
    Claudia — Is my friend Anna okay? [No!]
    Sandro — Should I quit my job? [Hell No!, not in this economy!]
    Claudia — Should I have a go with Sandro? [No!]
    Anna — Should I wear this outfit or the other one? [Yes!] (Sorry.)

    But this technique just doesn’t do it for me. The movie is more a vehicle for Antonioni to express the love he has for his camera, and for the camera to express the love it has for these beautiful actors and locale. The movie is brilliant in that regard. The cinematographic composition is stunning. It truly is video art of the highest degree.

    But apart from that, I guess you can call me one of those “less sophisticated Cannes rabble.” [Even though my before-mentioned grandpa was born and raised in southern Italy, his dad was from southern France, so I’m entitled.] Although I no longer need to have resolution at the end of a movie, and have actually grown to like not having it sometimes, and don’t mind a bit that we don’t know what happened to Anna, I would be right there with that first Cannes crowd yelling Cut! during the lengthy scene when Claudia rushes down the corridor looking for Patrizia to ask if she’s knows where Sandro is. Before that, I got really tired of the gang aimlessly wandering around on the island making a vague effort to look for Anna. Somehow I was reminded of Planet of the Apes.

    As to the mystery, I think that Sandro and Claudia were having an affair before the story even begins. Claudia was going way too far overboard in being uncomfortable with Sandro after Anna disappeared. I think Sandro off’ed Anna so that he and Claudia could be together, and then Claudia spent the rest of the movie hating herself for loving such a man.

    Actress Monica Vitti (Claudia) was faultlessly, stunningly beautiful in this movie, and her acting was superb. I’m not surprised. She was born on the exact same day as my beautiful Mama.
    🙂

    One thing I found totally distracting was the beauty mark on Anna’s forehead. The guys probably didn’t notice it because their attention was most likely focused elsewhere. But being a girl, I was looking at her makeup, how she was doing her eyebrows, you know, important things, and when I first noticed the birthmark, I wanted to flick the fly off her forehead. When it was still there in the next few frames, and I realized it was, in fact, a mole, it kept being a distraction. I’ll probably have to spend a few extra days in purgatory for this comment, as it’s wrong to criticize anyone about the looks they were born with. But the hyper-beauty of this movie made that one “flaw” annoyingly obvious. Eureka! That’s it! That’s the crux of the story! If it weren’t for Anna’s flawed character, everyone else would be perfectly happy in their perfectness!

    Ciao a tutti!!

  4. For the first time in months the temperature is above freezing, so that thick sheet of ice that is treacherously located on the walkway in front of the back gate has loosened. Please go chip it off.

  5. Here’s my take:

    Basically, I went into this film as I do with most films with subtitles…with a casual annoyance. Not so much that I have to read the film but more so that I actually have to PAY ATTENTION to the film. I don’t want to come off as a typical “Merkin!” film-goer who can’t seem to figure out that other people in other countries speak languages that I don’t understand. I just kind of naturally assume that these films are going to be DIFFERENT. You know, self absorbed, self aware, self congratulatory. As you may have seen my review for the film “Breathless” a French movie from the 50’s that I found absof*ckinglutely annoying. If that film was made exactly the same way and in ENGLISH I would have found it absof*ckinglutely annoying. But it was HIP!

    So, again, I go into these films with a bit of a heavy sigh knowing that I’ll have to seriously invest some time in the process of figuring out what the hell is going on.

    The film starts out in a good spot, though, when hot Italian brunette babe shows up looking bored. Finally hooking up with her long distance boyfriend, they “hook-up” literally while her hot Italian blond friend waits (in deep focus mind you). But after the sexual encounter, the brunette is still bored and off onto a yacht they all go for some shenanigans.

    Not much happens the first half hour. Rich people complain about the weather or the sea or the whatever and just as I was about to nod off, they all go swimming in the ocean near some rocky islands.

    When the hot brunette starts yelling “shark!” I figured now was as good a time as any for me to figure out what’s going on. Still, there was no shark and she admits this to her blond pal. After she has told her boyfriend that she’s really not that into him any more and that she’s taken him off her top five on MySpace (okay, I’m kidding).

    Finally they end up exploring one of the islands when, suddenly, the brunette disappears. Where did she go? What happened?

    Suddenly I’m interested and the film switches to sort of a “low-key Hitchcock” when now I’m wishing I paid more attention to the first 40 minutes of the movie. Was there a clue? Did I miss something? (probably yes on both counts) Did she die? Did she jump? Is she hiding until everyone goes home?

    And what of the semi-erotic moment when she was chatting with her blond friend in the boat? And did her boyfriend kill her? The questions were now coming fast and fierce and interest began to perk up.

    Once they’ve combed the island and have determined that her body is not there, they all scatter to the main land to see if they can find out what is going on. Boyfriend and Blond decide they’ll investigate more…and boy, do they ever! Suddenly they’re a couple. Are they on this journey to find her? Or to find each other?

    The Blond meets up with a friend of hers from the ship, a “cougar” who is after a 17 year old painter who only paints nudes (sadly the only nudity in the film). The cougar beds the boy while the blond walks away.

    Finally, in a small town her and the boyfriend communicate in an old fashioned way (by ringing some bells – CHURCH bells, not some hand-held bells). Finally the film ends on a really ambiguous point. Does he find his lost love? Does she love him? Do they love each other? Where will this relationship go?

    Wow. Lots of questions for a 2 hour 20 minute film.

    WHAT I LIKED

    What’s not to like when there are a handful of beautiful Italian women wandering around?

    Photography was excellent for a black-and-white film. I would have loved to have seen the picture post-card vistas in color but, alas, what can you do? Still, beautifully shot.

    The story was good and intriguing – if not a bit on the loooong side. Still, it kept my interest and it kept me guessing.

    I liked the ambiguous ending.

    WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE

    Well…there’s that ambiguous ending. Seriously, can we have some CLOSURE?!

    Okay, I’m kidding – but I do like my stories a little more cut-and-dried but I also like when they’re NOT cut-and-dried – does that make any sense whatsoever?

    There were a tad too many characters milling about and it kept my brain hopping to figure out who was who and whose relationship was with whom.

    The film was bit on the loooooong side for what it is.

    FINAL COMMENT:

    The film was interesting and it kept me guessing (and thinking about it) long after it was over. I still felt it was “Hitchcock – lite” and would have liked an extra murder or two just to punch up the action. I would recommend it, certainly, as a one-off. You can live the rest of your life not seeing it and be good but, hey, if it’s sitting in a DVD player somewhere and you have 2 hours + to kill…

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