After the success of Il Grido, Michelangelo Antonioni embarked on a series of films (L’Avvenutura, La notte, L’eclisse, Deserto rosso) that cemented his role as the most prominent figure in the Italian equivalent of the French New Wave, films expressing what Andrew Sarris coined “Antoniennui.” A friend of mine once described these movies as “boring in a new way,” but that was unfair. At their best, Antonioni’s films projected a stylized view of modernity that seems shockingly contemporary more than a half-century later. More immediately, L’Avventura anticipated the great Carl Th. Dreyer’s Gertrud by four years in being booed at its initial screening at the Cannes Film Festival. (This film also begins an unintended series of works featuring Sicily, including upcoming screenings of Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, Pietro Germi’s Divorce, Italian Style, and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard.)
After an opening sequence shot in a bleak landscape that seems left over from Il Grido, Antonioni’s vision ranges from the gorgeous desolation of the Aeolian Isles to the madness of Palermo to the unique beauty of a rural and bucolic Sicily. His characters wander through these various locations seemingly looking for something they, and we, can’t quite fathom. It might all be dismissed as picturesque, but the director seems to have a stunningly luminous, meaningful, and cinematic sense of visual geometry and composition, as captured, for example, in the almost split-screen final image. Although La notte and L’eclisse are essentially urban, Antonioni would return to this “wasteland” motif in Deserto rosso and Zabriskie Point—and, to quote the noted film critic Carly Simon, “Nobody does it better.”
At the heart of L’Avventura is, of course, Monica Vitti, Antonioni’s muse throughout this period, to whom he would return decades later for The Mystery of Oberwald. Vitti has an extraordinary haunting quality, expressing perfectly the inexpressibility of the inhabitants of Antonioni’s universe. At times, one might compare her to Greta Garbo at the end of Queen Christina or Marlene Dietrich at the climax of The Scarlet Empress, triumphant in their respective quests, but leaving us uncertain of their opaque inner feelings. At the end of L’Avventura, Vitti seems to accept Gabriele Ferzetti (a handsome enough but seemingly humorless rival to Marcello Mastroianni) but, in spite of his charm, he appears to presage some of our current oversexed and clueless politicians. Although the underlying theme of Antonioni’s films is one of alienation and the inability to communicate, it is hard not to feel that, as a man, the director overburdens women with this failure, although many would make the case for the director as a feminist. Ferzetti’s character was already close to being dismissed, at the start of the film, by his fiancée Anna, the girl who disappears on the island. Only a burst of eroticism (which Antonioni considered a modern plague) enables the boat journey to the island and the “plot” to, more or less, unfold.
Over the past weeks, we’ve seen Shirley MacLaine saved by Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Audrey Hepburn rescued by George Peppard in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hollywood, in spite of cynicism, still could contrive happy endings. Europe…not so much.