In a time before now, there was a great continuum between popular art and the ways in which societies defined themselves. It may have been in the composition of the frame, the staggered and foreboding shadows falling at the feet of the fleeing heroine. It may have been the lost and searching eyes.
When Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni unleashed his torrid and dreamlike L’Avventura on the world in 1960, few were ready for its dizzying impact and incredible staying power. More than an Italian art film, L’Avventura radically reshaped they ways in which popular culture viewed itself, and its alleged impact on the world at large.
For many years longer than I can actually remember, I had a paperback copy of the script. I think I must have picked it up in a used bookstore one afternoon. I was in college at the time, so you know how that goes! Those years were largely spent in a fog, as I was constantly laboring under an overly vague notion of some day working in the film business. I think I may have been drawn to the cover, which as I recall, featured a close-up shot of the sultry and mysterious Monica Vitti, with her pouty lips working overtime. The purple-tinged duotone photo treatment gave the image an artsy, from-another-world sort of look.
I got rid of the book in one of my semi-annual shelf clearance binges. After I finally got around to watching L’Avventura when it popped up on TV recently, I went looking for the book to help unravel some of the riddles in this provocative, groundbreaking movie. After rummaging around for a while, I realized that I had probably 86’d the book and found myself running and rerunning this enigmatic tale in my mind. One of the very first things you notice in watching this enigmatic tale (it was Antonioni’s sixth feature and the first in a series of four films dealing with everyone’s favorite topic: alienation and existential angst). As the early scenes progress and develop, you find yourself asking the strangest questions:
Who is that woman?
Why she at odds with her life?
How come these people are all looking in different directions?
The questions go on and on as the viewer finds that the narrative structure is constantly shifting and changing. Typical of the Italian New Wave, no answers appear on the horizon. Antonioni has stripped his plot lines down to the bare minimum. The dialog is loose and abstract. The real focus here is on the visuals, which in terms of composition and pacing, reveal something very unsettling and awkward. More often that not, the sensation is one of an outside eavesdropping on the meaningless progression of events in other people’s lives.
The story revolves around a group of self-absorbed members of Italy’s upper class. Each acting on distinct and different impulses, they propel the action on its curious course. Made over 55 years ago, the movie is far from dated and recalls a bit of the attitude and ennui that characterized Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel, which came out a few years earlier. Other than the automobile body styles, everything contained within the frame feels surprisingly contemporary and on the edge. When one of the characters – Anna, a bright and attractive young woman at odds with her father, her lover and her life – disappears on a barren volcanic island, her friends begin a frantic search for her. After some time, when she cannot be located, everyone – except Sandro, her lover, and Claudia, her best friend – give up the hunt. Sandro and Claudia then go from town to town in search of their lost friend.
They ultimately fall in love, or what they perceive to be love – and where they started out fearing Anna would never be found, they soon come to fear actually finding her.
One of the most poignant and emotionally charged scenes occurs during a visit to Noto, a small town on the southern coast of Sicily. After checking into a local hotel, Sandro goes for a stroll. The rough stone piazza is adjacent to an ancient church. Sandro’s chiseled good looks and fashionable attire mark him as an outsider. We know from comments he made earlier in the film that he is an architect who has strayed from his initial desire to build beautiful things. He now makes good money building nondescript offices, homes and stores for wealthy clients.
As he observes the intricately detailed architecture which surrounds him, he passes a drawing pad set on a low stool. On it he sees an elegantly rendered though incomplete sketch of one of the church’s ornate windows. An open bottle of ink sits on the paper inches from the artwork. As Sandro studies the drawing, looking back and forth between the paper and the window being drawn, we become aware of him swinging his keys, which are at the end of a rather long chain. Almost at once we sense something bitter and foreign in his expression. Nothing quite prepares us for the shock when a moment later he deliberately knocks the bottle over, ruining the drawing.
Antonioni barely gives this highly charged metaphor time to sink in before incidental action in the background enables Sandro to get away without causing a scene, thus adding another intoxicating layer of context and comment. As the art student who had been drawing the window approaches Sandro in anger, the men are distracted by a large procession of priests and children – all dressed in black and filing slowly out of the weathered white church behind them. Just as we often deceive ourselves about who we think we are and how the deception ripples out to impact others, Antonioni seems to be saying that the church is an institution founded on illusion.
Looking back, it’s probably ironic and altogether fitting that I got rid of the book on L’Aventura. No amount of language could contain or convey the emotions and the unease that permeate nearly every frame of this classic. It is an intensely visual experience that speaks to the heart of what we feel as human beings. What we fear. And what we hope. However they re viewed or interpreted, the images in L’Aventura are among the strongest and most haunting to ever be collected in a single film. They invite you to look, but they never tell you what to see.