By 1959, Michelangelo Antonioni had directed five features over ten years, none of which made very much money. He was in the midst of shooting a film that would change cinema forever. But at the moment, he was stranded on a tiny, uninhabited island - his production company having virtually abandoned him and the storms cutting him off from any other means of rescue - with a crew that was on strike, having not been paid for weeks or fed for days.
Physicality has an important history in Italian art. In the exhibit To Rome and Back: Individualism and Authority in Art, 1500-1800, currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, they note a change in focus around the 18th century, away from religious iconography and towards representations of the world before them. Italian cinema went through a similar transformation, taking a renewed interest in the physical world following World War II. This came first in the form of neorealism, where the city’s ruins mirrored the broken spirits the films depicted, and in earthy melodramas like La Terra Trema (1948) and Stromboli (1950), in which volatile geological and meteorological phenomenon mirror souls in distress. As the 1960s approached, and investment from the Marshall Plan virtually forced Italy to remake their society in the span of only a few years, one couldn’t help but be taken in by a different sort of physical transformation. Entire cities were completely remade, and wealth became more widely and persistently chased.
Antonioni’s work from 1955 through 1964 interrogates the effect of living through such sudden rejuvenation. I don’t think it any coincidence that the vast majority of his characters work in the commodification of goods. Le Amiche (1955) focuses on a woman opening a new branch of a fashion boutique. In L’Avventura, the focus is architecture. In Red Desert (1964), chemical plants. In Blow-Up (1966), photographs. Even L’Eclisse (1962), in which most people work in finance, expresses that profession in physical terms, the stock market becoming a mass of bodies yearning for each cent. Richard Peña, scholar and former director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center, described it as “orgiastic” (not the last orgy Antonioni will depict, but more on that later). La Notte (1961) can’t help but represent Giovanni’s profession as writer, an intellectual pursuit, through mass quantities of his new book that he must sell. In each film, we see some form of manufacture, and the selling of it.
Think too of where these films begin - a hallway floor in Identification of a Woman (1982). In Red Desert, the credits begin over blurry images of trees that give way to blurry images of an industrial plant. Its first clear images show us the plant bursting flames into the sky. L’Eclisse begins with a stack of books and a lamp, and famously ends with a montage of all the places its lovers have been, but are now absent from. La Notte opens with a brief montage of trucks and construction, the face of Italy being excavated before our eyes, and a sort of elevator ride down the side of Milan’s first skyscraper, the city unfolding in its reflection. This strikes me as an analogue of sorts to La Dolce Vita’s famous opening helicopter ride over the city, but where that suggested a sort of freedom, here the city is literally “through the looking glass,” out of reach, overpowered by the rush of buildings.
By the time of Red Desert, the physical world seems to suffocate Antonioni. Monica Vitti emerges at the start of the film as Lea Massari left it in L’Avventura - she seems born from the earth and its decaying corpse. The physical world, he makes clear, is killing us. Polluted water, gigantic machines, and shacks near collapse surround her. The air is thick with fog or smog or both. The fruit has turned grey, as have the buildings; only people and plastics have any color, her bold red hair setting her apart from her social set and her environment. She can’t even settle on a color to paint her shop, nor a product to sell in it. One can avoid the toxicity, but something will swallow us, some twisted rot will poison our souls if it doesn’t hit our stomachs.
This sense of being overwhelmed by the physical world gives way, in Antonioni’s next few films, to an abstraction of it. Blow-Up concerns a photographer (David Hemmings) who thinks he photographed a murder, physical evidence that gradually breaks down until his perception of reality is essentially shattered. He can no longer trust physical things. Zabriskie Point (1970) sees a student revolutionary movement reach its zenith in a psychadelic, fantastical orgy in the desert; a mass of bodies finding, for once, harmony in Antonioni’s work. It is short-lived and probably not real. The fantasy cannot be realized, so they find another, by destroying consumerist things, and possibly consumerism with it.
From here, Antonioni will push his characters further and further into a sort of limbo. The Passenger (1975, about a journalist who assumes the identity of a dead man) and Identification of a Woman (about the search for artistic and personal fulfillment in another) pick up there, where even the sense of self gives way to oblivion. This theme, of finding oneself and and what one wants from life, ran through Antonioni’s work all the way back to Story of a Love Affair (1950, as confused and bitter as that film is), but becomes increasingly surreal throughout his later works. The Passenger is one of his absolute masterpieces, and utilizes in Jack Nicholson an actor so iconic, the only criticism his unimaginative detractors can lay on him is that he always plays himself. That very fact is at the core of The Passenger - am I still myself when I play someone else? Where do I end and they begin? I’m putting this fairly academically, as a question of form, but it’s as true in everyday life, where we inevitably play the roles of employee, manager, customer, spouse, parent, child, etc. to varying degrees of success. When are we really ourselves, and how are we not ourselves?
Moreover, how do we define and express ourselves against our surroundings and amidst each other? Antonioni’s work could easily earn the tag “rich people problems,” but give him half a film’s running time and he’ll relocate wealthy characters away from their environment (to an island, a rural community, an abandoned shack, the desert) and show how little their money matters. But it runs deeper than that. Bodies are of paramount importance for Antonioni, his characters occasionally finding grace, but most often struggling with their bodies to find some way to expose themselves and make themselves known. They can’t quite fit together with one another, can’t quite find harmony within and without. His depictions of sex both successful and unsuccessful are a mass of tangled limbs that never find cohesion. It’s one of the reasons why the conclusion to L’Avventura, ambiguous though it may be, remains the most moving and iconic passage in all of Antonioni’s work. Finally, harmony.
L’Avventura was booed upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but after fervent support from established filmmakers (including Roberto Rossellini), it was awarded a Jury Prize “for the beauty of its images, and for seeking to create a new film language.” Two years later, it placed second in the 1962 Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films of all time. Its reputation as Antonioni’s best film will continually be questioned, but it seems cemented as his greatest. Its reputation is beyond Antonioni, even beyond film itself. It is a singular, irreplaceable object. The nature of its production, still having a foot in the traditions of melodrama and pulp, lend it more mystery than its successors. The opening shots of L’Eclisse or Red Desert or The Passenger make clear that ambiguity will drive them, but one can still watch the first thirty minutes of L’Avventura and suspect it to be a regular film. Its title alone, which can be alternately translated as The Adventure or The Fling, offers promises that go unfulfilled; action and sex that are more alluded to than realized. It’s about a woman’s disappearance, but it’s not; it’s a critique of wealth, but it’s not; it’s a romance, but it’s a little sordid in a way that isn’t overtly acknowledged. It declared, finally and firmly, that one can set a film outside a moral universe, where sin will not damn and virtue will not redeem. Its characters’ behavior might carry spectacular significance, or none at all. Its mystery, ultimately, goes deeper than Anna’s disappearance, or the existential questions it poses. Every gesture carries a question one cannot articulate, each beautiful shot a spiritual quest without a divine guide. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, that lingers so powerfully for so many years, that urges us ever onward to travel back to its seductive island and lose oneself wandering again, searching for something that cannot be found.
Scott Nye is the editor-at-large at Battleship Pretension and a contributor to CriterionCast. He can regularly be found at Los Angeles's many repertory theaters, or on Twitter @railoftomorrow.