L'Avventura (1960) d. Michelangelo Antonioni

Antonioni has been widely recognised as bringing a novelistic approach into the cinema for the first time, and was at his most successful in this film.

Sometimes critics have spoken of this aspect with the item rather than the technique in mind: “In L'Avventura Antonioni was utilising the resources of the cinema to the fullest extent for one particular purpose. This was the demonstration of the feelings underlying human behaviour" (Ian Cameron in Cameron and Wood, 1968, p6).

"Antonioni is not so much difficult as different. [...] General knowledge of the cinema is likely to be of less use to the spectator coming for the first time to Antonioni than to almost any other director. Without being consciously obscure or using techniques which arenew in themselves, he is very different in spirit from most of his contemporaries" (ibid, p7).

Cameron likens him to Otto Preminger (p6), but in elegance and cool observation, Antonioni seems to me closer to Douglas Sirk, and particularly for the subversiveness of his style of film-making. His concern is not, as with Preminger in Bonjour Tristesse [a recent film when Cameron was writing] -- to show that "almost every action [...] is capable of at least two interpretations on the level of motivation" (p6) -- but to indicate how ephemeral even emotions as powerful as desire and love can be.

Antonioni's originality comes not from recording the inscrutability of human behaviour. If anything the actions of his characters are only too easy to read (in his failures the actions are oversimplistic or lack contrast). In fact, it is the transitory nature of human feeling and connections that provide the connecting line between his films, and in L'Avventura he depicts a character (Monica Vitti) for whom this recognition is almost tragic.

The story, as Cameron points out, is "extraordinarily simple -- during a yacht cruise, a girl disappears on a lonely island; her girlfriend and her lover search for her and begin an unstable relationship" (p9).

What gives the film its power is the variety of characters through which the theme is presented, the masterly way in which it is organized to frustrate normal expectations of a thriller, and individual scenes which capture both the touching joyous directness of the heroine in love and the frivolousness of the people around her.

The film's affective power is strengthened by this movement through the film from anxiety to a burst of open joy intercut with increasing moments of disillusion.

But this is not the only reason why L'Avventura remains so powerful. The film technique for the first time reveals a director whose mise-en-scene gives his constructions as much depth as Citizen Kane, while focusing on a changing and unspoken internal assessment of one's experience rather than a public drama. There is an exuberance about the filming of the kind that Orson Welles brought to the cinema, but it remains at the service of the characters and story that Antonioni is filming.

Repeated viewings only increase admiration for the way in which film techniques are deployed to give a feeling of solidity to all that happens. In this respect, Cameron, a sensitive interpreter of Antonioni, seems misleading in suggesting that the director's technique is conventional or a minor aspect of his work: the knitting together of technique and "story" is what makes this film a masterwork, in a style that presupposes an awareness of technique that has been fully matched only by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub for almost contradictory purposes.

What makes Antonioni different from Sirk is that the careful staging, the manipulation, can be consciously read for the most part without destroying the effect (the scene of staring Italian men in Noto and the ending, with its melodramatic focusing on Vitti's acceptance of her corruption, presented through the movement of her hand to caress the head of her unfaithful, weeping lover, are exceptions in an otherwise marvellously judged film).

Biography

Antonioni was born on 29 September 1912 in Tuscany, studied in Bologna at the Faculty of Economics and Commerce, worked as an assistant to Marcel Carné in 1942 and wrote scripts, making his first released film (Gente del Po, a documentary) in 1943-7 and his first feature film as a director Cronaca di un amore in 1950.

 

He was therefore a late starter in films compared to most directors, though showing an interest in cinema from his student days. He also creates from a deeply political (Left-wing, even Marxist) viewpoint, though he is a clearly intuitive rather than intellectual film-maker: orthodox Marxist analysis does not help in understanding his treatment of characters or the stories he presents, except as examples of experience in capitalist society.

Political ideas

Where his political ideas seem of use in understanding him as an artist is not in the range and interest which his ideas give him: his first feature film is least interesting because it is the most non-political and his film concerned most overtly with social problems: Il Grido(1957) is generally considered his least satisfactory early work (Cameron, p67). Since then, Zabriskie Point (?1972), a radical's view of America, has made it onto a list of the worst 50 films of all time.

 

Antonioni's views, though, do seem to have enabled him to view the rich world he depicts with a realism that shows no sentimentality, and a sensitive awareness of the position of poorer people within that world.

These two elements are major aspects of the story in L'Avventura. Both Vitti and her lover are poorer members of Italian society who have been allowed to spend time with the upper-class because of their work and personal relations with the missing girl (Vitti, the girl's best friend, is a translator; the lover is an architect).

The immediate successor to Il Grido in 1960, L'Avventura was based on a story by Antoniono. It includes several scenes modifying the script which were adapted on the spot: an Australian fisherman on the island at the beginning of the film, the riot over a starlet, the lover (Gabriele Ferzetti)'s interest in architecture in Milazzo.

Improvization

It is therefore not a totally closed work, either in its story or its conception. This sense of unpredictability if not of improvization strengthens the feeling of "realism" Antonioni was obviously seeking in the scenes (though several of the modifications seem misjudgements). "I have made a film on the instability of the emotions, on their mysteries," Antonioni said (Cameron and Wood, p26). He also stated: "I felt the need to break up the action by inserting, in a good many sequences, shots which could seem banal or of a documentary nature." He saw them as essential in providing almost a parallel to the mental and social climate of this world, but clearly some segments work better than others, and the technique failed him in numerous other films that critics considered to be too schematic to be interesting (Deserto Rosso, 1964) (Cameron and Wood, p123).

References

Ian Cameron and Robin Wood (1968) Antonioni , Movie Paperbacks, Studio Vista SBN 289.79598.2/79597.4