Three takes on L’Avventura
TONY’s film critics look at Antonioni’s modernist masterpiece from three different angles.
Tue Jul 9 2013
Once more, without feeling
“Some filmmakers change the way we see things,” critic Penelope Houston wrote. “A few more change some of the things we see.” Michelangelo Antonioni did both with his 1960 tale of the search for an inexplicably AWOL traveler that slowly and methodically goes nowhere, though it wasn’t the beautiful people milling about empty spaces so much as that anticlimax that suggested the filmmaker had stumbled onto something revolutionary. In an age when alienation and nihilism had crept into society’s foundation like toxic kudzu, it was time for film to address such issues with the formal and narrative vocabulary they deserved. Why bother making a whodunit when the world outside the theater now begged for the definitive whybotherwithitatall?
It was a far cry from Italy’s parables of neorealism, a movement that Antonioni witnessed from the periphery (he was filming his 1943 documentary short, “People of the Po Valley,” while Luchino Visconti was shooting Ossessione in the same region) and, in features like Le Amiche (1955) and Il Grido (1957), later reacted against. The days of a single-organism socialist working class were on the way out; the era of a fractured, emotionally dead bourgeois middle class and what Andrew Sarris would cheekily dub “Antoniennui” had arrived.—DF
The face of change
At the heart of L’Avventura is an absence: Where is the missing Anna? One of the chattier members of a group of casually partying friends, she’s simply gone after a few hours of hanging out on a rocky island—drowned? Headed home? It’s her friend Claudia, played by the exquisite Monica Vitti, who seems to be the only one who cares. Vitti, a one-woman cult in the making, spends most of the movie in a state of distraction. Even she begins to lose the thread, and that’s part of the radical pose of Vitti’s performance: These young, wealthy folks might be in danger of misplacing their passion for anything. Antonioni courted such deep sociological readings, but it was his muse and lover, Vitti, who truly embodied a sense of generational change. Suddenly a different kind of female protagonist appeared, one central to a plot, yet tentative and nuanced: Claudia is the mother to so many beautifully lost women in cinema, including Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Vitti may be the most potent symbol of the ’60s Italian art film: fashionable, ennui-laced, yearning for something undefinable. Surely, she’s the most in need of a hug.—JR
The anxiety of influence
Jeers and laughter were prevalent when L’Avventura premiered at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, with both Antonioni and Vitti fleeing the cinema, distressed by a disaster unfolding. But the film still won a special prize “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images.” The whiplash from maudit to masterpiece became a hallmark of the filmmaker’s career, and L’Avventura’s game-changing bounty clearly affected how he approached subsequent sick-soul masterworks like L’Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and The Passenger (1975). Antonioni would become an exemplar of serious-minded art cinema: A burgeoning cinephile named Martin Scorsese saw L’Avventura multiple times upon its stateside release, captivated by the work’s “spiritually ugly” qualities, and its example continues to be followed by people like Kelly Reichardt, whose moody Western, Meek’s Cutoff (2010), transposes L’Avventura’s disaffected ambience to the 19th-century American West. The film’s effect was epochal, and all it took was an artist with the courage to wander.—KU
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Follow Keith Uhlich on Twitter: @keithuhlich
L’Avventura opens Fri 12 at Film Forum. Click for showtimes