You don’t need to know art cinema to appreciate Michelangelo Antonioni. In fact, let’s demonstrate how much you already do know about him: Whenever two elegant characters are separated by distance and ennui—maybe it’s a perfume ad, maybe a movie—that’s the impact of Antonioni, specifically, his extraordinarily stylish La Notte (1961). When Austin Powers poses his fashion models (“Pout, baby!”) or when soundman John Travolta pieces together a murder mystery in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, that’s Antonioni again, namely his seismic swinging-London thriller Blow-Up.
But for all of his formal influence, Italy’s master director (a major force of the 1960s) remains something of an exclusive taste—ironic, given the universality of his preoccupations: money, architectural dislocation, sex. The movies are not as difficult as their reputations suggest; Red Desert, Antonioni’s 1964 drama, now in a definitive new transfer, presents a doorway to a younger audience of potential fans. This was Antonioni’s first film in color, a decision he didn’t take lightly. (Whole fields are painted subtle shades.) Yet gorgeous as it is, Red Desert may have even more resonance with a generation enraged by environmental rape: The exquisitely neurotic Monica Vitti plays a character married to the manager of a belching factory.
Criterion’s jam-packed disc is quite possibly the label’s best effort to date (fighting words), beautifully serving the type of cinema they’ve traditionally championed. A full-color brochure includes a helpful and accessible essay by Mark Le Fanu, as well as a Q&A between Antonioni and superfan Jean-Luc Godard. There are video interviews with Vitti and her director, who saw her as his muse. Most extraordinary are the on-set dailies, in black-and-white as well as color, which, even without sound, represent several semesters’ worth of lessons in composition.—Joshua Rothkopf
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