Lawrence Russell

L'Avventura (1960) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni writ. Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra (story by Antonioni) cine. Aldo Scavardia music Giovanni Fusco star. Monica Vitti (Claudia), Gabriele Ferzetti (Sandro), Lea Massari (Anna), Dominique Blanchar et. al.

This film was marginalized at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival by Fellini's brilliant La Dolce Vita (which won the big prize) and it's easy to see why: at 145 minutes playing, the indolent real time sequences are a real test of the viewer's patience, despite the marvellous imagery and the incidental decadence of the characters along the way. Ironically the theme and symbolist imagery mark it as extremely similar to La Dolce Vita -- the difference is in the editing method.

real time or montage time

L'Avventura is like the literary novel where the plot is simple and the imagery complex. The landscape continually threatens to overwhelm the characters who are afraid to commit in a reality of rapid social change as measured by the new architecture as versus the old. In the opening scene we see Anna emerge through a Roman arch from her father's villa onto a road lined with new cluster housing. The road bisects the screen, marking the old from the new, and in a brilliant touch vanishes into the distant mirage of a Renaissance dome.

It's interesting to compare this sequence to the closing one where the screen is once again divided in two, with the couple (Sandro and Claudia) framed like a gallery painting in an uneasy reconciliation between a wall and a landscape, near and far, present and past. Space collapses back into two dimensions, Time into stasis. Their relationship is represented perfectly by this artistic mise en scene.

Antonioni's narrative symmetry is as perfect as the palindrome that characterizes the heroine's name. And Anna is the heroine, despite the fact that she disappears 25 minutes into the action and the next two hours are preoccupied with her disappearance. As her lover and her friend go on a search through southern Italy, their exploration is one of the Self, where they try to recover innocence as they rediscover the past. This is best realized in the character of Claudia who takes up where Anna leaves off, wears Anna's dress, becomes Sandro's lover, and finally -- perhaps -- becomes Anna.

Sandro is a child-man with the typical compulsive sexuality of the artist, a man of suspect allegiance and charming disposition. Perhaps 40 years old, his unrealized self is hinted at in a scene in the gallery below his apartment. As he makes love to Anna, Claudia passes the time by wandering through the gallery, overhears an American couple in one room proclaim "he really knows how to paint" while in the next an Italian says "he's got a long way to go". Again the screen is bisected by the wall between the rooms in a visual palindrome that is mirrored by Claudia's stroll through the building.

the multiplication of Self: Time, Dimension and Stasis

Sandro's character is represented by three versions of himself: at the beginning, the successful artist/architect who is despised by Anna's father, a diplomat of the Old Order; later as the 17 year old Geoffredo, the young artist who seduces Guilia, sensualizing her with the raw, urgent sexuality of his nudes ("Women like to show themselves"); and finally as the angry 23 year old tourist artist who sketches historic sites in Palermo. As Sandro waits for the Cathedral to open, he knocks the drawing ink over a church sketch of the absent artist in a gesture that is as accidental as it is inevitable, an eradication of the past by the clumsy hand of the present.

Doors opening, doors closing. People in groups as people alone and isolated. People arriving, people leaving. People seen in the mid-ground between viewer and horizon. Landscape rather than story, photography rather than action... perhaps this is reason for such frustration with L'Avventura. The film is both neo-realism and expressionism, exploiting documentary Time with spacial Symbolism. It's this static action, with its compositional style taken from the academic tradition of painting, and the intrinsic omniscience of photography and ambient sound, that defines the Antonioni method.

Anna and her friends visit a bleak island in the Eolian chain, swim beneath the intimidating cliffs until Anna claims a shark is in the vicinity. They land, explore the rocky abstractions, hunt for some ancient ruins. Meanwhile Anna is gripped with sexual contradiction, argues with Sandro, and while this seems like the typical neurotic game-play of love, the sub-text suggests a deeper rationale in Anna's polar yearnings of love and repulsion. Sandro offers to marry her but she says she wants to be alone... Sandro lies back on the rocks, closes his eyes as Anna turns, looks at him... or at eternity in the breaking waves and horizontal ocean. This is the last we see of her as the sequence lap-dissolves into various views of the women of the party reclining on rocks to the doppler hiss and roar of the troughing waves... and the mysterious sound of a boat engine which makes Anna's disappearance more extra-sensory than real.

Did she fall or jump? Did she escape the island freely or was she abducted?

commitment: sex and identity

A long search ensues, Anna's friend Claudia being the most committed. Sandro joins her, although his concern seems to be one of form rather than spirit. They search the lava beds of the small island but the only thing they find is an "Australian" hermit and piece of ancient pottery which is dropped and broken as soon as it is found. Claudia goes to the mainland, takes a train, goes south as rumors of sightings are reported in the newspaper. Sandro follows and quickly transfers his fascination to Claudia.

Sandro: I have no desire to sacrifice myself... why? It's idiotic to sacrifice oneself... why? For Whom?

Claudia: For me things are just the same as they were three days ago... you and Anna. Three days! Is it possible it takes so little to change, to forget?

Sandro: It takes even less.

Sandro is a creature of transition, a man who is unable to commit because he is a man. Antonioni's idea of commitment is female, as represented by Claudia, even if his films are full of disappearing women. The existential reflex is confounded by an implicit criticism of the status quo, the developing impotency of the modern male.

As their affair develops and they penetrate the sub-tropical south, they arrive at destinations which continually draw them into confrontations with themselves and history. Anna might be in Noto, so they drive there, but find a modern church as deserted as the small town itself. Claudia presses against the shutters, calls, "Is there anyone in there?" but all she gets is an echo of herself. As they drive away, they leave the frame, the camera in fixed contemplation of the bland modern facade of the empty church.

In another town, they expect to find Anna in the only hotel. Sandro enters alone, ascends the stairs, disappears as Claudia waits in the street in a ritual that she expects will mirror the opening of the film: Sandro will find Anna, they will make love, Claudia (again) will wait. In an incident that is more to do with Claudia's psychology of sacrifice than the crude sexism of the Mediterranean male, she is surrounded by dozens of insolent leering men as she strolls back and forth. Sandro returns, descending the stairs from yet another rendezvous with nothingness.

They rejoin Corrado and their other affluent friends from the yacht in a luxury hotel. Exhausted, Claudia elects to stay in their room and rest rather than join the reception in the lobby. Sandro encounters a young brunette of similar erotic dimensions as Anna and quickly engages her in sex. Claudia finds him missing at dawn and as if she has never left her dream, searches the corridors of the hotel, eventually discovering Sandro with the brunette on a couch in a deserted lounge. Distressed, she runs from the hotel, ends up in a plaza where Sandro finds her. The film ends with their ambiguous reconciliation as Sandro sits weeping on a bench and Claudia places her hand on his head.

art, time, and stasis

While stasis is obviously part of Antonioni's artistic raison d'etre, the reduction of human activity to its trivial interludes can seem pointless unless unless you follow the sub-text. Many scenes depend upon beauty and symbolism to justify their inclusion. Sandro and Claudia make love in the grass as a train passes and we witness the trail of fresh steam rather than the lovers' climax. Or Sandro witnesses a paparazzi scrum as they interview a young female "writer" whose brash sexual persona is a living example of Geoffredo's assertion that "women like to display themselves".

And Anna? She's never found, her disappearance another mystery like the ruins on the island, or the selves we shed like lovers.

© LR '76/'99


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