Francois Truffaut said this of Michelangelo Antonioni, “He bores me; he’s so solemn and humorless.” Ingmar Bergman said he “was on his way, but expired, suffocated by his own tediousness.” Antonioni doesn’t bore me, but he is solemn and fairly humorless, so it seems right that the maker of Stolen Kisses (1968), a film of such lightness and good humor, would be bored by the tediousness Bergman speaks of. Also, suffocated isn’t that inaccurate of a word choice, though I would go with intoxicated. Antonioni’s movies are about tedium, they set-up but don’t necissarly pay off, at least not in the traditional way. They are like a 0-0 soccer match or an opera made entirely of recititive. Where, for example, are the visual or dramatic flourishes in L’Avventura? When are the cinematic equivalents of arias? Fascinating things happen in Antonioni, no doubt, in L’Avventura we have a missing person, in Blow-Up (1966) there’s a wild sex romp and a possible murder but they are mere moments. The same Truffaut who found Antonioni boring said that the French love Hitchcock because he shot scenes of love like scenes of murder. Antonioni, at first blush, shoots everything like scenes of C-SPAN.
Don’t misunderstand me, I believe L’Avventura is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it remains, however, a paradox, a collection of themes and styles that shouldn’t go together but undeniably do. This is perhaps the least immediate of films and yet, in 1962, two years after it’s premiere it was listed in the Sight and Sound Poll as the second greatest movie of all time. I’ve never watched it without being disappointed when the credits roll, yet it never fails to satisfy me eventually. L’Avventura works the next day.
Shall I describe the plot? A group of rich friends visit a small island near Sicily on a yacht. They include Anna (Lea Massari), her boyfriend Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Ann and Sandro are in a long distance relationship and this is the first time they’ve been together for over a month. Anna is becoming dissatisfied with the situation but Sandro assures her that it will get better. Mysteriously, Anna disappears. The group searches the island and eventually Sandro and Claudia agree to go to the mainland to continue to look. They then begin an affair and forget about finding Anna. Why? Because she is gone and it easier to fill her place in their lives with each other than to return her to it. And that is what L’Avvenutura is about. These miserable people in Antonioni’s world don’t make decisions based on what they want, they don’t want anything, they can only do enough to fulfill what has been instilled within them as their obligations. Sandro needs a lover, it used to be Anna, now it can be Claudia, what’s the difference? He tells both that he loves them at one point in the movie, but how can he? This man is bored. These women are bored. Love doesn’t even approach what they are doing together. Everything is for appearance. Sandro tries to kiss Claudia when a bellboy is around but is disinterested when the bellboy leaves. A woman is a sensation with boys and men in the town, she dresses and behaves sexily for them, but why? We feel it’s out of habit. A man on the yacht says he loathes scuba diving as he jumps in the water with his gear on. The people depicted here, these idle rich, suffocating under their own uselessness, to paraphrase Bergman. They are so close to not existing, who’s to say that Anna is actually missing? Perhaps she just succommed to her own precarious subsistence and poof! Gone. Who’d miss her exactly? Her boyfriend and best friend seem to get over it fairly quick. Her friends grow bored almost immediately with the search. Her father appears to be annoyed to be called in to look for her.
In the wrong hands, this material would be unbearable but Antonioni and his cinematographer Aldo Scavarda create a haunting visual landscape that is never flashy but always effective. Look at the search on the island, without being overly expressionistic, the framing of characters is off and their relationship with nature exists uneasily. There is a sense that both Anna is hidden somewhere in plain view, almost like an optical illusion, and that if Sandro, Claudia and the others aren’t careful, they may join her there. Antonioni is known as an architectural director and that is on display later in L’Avventura, certainly during Sandro’s proposal to Claudia on the roof of a magnificent bell tower, but he uses the natural architecture of the island to envelop his characters. The wasteland of the island is an extension of their empty lives.
The atmosphere is also aided by casting. Monica Vitti, often Antonioni’s on-screen persona, is beautiful, of course, but also commands a certain intelligence, which her performance goes to great length to undermine. It’s not that she’s stupid, in fact, it is through her that we are to understand the depth of this group’s impotency, but she is incapable of controlling her own destiny in the empty world she inhabits. Gabriel Ferzetti (who always convinces me that he is Giorgio Albertazzi, in 1961’s Last Year in Marienbad, another opaque film about the super bored rich), is handsome enough but has a look as if he is playing a part, which he is. In one scene, he casually discusses his different career options, ambassador, for example. The only thing that might not be open to him is a substantial human being.
He and Claudia get a room together and even discuss marriage (in the way that one might discuss getting a cheeseburger, not in a romantic way) and the next morning Claudia discovers him with a prostitute. She acts as if she is hurt but can’t really be. Sex for this group is a placeholder, it is something to do to pass the time, it is utterly meaningless. They are further doing what is expected of them. They sit together as the sun rises and she forgives him, why not? It’s not exactly forgiveness but deep understanding. She nearly adopts him. These two pieces of human driftwood, anchored to nothing that matters, barely mourning the departure of a Anna, who quite literally drifted away, can only get the smallest amount of confort that they will be together in their shallowness as the film ends.
The film was booed at Cannes where it also received a special jury prize for a “new movie language,” one that is subtle and high-minded and, frankly, asks to be booed, it is a purely visual film that doesn’t use metaphors or symbols but simply shows. Even if one can see through the narrative fog and access its meaning one can take the easy way out and sneer at the rich as its supposed target but it is much more judicial than that. L’Avventura will always remain modern because its real target is modern values. We live is a me-first kind of world, where pleasure and convenience trump any kind of spiritual foundation. Who are the Anna’s in our lives that we’ve forgotten about so easily?