Edited June 2016
With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.
Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
L’ Avventura’s repute is that it doesn’t provide welcoming cinema to the uninitiated, and its repute speaks no lies. The narrative begins like a mystery adventure, plateaus early with divested meandering distance, and stays intentionally stagnant in its cynical coldness toward human life, eventually not so much ending as giving up. Upon first viewing, a surfeit of viewers leave bedeviled, and it is easy to understand their concern; L’Avventura openly sets up a highfalutin “movie narrative” and then willfully does everything it can to pass on by without noticing. It is an anti-adventure, through and through.
It’s not so much a boring film as a film about boredom, however. While vacationing, a young woman named Anna (Lea Massari) goes missing, prompting her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and close friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) to feign searching for her. Well, they do search for her, for what Antonioni intentionally clips off as a short segment of time. The film’s cheeky title, translated literally as “The Adventure”, posits a rip-roaring quest, and it finds two people for whom a quest entails skulking about in their own bourgeois adequacy with one another and pretending they love each other. Depicted by the master of the mundane, what begins as a legitimate quest rooted in care and concern soon devolves into a performance, a pantomime, an obligation of going through the motions, a feeling not so much of hopelessness but ennui, a half-hearted attempt to care because we are supposed to care and only for that reason. The film’s characters couldn’t care if they tried, and, this knowledge in tow, Antonioni wanders into a great big sigh of a wide-open penitentiary no human can escape.
But not escaping is the point, for in Antonioni our penitentiary is not an externalized cell or a physical tremor of brick and mortar, but our very self. Antonioni spends the film trapping his characters by trying to liberate them, visually constructing a world of inescapable beauty his characters cannot bother to stop and notice, for they are too busy not doing anything of note to even stare at the beauty they aren’t interested in. When things morph into a love story, the character dialogue attains the primal rigor and sexual juice of reading from a phone book.They have to quote because they cannot love of their own initiative, nor do they seem interested in wanting to. His film is a fable of human loneliness and dispassion, gifting the world to his characters in hopes that they take the hint and, ultimately, carefully unearthing how his characters segment themselves off from the world when they don’t bite. The world as an open-air sarcophagus, his camera pulls back, vilifying his characters not by blocking them from experience but by guiding them to that world, by divulging the not-so-secret wideness and the expanse of that world that is theirs for the taking, and then shaking his head as they walk by none the wiser, never bothering to gesture outward toward the endless possibility around them. Antonioni shows us physical space only to disclose our apathy (and the apathy of most character-focused films) to actually look.
Incidentally, when his two leads are in the same frame, they almost never gaze at each other. They always seem to reside at perpendicular angles, insular in their inner selves as Antonioni feigns erecting the pieces of an already-crumbled tower of post-enlightenment cinematic individualism. Most film characters are the center of their worlds – even when their world obliterates them, we are asked to care because it attacks them as individuals in particular. But this doctrine of individual volition and centralization, where a human in the singular is crystallized as the only valid focal point of cinema, is only a ruse in the invasive cinematic heretic that is Antonioni, who pretends to guide us to human turmoil when in reality the focus is as much on the world around us. Humans are not the clauses but the counterpoints or conjunctions to a weeping world whose self-worth is not legitimized by whether we mortals notice it or not.
Yet, if the film is cynical, it isn’t anti-humanist. In fact, it is a film very much worried about humanity and so helpless to do anything about it except capture with grave detail the loss of humanism in modern materialist society. It’s an indictment of people who have lost their interest in humanity, mainly the idly wealthy who expend their life-worth kindling themselves into anathema to their compatriots. What would be bright and flaring in other films is a depressing dearth, a desert here. It’s a true haunt, a monumentally sighing, depressed film to knock humanity down to its senses, a fount of pervasive loneliness enshrined in a camera that has no tricks left but to watch and wipe away a tear at humanity’s expense. The film’s ultimate coup is that we realize late on that it is about Anna after-all, but only insofar as her condition reflects the conditions of everyone she called a friend. Sandro and others are lost, as she is, disconnected from a human world, left with no one but themselves. She absconded, and in her mind, it turns out she didn’t leave much behind.
Thankfully, at least, Antonioni did leave something behind: not only a pulsating reminder that the physical world is beautiful if we let it in, but arguably the most electrifying shift to cinematic mechanics this side of Godard’s Breathless, released mere months before-hand. Ironically, it is only by enervating and malnourishing the screen – sabotaging his characters in a torpid violation of their selves that is monumentally antithetical to Godard’s fire-and-brimstone kaleidoscope of cinematic fury – that Antonioni energizes the possibility of that so-often-passive rectangle in front of us. With an almost spiritual asceticism and adherence to crestfallen minimalism, Antonioni redistricts the screen economy away from excess and toward new purpose and possibility. By suffusing the screen in a deathly jaundice of spatially oriented modernism, Antonioni bellows a wellspring of new life into the art form, a life he pines for us to consider in hopes that we do not melt away like his characters. Sacrificing the individualist narrative we expect allows the cinema to be born anew in a body where every corner of every frame counts, where the whole screen rather than simply the space around the people breathes, where every movement is a holocaust in celluloid. At his best, as in this film, Antonioni feels like a cinematic graveyard shift, excavating life in what we thought was a cadaver.