Criterion // 1964 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // June 22nd, 2010
You ask what you should watch. I ask how I should live. It's the same thing.
I've always wondered why European art directors shunned color filmmaking for so long. With their love of art history in general and painting in particular, it would have seemed natural for them to want to embrace the technology. Instead, they turned their noses up at it for far longer than made sense. Red Desert, the first color film by Michelangelo Antonioni (L'avventura) and one of the earliest examples of color among the New Wave, shows exactly why they should have switched. The film is a brilliant exercise in sight and sound, using color theory and electronic music to alter mood without sacrificing plot any more than his films already do. Now we can see the full beauty of the director's work in this stunning new transfer from the Criterion Collection.
Giuliana (Monica Vitti, The Girl with a Pistol), a pensive young woman living in the shadow of industry, has begun to crack from the alienation caused by her surroundings. She tries to convince her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), that she's in bad straits, but he thinks she's just hysterical. When she meets Ugo's business associate, Corrado (Richard Harris, This Sporting Life) she sees a chance to make somebody understand, but his intentions my not be so innocent.
Our first impression of Giuliana is that she's possibly homeless, and definitely strange. She comes out of the fog into an industrial complex, child in tow, head down and looking afraid. She comes up to a stranger, maybe somebody who works there, and asks for his hunk of bread, then skitters off to eat it in private. This act of begging belies the fact that she's a well-to-do woman, the wife of the factory owner, which sets us off kilter immediately. The questions of who Giuliana is and why she reacts in these ways make up the body of Red Desert, a beautifully composed film, one that uses color and sound to augment the performances and shine light on both the glory of modern industrial society and the alienation it inherently causes.
The three main characters show each of these aspects of industry. All we know of Giuliana's background is that she is married to Ugo and has recently been released from the hospital after a car accident, which may have been a suicide attempt. By her actions, though, we can easily tell that she doesn't belong to the industrial world; it scares her. The lack of connection she feels to the world itself and the people who embrace it, including her husband, is a trigger, if not a direct cause, for her diminishing sanity. Ugo has the opposite relationship to industry. He adores it, sees it as an inevitable, joyous progression to a better society. He loves it, in part, because of his profit margins, but it's a more all-encompassing esthetic love, as well. These rusted silos and steel-and-rivet structures are beautiful precisely because it marches society into the future. Corrado falls somewhere in between the two. An industrialist himself, he certainly understands Ugo's viewpoint. He believes in the inevitability of it, but he can't take the same joy in it that his friend does. Instead, he waxes on about his dream to throw it all away and return to a simpler, more natural place. His conflict puts his being at odds with his actions, turning him morose and needy.
The conflict Corrado feels between his love of industry and his desire to escape helps to explain how he is drawn to both Ugo's and Giuliana's worlds. It allows him to act like Ugo, but also to relate to Giuliana, understand her fears, and draw her nearer to him. This is where the danger lies for her: Corrado seems to be similar in spirit, but his capitalist nature causes him to act in self-serving ways, and that understanding facade transforms into seduction and Giuliana remains in the same troubled place.
Just as the story has an alienating quality, so to do the performances from the leads. The film revolves around Giuliana, and Vitti is on screen nearly the entire time. Her pensive demeanor is appropriately off-putting, all wringing hands and facial tics. Her voice softly projects her myriad fears, but on the occasion that she actually expresses herself, you can feel all that pent-up emotion pouring out. Richard Harris is equally strong as Corrado. I've always like Harris and he gets the chance here to fully utilize his large, physical style. He is dubbed into Italian, of course, but his body does the talking more than his voice. Chionetti, as Ugo, is the only off note. Red Desert is the only credit for the actor that I can find, but in spite of his inexperience, it's more the unapproachable nature of the character that makes him seem so strange. All told, if these aren't the finest Antonioni has directed, it's still a fine group of performances.
Antonioni shows his full filmmaking prowess in Red Desert, maybe more than his earlier, more widely-viewed films because of the color palette on display. According to the commentary on the disc, the director had spent considerable time studying color theory, and it shows in the way he changes lighting and focus depending on place and action. In the industrial park, the tones are muted and dirty; he went so far as to paint the grass and mud to achieve his exact vision. In certain interiors, on the other hand, the colors are bold, lighting is bright, and the focus is sharp. Often, these scenes appear to be more of something from the mind of Douglas Sirk than Antonioni himself. This beautifully shot film has a painterly quality to it throughout, in which sight lines and vanishing points are as important as direct action. An impressive showing from Antonioni's cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma. Giovanni Fusco's vocal and electronic score nicely accentuates the style and the story. There are slight changes in the sound depending on the scenario, but it is often a droning, disconcerting piece of music that fits in perfectly with the rest of the film. Disconnected from traditional instruments, the score further alienates the viewer from natural things.
Red Desert has been given the usual top shelf treatment by Criterion. The image is nearly pristine throughout. There is beautiful depth in the picture, with gorgeous, vibrant colors, and just a hint of the grain that shows its age. Black levels are solid and contrast is perfectly balanced. There is one odd defect, however, about two-thirds of the way through the film. The three leads are walking in a line down the beach when a huge brown streak splits the screen and lasts for two or three seconds. Given how the rest looks, it's quite jarring, but it doesn't look like typical damage. I'm curious about why this, in particular, was impossible to clean when the remainder looks so good. The sound is as good as you can expect from mono, with clean dialog and a well-balanced music track.
We're presented with a good slate of extras, as well, starting with an excellent audio commentary with Italian film scholar David Forgacs. While it's a sometimes dry discussion of the film, he is extremely informative and clued me in to many of the reasons Red Desert is such a strong work that aren't so apparent on an initial viewing. A fairly lengthy pair of interviews, the first with Antonioni and the second with Monica Vitti, add more information about the intentions and meaning behind the work. We also get two earlier short films from the director. The first, Gente del Po chronicles a barge trip down the Po River, and the second, called N.U. details the work lives of Italian street cleaners. They're both interesting, but inessential. With a trailer and a book of essays and additional interviews, this is quite a nice set.
Red Desert is a beautiful piece of work that rewards multiple viewings. It doesn't have the most interesting narrative in the world, but the technical and artistic qualities of the film are second to none.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Films