Criterion // 1964 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 21st, 2010
"You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live. Same thing." -- Corrado Zeller
The twenty-first century has shown us the wrath of Mother Nature in the form of Hurricane Katrina, and humanity's impact on nature is increasingly under debate with the Gulf oil crisis and the possibility of global warming. However, we're hardly the first to deal with the human race's impact on the environment. Certainly as far back as the early Industrial Age, we've had artists and commentators worrying about what changes we might cause in nature, and even farther back art has used the natural landscape as a way to comment on the subject. All those threads can be traced in Michael Antonioni's first color film, Red Desert, made after his chilling trilogy of disaffection but before his most famous work, Blow-up. Using a desolate landscape to explore the trauma of mental illness, Red Desert revels in its depiction of a horrible industrial future. Criterion brings Antonioni's film to Blu-ray with a generally strong audiovisual presentation and some informative extras that shed light on this complicated director.
Guiliana (Monica Vitti, The Phantom of Liberty) is the wife of a plant manager in Ravenna who was recently released from the hospital after a car accident. She's mentally ill and trying to hide it from her husband when she meets the charming Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, Major Dundee). He attempts to woo her and the two arrive at a party full of sexual liberties. Eventually, Guilian becomes convinced her son has polio. When she finds out he's been faking it, she heads for another breakdown.
Few directors have been so blatant about putting their philosophy into the mouths of their characters than Antonioni when he has Corrado say, "You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live. Same thing." It is obvious from Red Desert (and his other films) that looking is living for the director. It's not an overstatement to say he's obsessed with the long take. Despite the fact that just about every frame is filled with fog, smoke, or a gray, dull landscape, his camera lingers, allowing every detail of the scene to blossom. It should be no surprise, then, that this creates a hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere where characters seem to wander to little purpose, and the sheer overpowering presence of this post-industrial wasteland begins to take on ominous overtones. Still Antonioni looks, and has his characters look, sometimes at one another and sometimes at the same landscape we see. The viewer is left with the suspicion that because so much time has been spent on these images they must have some meaning, since there's no solid narrative in the conventional sense. Only by approaching the film allegorically, like a Bergman or Jodorowsky film, can the film carry any meaning whatsoever.
Because of his obsession with the image, other aspects of the film are not so deeply treated. The story goes that Richard Harris walked off the set (at least in part) because he questioned Antonioni about why his character was to be filmed crossing a courtyard and what his motivation might be. Antonioni supposedly replied that it was essentially none of Harris' business, and actors should just do what they're told to serve the director's idea of the film. Whether this story is true or not, it demonstrates the essential attitude of the film towards the actors, and by extension, their characters. We learn very little about Guiliana or Corrado beyond some surface details, and there's very little in the way of directorial commentary as to how we should feel about them and their plight. Despite the dearth of characterization, Harris and Vitti play off each other beautifully. Harris is all suave charm and quiet strength, while Vitti is a combination of passion and vulnerability. Their chemistry is amazing, and in a more conventional film would have set the screen on fire.
Despite the lack of a conventional plot or really engaging characters, Red Desert succeeds on the strength of what it suggests. The long takes, haunted industrial atmosphere and slow pace give the film a force that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The film is also aided by a strong Blu-ray disc. The name of the game for this transfer is grain. There's a shifting, shimmery layer of it over every frame, and because it's so well rendered it gives the transfer a very filmlike appearance. Colors are muted (as I'm sure they were in the original negative) and blacks are strong, though there is a bit of excess digital smoothing early on. The only real problem with the transfer is the source. Criterion went back to the original camera negative, which wasn't in pristine shape. The biggest difficulty is the large red slash down the middle of the frame about halfway through the film, although there are other instances of damage as well. Strangely, the damage almost enhances the film's atmosphere, but purists will likely be disappointed by the occasional blemishes. The mono audio does a fine job in context. Since this was an Italian production, most (if not all) of the dialogue was later added in post-production. Richard Harris doesn't speak Italian, for instance, so the looping is fairly obvious and doesn't do anything for the sound quality of the speaking voices. However, the audio track handles the film's electronic score wonderfully, with subtle textures evident in the music and effects.
The supplements start with a commentary by scholar David Forgacs. He provides a wealth of information on the film's production (including how Antonioni achieved the film's spectacular colors), how it fits into Antonioni's career, and its reception since. Next up are two interviews. The first is from a 1964 French television show that features Antonioni discussing the film's genesis and themes, while the second presents a talk with Monica Vitti (also from French television but in 1990). Neither is particularly long, but it's nice to see both of them discussing their work. We also get a peek at the film's production through the inclusion of some of the dailies, some 30 minutes of material without audio. Antonioni fans are sure to appreciate the inclusion of two different documentaries from the director, "Gente del po" about a barge trip down the Po river, and "N.U." about street cleaners in Rome. Finally, the disc includes the film's trailer. The booklet includes an essay by Mark La Fanu, and brilliant interview between Godard and Antonioni, and some release notes on the short films in the supplements section.
Antonioni has been criticized (most famously by Bergman and Orson Welles) for his use of the long take, and that's certainly an issue here. Red Desert is slow, with little in the way of conventional narrative or character development, so viewers should be warned that this is not a film for popcorn night.
Red Desert is a film about alienation that many viewers will find alienating, but Criterion have again given us an amazing Blu-ray release, presenting Red Desert with a strong transfer, solid audio, and a host of rare supplements that are sure to please Antonioni fans. Although Red Desert is not for everyone, adventurous film viewers and Antonioni fans alike should give this disc a look.
If for nothing else than its fantastic sense of color, Red Desert is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Films