"Believe me, Anna, words are becoming less and less necessary. They create misunderstandings."—Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti)
Michelangelo Antonioni's cryptic masterpiece, a profound influence on cinema, makes its debut on DVD with the help of Criterion. For a film in which nothing seems to happen, and appearance is more than reality, L'Avventura seems to be a film with little to say. But under its curious silences lurks a wealth of understanding about human relationships in an increasingly arid modern world.
Facts of the Case
Perhaps Anna (Lea Massari) loves Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Or perhaps not. In any case, she maintains her relationship with him through absence: she does not see him for weeks at a time and thus holds him on an emotional tether. She shows indifference as she makes love to him, while her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) wanders aimlessly among empty rooms.
Together, they take a cruise among the islands, isolated points amidst vast and placid waters. Newspapers are cast in the boat's wake, trash cast off. Then a few minutes later, the camera moves along the same course to follow Anna, diving off the boat into the same wake. She claims to see a shark, then later admits to Claudia that this was a lie. What is going on here?
Later, on an island, Anna disappears. The camera looms over vast expanses, the characters buried in the landscape, far from one another, as they search. Sometimes the camera lingers, as if something important might happen, but then it moves on.
Only Anna's friend Claudia seems at all concerned about the disappearance—there is a mystery afoot, a lack of closure. Teaming up with Anna's boyfriend Sandro (who wastes no time in kissing Claudia—after all, what is a mystery without a little romance?), she begins her investigation.
But nothing happens. She only thinks it does.
Before you proceed any further, in the spirit of journeys which veer off on seemingly irrelevant tangents, I encourage you to read my Deep Focus column on Disappearance and Desire, in which I take some time to discuss the "mystery" and "romance" themes in L'Avventura. When you are done, feel free to wander back over here, if you so desire.
Oh, are you back already? Or did you only just pretend to disappear? In any case, let us continue.
In one curious sequence during L'Avventura, Sandro visits a town during his "search" for Anna. He is distracted briefly by the near-riot over the arrival of a "Gloria Perkins" (Dorothy De Poliolo). She turns out to be nobody particularly important, just a pretty foreign woman with a tiny tear in her dress. Yet hundreds of men rush to surround her. Having no intrinsic value herself, Gloria is validated by the perception of value projected onto her by the desire of the men of the town. Sandro observes this, meets with a news reporter to discuss a possible sighting of Anna, and bribes the reporter to concoct a false sighting of Anna in order to keep Claudia on the case.
What do we see? What do we think we see? The ghost story is always about seeing, the grounding power of the Gaze. If the ghost is there, if it is really seen, then we must ask what the ghost wants, what closure does it lack. If the ghost is an illusion, a projection of our own psychic needs, then what do we lack? In many ways, L'Avventura is a ghost story, but one in which the ghost never appears. Once Anna disappears, she is gone, never to be recovered. Was that boat leaving the island carrying her away? Was she really in the town where Gloria Perkins later appeared? We never find out. Anna becomes oblique, a distant point of reference. When Claudia takes some time off to visit the flighty Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), she briefly dons a brunette wig, suggesting that she is possessed by Anna's ghost. Or perhaps it is just a game. Then her desire rears itself, and she runs to find Sandro. Is it love? Is it fear that the ghost of Anna will haunt him and overwhelm his memory of her? Or is it merely disgust triggered by seeing Giulia's promiscuity?
Claudia needs to know, to see. "I've never met a woman like you who has to see everything clearly," remarks Sandro. But Sandro prefers to be occluded, to blind himself with simulation. Language is only a game to Sandro. When Claudia says, "Tell me you love me," he does. When she asks again a moment later, he says he does not. Then he corrects himself and says he does. Seeing his confusion, and his desperate attempts to cover his lack of self-awareness by grasping at desire (including flirting with Gloria Perkins at a party), she pities him. And through her pity, the only emotion she can muster to deal with the weary, empty modern world, she accepts him.
Because of the importance of Antonioni's fusion of the "film novel" (in which every narrative detail is fleshed out and relates to the larger themes) and painterly mise en scène, Criterion's edition of L'Avventura is particularly welcome. Restored to a crisp and well-defined image, the film yields new wonders with each viewing: Antonioni designed the film to unfold in layers (in this sense, one can see the profound influence of Antonioni's work from the 1960s on Stanley Kubrick, who adopts Antonioni's sense of scenic construction and leisurely pacing to his own films from the 1970s on, but with a more clinical and satiric approach in contrast to Antonioni's more sympathetic touch). Given Antonioni's careful use of environmental noise to punctuate the silences in the narrative, I wish the soundtrack felt more expansive, but this is in no way Criterion's fault. The original soundtrack has been restored in its monaural form, and Criterion discretely does not try to "spice" it up.
L'Avventura is available in a two-disc set. The first disc contains the feature, along with an optional commentary track by film critic Gene Youngblood (recorded in 1989 for the laserdisc release). Youngblood walks us through "how to read" Antonioni's revolutionary film grammar, pointing out where the director resists traditional devices in favor of new approaches to familiar images. He fills in details about the film's production, and even notes what he feels are the film's flaws. The track is quite interesting and informative for those without an extensive background in film theory (for the record, none of the analysis provided above is touched on by Youngblood).
Disc two provides a wealth of goodies meant to highlight Antonioni's significance to the history of cinema. An hour-long documentary produced for Canadian television, "Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials," interviews friends and collaborators which providing an overview of Antonioni's career up to 1966 (that is, it does not cover his brilliant English language films like Blow-Up and The Passenger, both of which require Criterion treatment right now, so hurry up dammit). The documentary appears in its original French (with English subtitles) and is somewhat scratchy and worn. Avoiding too much analysis or insight into the films, it is, as the title indicates, mostly made up of "testimonials" to Antonioni's greatness. Of course, all this must be taken with a grain of salt: Antonioni's career until L'Avventura consisted of a string of box-office flops and the production of L'Avventura itself (mostly glossed over in the documentary) was a troubled one, culminating in a near-disaster at Cannes, where the audience hooted the film, forcing an army of film critics to respond by publicly declaring the film a masterpiece (which it is—but they did sort of force it down everyone's throat for a few years). In spite of its flaws, the documentary provides solid background on the early phases of Antonioni's career.
The second disc also features Jack Nicholson (who appeared in The Passenger) reading a pair of essays by Antonioni over a couple of static photographs. The first essay, "L'Avventura: A Moral Adventure," appears in shortened form on the package insert (as Antonioni's speech at Cannes) and focuses on his denial of authorial intent and his preference toward experience over analysis and understanding. The second essay, "Reflections on the Film Actor," once again reminds us of Hitchcock: actors are merely pawns in the service of the director's master plan. With some amusement, Nicholson reserves the last five minutes to make a personal statement about his experiences with Antonioni, remarking that in person, Antonioni often contradicted these public statements and was friendly and accommodating toward actors in person. Criterion rounds out the extras with the English version of the film's theatrical trailer and a short demonstration of their restoration process.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Antonioni's film might be faulted for anything, we might say that it seems so opaque. Indeed, to the casual viewer, nothing of consequence seems to happen. A woman disappears, but she is never found. A relationship is broached, but it never develops. People travel and go nowhere. The film seems maddeningly uncooperative in offering the sorts of proper narrative. Consider what Stanley Kubrick learned from all of this: slow down the pace of the narrative to the point where nothing seems to happen, then allow the viewer to wander aimlessly through the mise en scène to find clues that offer multiple possibilities to "read" the scene like a novel. Of course, this is very unnerving to the casual viewer who is looking for an immediate payoff (hence the harsh reactions many people have when first viewing most of Kubrick's films). But we are so used to this technique in literature. It was Antonioni's breakthrough to deliberately use this strategy on film. L'Avventura is a film that appears quite strange, almost alien, in its insistence on toying with audience expectations (as well as its characters' expectations), and then heading off in completely new directions. For those willing to take up a challenge, Antonioni is more than worth the effort.
Few directors have had as profound an impact on the language of cinema, marking the shift between generations, as Michelangelo Antonioni. And L'Avventura lurks like the smoldering volcano over Claudia's shoulder in the final shot over the whole history of film. Unlike anything that had come before, and highly influential on everything that came after, this film is an important milestone. Once again, Criterion has made an excellent contribution to the world of DVD by restoring L'Avventura to presence.
The verdict seems to have wandered off for a moment. I'm sure it will turn up later. Oh well, case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Gene Youngblood
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