Michelangelo Antonioni Essay

Poll countdown essay no. 8  |  from our August 2011 issue

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura arrived in 1960 – amidst a tumultuous reception in Cannes that saw some disturbed audience members wanting to throw something at the screen – cinema was already changing in fundamental ways. The makers of individual, handmade films that had been institutionally kept out on the fringes (Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Norman McLaren, to name but three) were starting to draw more viewers and critical attention. The narrative feature film underwent a revision, from inside the nouvelle vague (Godard’s Breathless) and out (Agnès Varda’s first films, Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad). Meanwhile the Italian film world had already seen the old codes of neorealism swept away – much of it Antonioni’s own doing – and had moved towards a post-neorealist cinema liberated from melodrama and political ideologies, perhaps best exemplified in 1959 by Ermanno Olmi’s first feature Time Stood Still.

A new, maturing modernity became widespread in cinema. The years 1959 to 1960 can be identified as a world-historical moment for film. In line with the development of lenses, film stocks and new and smaller cameras (including a more ubiquitous use of 16mm), the modernism that took hold showed yet again the time lag after which cinema typically comes to embrace changes that have occurred first in other artforms: for instance, the radical overhaul of jazz by bebop; the transformation of the sound world of music by such figures as Edgard Varèse and Harry Partch; the abstract-expressionist movement in painting from Pollock to Rothko; the ‘new novel’ invading literature (on which Marienbad drew, courtesy of a script by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet).

In this exceptional moment, some of cinema’s old props were being kicked away, including Hollywood’s genre formulae, the three-act narrative structure, the privileging of psychology, the insistence on happy and ‘closed’ endings. But what did it mean to free oneself of the securing laws and traditions of genre, its capacity for creating worlds and codes? What did it mean to reject a storytelling architecture that had served dramatists well since Aeschylus? What kind of moving-image experience with actors could exist beyond psychology – which, after all, was still on the 20th century’s new frontier of science and society? What if endings were less conclusive, or less ‘satisfying’? These are the questions Antonioni confronted and responded to with L’avventura, the film that – more than any other at that moment – redefined the landscape of the artform, and mapped a new path that still influences today’s most venturesome and radical young filmmakers.

For some that film would instead be Breathless. Godard’s accidental discovery of the jump cut (courtesy of his editor) helped him rejig a more conventional yet sly imagining of the crime movie into a piece of radical art, a way of fracturing time as important as Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist fracturing of space and perception. It’s also arguable that Godard had the more immediate impact, especially through the 1960s, since his taste for pop-culture iconography, graphic wordplay and politics positioned him a bit closer to the centre of the period’s cultural zeitgeist than Antonioni (despite the Italian’s subsequent ability to capture swinging London and The Yardbirds in 1966’s Blowup, and Los Angeles counterculture in 1970’s Zabriskie Point). Even a movie with huge pop figures and crossover attraction like Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) would have been unthinkable without the example of Godard.

Yet I’d argue that L’avventura and Antonioni’s subsequent films – perhaps most importantly L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) – have exerted a greater long-term impact (his effect on the generations after the 1960s is something I’ll consider later). One of L’avventura’s many remarkable qualities to note now is its staying power – its ability to astonish anew after repeated viewings. Many great films are of their moment, yet lessen over time. Here, the entrance of Monica Vitti, with her classically hip black dress and sexily tousled blonde mane, amounts to an announcement that the 60s have arrived; a lesser work with her in it would be no more than a key identifier of that moment.

It’s the film’s subtle straddling of an older world and a new one still in the process of defining itself – reflected immediately and perfectly in composer Giovanni Fusco’s opening title theme, alternating between nostalgic Sicilian strummings and nervous, creeping percussive beats – that establishes its rich, unending landscapes of physical reality and the mind. This is part of the film’s timelessness, within an absolutely contemporary / modern setting. The early images of L’avventura trace a parting of the generations, as Anna (Lea Massari) – seemingly the film’s central character – tells her wealthy Roman father that she’s going away on a holiday to Sicily with girlfriend Claudia (Vitti), then seen very much on the periphery of the action, tagging along. But after Anna inexplicably disappears during a boat trip to an uninhabited island, it is Claudia who moves to the centre of the narrative – and into the affections of Anna’s architect boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) – as attempts to find Anna gradually peter out.

What makes L’avventura the greatest of all films, however, is its assertion, exploration and expansion of the concept of the ‘open film’. This had been Antonioni’s great project ever since he started out as a filmmaker after an extremely interesting career as a critic (like Godard). His early documentaries, such as The People of the Po (Gente del Po, 1947), and his earliest narrative films, such as the astonishing Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), suggest an artist pulling against what he perceived as the constraints of neorealism towards an openness based on a heightened perception of constant change – a dynamic that was for him the fundamental quality of the post-war world.

A new question

For Antonioni, the issues of neorealism were essential, in that they gave him an aesthetic base from which to launch. The People of the Po is an early neorealist work, both in its submersion in unvarnished realism and its interest in the lives of working people, but it also works against the predominant tendency in neorealism to project sympathy and sentimentality. By the time of Story of a Love Affair, teeming with characters from the upper and middle classes, his was not a class-based cinema; it offered instead a broader perspective – observant, distanced, occasionally unsympathetic. It reached into a more modern realm than neo-realism, a realm that had no name for it – and in fact still doesn’t.

Antonioni was never a leader – nor even part – of a movement. That’s partly because with each successive film he constantly redefined his approach. Roland Barthes, in his profoundly perceptive and concise 1980 speech honouring Antonioni, identified the process this way: “It is because you are an artist that your work is open to the Modern. Many people take the Modern to be a standard to be raised in battle against the old world and its compromised values; but for you the Modern is not the static term of a facile opposition; the Modern is on the contrary an active difficulty in following the changes of Time, not just at the level of grand History but at that of the little History of which each of us is individually the measure. Beginning in the aftermath of the last war, your work has thus proceeded, from moment to moment, in a movement of double vigilance, towards the contemporary world and towards yourself. Each of your films has been, at your personal level, a historical experience, that is to say the abandonment of an old problem and the formulation of a new question; this means that you have lived through and treated the history of the last 30 years with subtlety, not as the matter of an artistic reflection or an ideological mission, but as a substance whose magnetism it was your task to capture from work to work.”

L’avventura builds on the work and experiences of Antonioni’s previous decade, which saw him working through his doubts about genre (film noir in Story of a Love Affair, backstage drama in La signora senza camelie, 1953); about narrative form (the counter-intuitive three-part structure of I vinti, 1952); his love of writer Cesare Pavese (author of the source novel for 1955’s Le amiche) – as important a literary voice to Antonioni as Cesare Zavattini was to the hardcore neorealists. And add to this his growing interest in temporality, the emptied-out frame, the composition that maintains both precision and an expansive gaze that treats bodies, buildings and landscapes with equal importance.

With only a few filmmakers (Mizoguchi, Renoir, Dreyer, von Sternberg, Resnais, Olmi, Kubrick, and more recently Costa, Alonso and Apichatpong) is there such a visible, constant seeking of artistic purpose through the process of each successive film – a striving, a refinement. Antonioni’s 1950s work represents one of the most fruitful directorial decades to watch of any filmmaker. Already in some ways a master in 1950, he proceeded to question his own positions with each film, as if the doubts he had about the state of the post-war world resided, originally, in himself, and then fanned out to the making of the work itself, so that the expression of mortality (most explicitly conveyed in a Pavese adaptation such as Le amiche) inside the film was part and parcel of the director’s own tentative stance. (Tentato suicido/Tentative Suicide is the title of Antonioni’s segment in the 1953 omnibus film L’amore in città.)

These were not only cerebral matters – though the intellectual currents running underneath these films and under the neorealist movement preceding them were crucial to their fecundity – but real concerns rooted in the hard factors that faced any Italian filmmaker trying to get a project off the ground. Antonioni’s tentativeness – a constant fascination to his supporters in the French critical community, and an irritation to many of his Italian contemporaries – was partly based on the tentativeness of Italian film production itself. In almost no case during the 1950s did he encounter a smooth pre-production, firm financial backing or drama-free production periods. The typically poor performance of his films at the box office did little to enamour him to distributors and producers, though in the then nascent world of the auteur film business, it helped enormously that his films did well – even smashingly well – in Paris.

After the commercial failure of Il grido (1957) and an initially limp critical response, Antonioni seriously considered abandoning the cinema altogether, and returned to the theatre, where he had worked in the early years of his career. Even when he did come back to film, to shoot L’avventura, all of his worst concerns came back to haunt him. Already shaky producers bailed out mid-shoot as their company, Imeria, went bankrupt, leaving the crew literally high and dry on the desert island of Lisca Bianca, without sufficient food and water, in a hair-raising episode that makes Coppola’s misadventures filming Apocalypse Now in the Filipino jungle sound like a stroll on the beach.

Surpassing mysteries

This context, in all its intellectual and practical dimensions, is crucial to comprehending the massive achievement that L’avventura represents. How a film of such constant perfection could even be made under such dreadful conditions is, for me, one of the surpassing mysteries of film history. Viewed in isolation (and aren’t almost all films, even more now in our isolated viewing environments?), L’avventura can superficially be seen as magnificently beautiful in its constant chain of stunning black-and-white images from cinematographer Aldo Scavarda (with whom Antonioni had never previously worked, and never would again).

L’avventura is populated by good-looking actors oozing sex appeal. Monica Vitti, for one, had never had a starring film role before, but with her smouldering presence it was she – as much as Sophia Loren or Ingmar Bergman’s ensemble of intelligent and worldly actresses – who set the standard and the look for the new, sexualised European movie star that was key to the successful foreign-film invasion that hit English-language shores (and was perceived as such a threat by LBJ and his White House crony Jack Valenti that they set up the American Film Institute as a nationalist bulwark against the foreigners supposedly taking over US cinemas). For New York downtown hipsters, London cosmopolitans and Paris cinephiles alike, the combination of serious cinema and sexual beauty was simply too much to pass up.

All that may be why L’avventura had its immediate impact. (A special jury prize from Cannes, after all that booing and hissing, also didn’t hurt.) But the endurance of the film, residing crucially in its conceptual openness, describes a pathway that cinema has been exploring and testing ever since. Much as Flaubert’s novels and Beethoven’s symphonies, concertos and string quartets are continually regenerated by way of the new directions they paved, and the new generations of work following such directions, so Antonioni’s work – and L’avventura in particular – is regenerated by the subsequent cinema that came in its wake.

As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observes in his essential study of the film, the periphery in Antonioni is of absolute importance, for this is where the sense of drift in his mise-en-scène and narratives resides – a de-centred centrality. No filmmaker before Antonioni, not even the most radical visionaries like Vigo, had established this before as a part of their aesthetic project. In the early scenes when Anna visits Sandro, or when they join their holiday boating group, Vitti’s Claudia remains for a long time on the outside looking in, marginalised, seemingly unimportant. And yet there is something in her nervous gaze, her subtle physical gestures, that makes her impossible not to notice, especially in contrast to Anna’s inner tension and outward unhappiness – an unhappiness she can’t identify, even in private to Claudia.

These are most certainly not Bergman women, forever examining themselves, forever able to articulate the exact words in whole spoken paragraphs about their state of mind, their relationship with God. For one thing, in Antonioni, God doesn’t exist. The state of the world is one of humans searching for some kind of connection amidst a disinterested nature; the island on which the floating party lands is both exotically remote and barren, like a volcano frozen during eruption. The landscapes in L’avventura have been interpreted in a number of different ways that testify to the film’s Joycean levels of readings: from Seymour Chatman’s insistence on metonyms for his reading of what he calls Antonioni’s “surface of the world”, to Gilberto Perez’s more valuable view of the work in his extraordinary film study The Material Ghost, across a whole range of possible interpretations, from the literary to the visual. For me, however, it’s always tempting to see these people – on this island, at that moment – as the last humans on earth.

In L’avventura, more than any film before it had ever dared, the centre will not hold. The open film is a fluid thing, pulsating, forever changing, shifting from one centre to another, not quite beginning and not quite ending (or at least beginning something new in its ‘ending’). Anna, the centre, vanishes, with no visual or verbal clues to trace her by, except rumours of sightings. She was in effect the glue that held the party together, having helped bring Claudia in closer to her circle of friends – and to Sandro. But with Anna’s disappearance, the film alters shape in front of us; a sudden absence actually expands the film’s eye. Individual shots become more extended and prolonged, the sky and land grow larger, the elements become more tangible (clouds, rain, harsher sun).

Here and now

What’s even more disturbing is that nothing happens – no discovery, no evidence, no detective work and, finally, no memory. L’avventura is, in part, the story of how a woman is forgotten, to the extent that long before the film is done, Anna is less than a trace on a page, a ghost or a photo in an album. A more sentimental filmmaker or a Hollywood studio would have ensured that Anna lived on through Claudia and Sandro’s love affair and possible union. But here, after a while, they don’t speak of Anna anymore. She gradually fades, which is what happens to the dead as regarded by the living (not that Anna is necessarily dead; the film neither encourages nor discourages the suggestion). Although their joint actions ostensibly trace an effort to collect any information on Anna’s whereabouts, Antonioni suggests that the activity of Claudia and Sandro isn’t nearly as important as their time together in this moment, in this or that place.

About those places. The greatness of L’avventura is multivalent, situated in many realms at once: cinematic, aural, existential, literary, architectural, sexual, philosophical – all of them of equal importance. The open film, beyond its fluidity, is amoral in the best sense, or at least unconcerned with a hierarchy of values. Almost all films of any kind privilege certain artistic values above others, and the great ones do it for several: Singin’ in the Rain honours the body, the sounds of showbiz, the fresh memories of Hollywood at its height; Vampyr celebrates the psychological effect that optical dislocations have on the viewer’s psyche, the spiritual possibilities of the horror film, the blurry line between genres and those alive and dead.

But L’avventura marks a new kind of film, not made before, in which the story that launched the film dissolves and gives way to something else – a journey? a wandering? – that points to a host of possible readings beyond what mere narrative allows, and yet at the same time is too specifically rooted in a form of acting – in situations, episodes and events – to ever become purely abstract. (Though this was an area Antonioni did address in various ways, including the semi-apocalyptic ending of L’eclisse, the visualisations of madness in 1964’s Red Desert and the slow-motion explosion near the end of Zabriskie Point.)

For Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “L’avventura is a film about consciousness and its objects, the consciousness that people have of other people and of the environment that surrounds them.” It is a film that’s also about a change of consciousness – what that looks and feels like: for instance Claudia’s move from the edges to the centre and, in the final passages, back to the edges. This change of consciousness is realised in terms that encompass Antonioni’s grasp of a vast range of materials: Sandro’s relationship with architecture is framed with the couple’s bodies, both above buildings and nearly swallowed up by them, their shared sexuality first shared in open space and then further and further contained within smaller rooms; the sense of new possibilities (new towns, new relationships) seen in the curve of a highway, a train hurtling down the tracks and through tunnels; the insistence on the Old World in the hulking presence of churches, formal dinner parties, rigid bodies against Claudia’s free and easy one, always in motion; the sounds of creaky nostalgic ‘Italian’ music against Fusco’s disturbing atonalities and unnerving syncopations (in one of the greatest film scores ever written).

Antonioni, as Perez often notes, infuses his cinema with doubt – a doubt that extends to his questioning of psychology as a basis for cinematic drama (let alone his doubt in the value of cinematic drama). But doubt is not an end point in this or his other films; instead it represents the beginning of new possibilities. Thus the open film’s mapping of changes of consciousness – through the tools of mise-en-scène, temporality, elliptical editing, a matching of sound to image combined with a de-emphasis on actors’ faces presiding over scenes (close-ups are fewer by far in L’avventura than any of his previous films) – is a picture of a post-psychological topography of the human condition, a radical effort to find a cinema grammar to express inner thought with photographic means.

This is a map that did (as Perez has noted) go out of style for a time, perhaps during the period of postmodernism, and definitely during the period when Fassbinder ruled the arthouse. But the map has been opened again by a new generation. Its influence can now be seen in films from every continent – to such an extent that the Antonioni open film can be said to be in its golden age. Here are some examples: the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Blissfully Yours to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad through to Liverpool; Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia; C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Anchorage; Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness; the entire so-called Berlin School, of which Köhler is a part; Albert Serra’s Honour of the Knights and Birdsong; James Benning; Kelly Reichardt; Kore-eda Hirokazu; Ho Yuhang’s Rain Dogs; Jia Zhangke’s Platform and Still Life; Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation. The list goes on…

Some of these filmmakers may disavow any Antonioni influence – but we know that what directors (including Antonioni) say about their films can’t always be trusted. Besides, the ways in which L’avventura works on the viewer’s consciousness are furtive and often below a conscious level. In Apichatpong’s fascination with characters being transformed by the landscape around them; in Raksasad’s interest in dissolving the borders between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’, or the recorded and the staged; in Alonso’s precision and absolute commitment to purely cinematic resources and disgust with the sentimental; in Köhler’s continual refinement of his visualisation of his characters’ uncertain existences; in Reichardt’s concern for what happens to human beings in nature – especially when they get lost: in all these and more, the open film is stretched, remoulded, reconsidered, questioned, embraced. A kind of film that was first named L’avventura.

Cinema today should be tied to the truth rather than to logic. And the truthof our daily lives is neither mechanical, conventional nor artificial,as stories generally are, and if films are made that way, they will show it.
– Michelangelo Antonioni, Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Roma, 16 March 1961 (2)

A beautiful, vaguely dissatisfied woman wanders on screen through a modern, monolithic environment adjacent to her sleek new apartment building. This is the EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), an originally Fascist-era, now rejuvenated district comprising both 1930s and late ’50s–early ’60s modernist design on the then outer reaches of the Italian capital.(3) Having first entered a concrete-dominated pedestrian and recreation zone with neighbours while looking for a missing dog, the film’s strongly etched yet psychologically elusive protagonist is suddenly alone. Hearing odd and somehow vaguely communicative noises, she seeks out their source to find a long row of flagpoles swaying in the nocturnal breeze of a deserted, almost absurdly grandiose boulevard. The spatial, aesthetic and conceptual dimensions of this encounter are soon revealed in the image above.

Our singularly privileged human subject becomes very quickly engulfed by – or rather reduced to being – a quite objective part of an abstract space and rich audio-visual field comprising the EUR milieu glimpsed on screen and the precisely framed cinematic image as watched by the viewer. This sound-image strongly emphasises shape, line, and historically significant material forms comprising the natural and the artificial, the earthly and the cosmological, the prosaic and the sublime – from the human body and its seemingly quite ‘inhuman’ built environment to a singular scaffold-reliant tree and ink-black sky, all rendered by way of increasingly dense chiaroscuro gradations set against an unforgiving celestial abyss. With the woman turning her back on us to look at all this and more, we once again lose an already tenuous and always-threatened sense of reality as traditionally centred, defined by, and finding meaning through, a privileged anthropocentric presence. The result is a much-expanded definition and charting of reality, the gaze, and the moving image. If, perhaps counter-intuitively, less rather than more ‘knowledge’ seems to result from such a cinematic experience, the bearer of this look – the viewer – is gifted with something immeasurably greater.

This brief, enigmatic moment I have described from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) is an entirely typical interlude within the Italian director’s remarkable, long shadow-casting cinema. Such an emblematic sequence offers up a sense of the always grounded yet incessantly rich and epistemologically elusive nature of life and human experience that is always both everyday and even banal, while at the same time sublime and philosophical. This is a genuine cinema of immanence and exclusive concern with the secular – and hence of endless fascination, permutation, unknowability, proper mystery, and subtly vertiginous impact. It is here that we find the special aesthetic and thematic apotheosis of Antonioni’s work, at the heart of which is a very particular invoking and forging of ambiguity. Seemingly inherent to the minutiae of everyday experience and the world, this is an ambiguity that floods every image, sequence, and film, linking in inextricable ways the particular reality portrayed on screen and the revolution of feature film form and aesthetics enacted by this director.

Here realism and modernism are anything but distinct, oppositional, or in fact differentiable. This should not in itself surprise us (though it often does), if we take on board Fredric Jameson’s connected points that in the special case of film such historical-cultural developments are notably ‘out of joint’ with the equivalent epochs and movements in other modern arts, and that cinema’s very technical make-up as an inherently modern, artificial yet at the same time epistemologically seductive form undermines any such distinctions. The story that cinema – and thereby modernity itself – forces upon us, Jameson suggests, is a dialectical rather than linear and evolutionary one.(4) As I hope will become apparent ahead, I think Antonioni’s cinema both demonstrates yet also goes further than this. The films enfold the inherent dialectical tension of the realism/modernism relationship into an especially tight, impossible-to-unpack expression, all the while exemplifying in an unusually developed state Jameson’s point when it comes to a given artwork’s necessarily entwined aesthetic form and thematic address, properly encapsulating and responding to contemporary history in the most immediately felt and critical sense.

This article explores the ways in which Antonioni’s work constitutes a historically embedded, yet still radical cinema in which the filmmaker’s famous modernism and a highly developed form of realism coexist in provocative and generative ways. Despite the considerable and diverse claims of his other work, in my view Antonioni’s first four 1960s films – L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960), La notte (The Night, 1961), L’eclisse and Il deserto rosso (Red Desert,1964) – remain the epicentre of this remaking of the cinematic image, and will be the focus ahead.

A modernist recasting of realism

Describing what he sees as the central contradiction and enabling antinomy of modernist works, P. Adams Sitney writes that they “stress vision as a privileged mode of perception, even of revelation, while at the same time cultivating opacity and questioning the primacy of the visible world.”(5) He later quotes a passage from Maurice Blanchot that illustrates the resulting material, aesthetic, and conceptual reality: “(P)resent in its absence, graspable because ungraspable, appearing as disappeared.”(6) Such is the paradoxical, inherently dialectical enunciation of the overtly modernist recasting of realism exemplified by Antonioni’s mature cinema of the early 1960s. This is made possible partly by the immanent, far from rarefied on-screen reality that floods these films, incorporating a very real post-war Italy. But it is also brought about by means of the filmic image itself. Rather than continuing debates concerning metaphysical schemas of religious or secular values, Antonioni’s cinema is concerned with larger yet also more quotidian forces. As transformed by post-war modernity, it is space and time that make up the historically specific world both portrayed and exemplified by these films: the only reality on offer.

Describing the director’s remarkable first colour feature, Il deserto rosso (1964), Peter Brunette writes: “There is no sense of spirituality here, no redeeming transcendence.”(7) The spatial, temporal, and experiential conditions of modern Italy become these films’ prime visual concern – a singular reality impossible to epistemologically define and understand. Implicitly disabling or showing as anachronistic both ‘traditional’ pre-war modes of life – religious or secular – and of cinema, and exhibiting no clear interest in any alternative visions of redemption, Antonioni’s cinema closely and subtly examines modern Italy’s post-war sense of confidence, amnesia, and investment in material progress. Overriding focus on the question of what constitutes this modern reality only increases the unavoidable sense of perceptual, ethical, political, and existential confusion and feeling of mystery. The result is a very challenging ambiguity. Il deserto rosso and the other films do not proselytize contemporaneous technologised reality and its economic-industrial dictates, nor do they morally decry the modernity essayed on screen in favour of a different vision. This is the key reason why Antonioni’s cinema is ultimately not only of no solace when it comes to religious or metaphysical perspectives, but is also very difficult if we look for clear-cut political advocacy.

L’avventuraLa notteL‘eclisse, and Il deserto rosso demonstrate modernity’s inherent oppositions and unreconciled problems at the same time as presenting reality in increasingly stylised ways. The last film famously visualises the world it portrays as rather uninhabitable, environmentally but also conceptually, for the humans who build and administer it. This has led to Il deserto rosso’s growing reputation as “the first ecologically minded movie of world cinema,”(8) and an early cautionary tale about the potential results of unchecked industrial development for climate change.(9) Seen today, it seems to invite such interpretations. Certainly the mise en scène of this and other films by Antonioni – notably Il grido (The Outcry, 1957) – often feature the presence of what Karl Schoonover calls “technology and materials of waste management,”(10) highlighted by framing and lingering shots of what would typically be seen as the uninteresting or ugly detritus of industrial capitalism. Il deserto rosso’s first few images following the credits are the most extreme, almost science fiction-like post-apocalyptic example of this. Nevertheless, the director’s own comments on such apparently foreboding industry, with its environmentally calamitous outcomes, should also be kept in mind.

In extensive interviews at the time of the film’s Italian release, Antonioni did not suggest a clear denunciation of the reality in and around industrial Ravenna so vividly essayed by Il deserto rosso. His much quoted explanation remains worth recalling:

In the countryside around Ravenna, the horizon is dominated by factories, smokestacks and refineries. The beauty of that view is much more striking than the anonymous mass of pine trees which you see from afar, all lined up in a row, the same colour. The factory is a more varied element, more lively, because behind it one can detect the presence of man (sic) and human life, his dramas and hopes. I am in favour of progress, and yet I realize that because of the disruptions it brings, it also causes trouble. But that is modern life, and the future is already knocking at our door.(11)

Here is perhaps the ultimate cinematic work on the aesthetic fascination of industrial factory design. The open fascination with what in 1964 appeared cutting-edge material forms of the modern industrial world at its point of manufacture is what remains so striking. To reduce the film to being a warning about pollution seems to short change its layered ambiguity, even in this case where Antonioni’s cinema seems most abstract, exaggerated and formalist. Even for climate change aware twenty-first century viewers, the uncomfortable fact is that this on-screen world is the source of real, conflicted fascination, no matter our conscious feelings about the socio-political and environmental facts once a human presence enters the frame. Its distinctly modern, and therefore amoral, beauty as framed by Antonioni’s camera does, I suggest, continue to compel us more than nature. When it comes to his cited preference for modernity, perhaps the distinction or justification for the viewer in this case becomes that the human element which moves us is less the architects and designers of Ravenna’s factories than the artistry responsible for Il deserto rosso, both behind the camera and in the form of Monica Vitti as Giuliana, its crisis-ridden protagonist.

Il deserto rosso, 1964

Il deserto rosso, 1964

Problematic Alienation meets everyday ambiguity

Increasingly, the critical tenor in Antonioni scholarship is to try and avoid or heavily bracket talk of what was once often described as his characters’ primary existential affliction. Alienation is now often understandably seen as a dangerous simplifying cliché by recent commentators such as Laura Rascaroli and John David Rhodes,(12) following Brunette,(13) who instead favour (as is the trend in recent academic film studies) detailed historical contextualisation. In his prescient book, Brunette argues that the long familiar description of Antonioni’s famous early 1960s cinema as offering vaguely existentialist and ahistorical fables about alienation and loss of identity tends to undersell the importance of the films’ historical and political embeddedness, and subtly radical social commentary. In stressing unknowability and incommensurability, he writes that “nothing ever seems to add up in these films … beyond a vague sense of uneasiness and alienation, and thus most critics have this to be what they are about.”(14) Yet while treatment of this once very familiar and arguably oversimplified trope as the key to understanding Antonioni’s most influential work can easily have the effect of curtailing the films’ thematic suggestiveness, social critique, aesthetic form, affective impact, and their place within an Italian historical and political context, there remains a more precise historical reason for its application.

Coincidentally written on the eve of post-war European cinema’s long-brewing modernist apogee – the announcement of which is famously marked by the troika of L’avventuraBreathless (À bout de soufflé, Jean-Luc Godard, 1959) and Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) – Henri Lefebvre argues in a long 1958 forward to the second edition of his Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1 that the products of “modern man” – using the gendered language – and “his works function like beings of nature. He must objectify himself… (I)f man has humanized himself, he has done so only by tearing himself apart, dividing himself, fragmenting himself.”(15) In the main text that follows, from 1947, Lefebvre reads as if directly addressing the disconnect, but also the ambiguous possibility, apparent in Antonioni’s work, no matter our critical position: “Man attains his own reality, creates himself through, within and by means of his opposite, his alienation: the inhuman.”(16) Carefully considered in light of the director’s idiosyncratic realism, alienation can be one legitimate conceptual means to a historically grounded understanding of the films.

This once perhaps overdetermined concept cannot itself escape the ambiguity that floods through Antonioni’s cinema. To treat alienation in any kind of universalising way is a problem (especially in light of the bourgeois socio-economic milieu privileged in Antonioni’s work), but so is being too sure about its implications, how it plays out, and even what it means. The concept becomes especially oversimplified and artificially excised from the films’ stress on ambiguity if we conflate the alienation of the characters themselves with the relationship between film and viewer (a distinction to which I will return ahead). It is problematic to assume that alienation inherently leads to despair and cessation of all progress. And yet it is certainly often experienced as an effect, or weapon, of capital and power within the modernity essayed by these films. But drawing attention to this reality is the opposite of a hopeless, passive gesture. More precisely, the films themselves also illustrate that alienation can also potentially be harnessed to pursue very different re-forgings of reality and the human – a possibility exemplified by their own complex aesthetic and spectatorial effects.

The four early-’60s films trace out pressing challenges at the heart of everyday reality through unique sound-image incarnations. This filmed modernity is no less real – in fact more genuinely so – for appearing in the form of often-abstract aesthetic patterns. Think of the spatial and temporal impact resulting from L’avventura’s placement of privileged post-war figures within both primordial nature and the historic built environment of Sicilia; La notte’s framing of its world-weary middle-aged couple, together and alone, against the diverse architectural surfaces and spaces of Milano and its surrounds; the intimate exchanges of L’eclisse’s protagonist with the environments and textures of a palimpsestic Roma across historic centre and modern periphery; or Il deserto rosso’s variously manipulated colour palette and depth-flattening camerawork visualising the troubled central character’s experience of Ravenna’s industrial region, quay, and centre. Confronted with often-mysterious situations and irresolvable problems, the films’ characters grapple as best they can with their phenomenally undeniable yet conceptually vertiginous reality. As often discussed, the camera frequently offers a slightly removed perspective on all this.

L’eclisse, for example,portrays the Borsa (at the time, Roma’s stock exchange) as an architecturally commanding space housing an intriguing but difficult-to-comprehend reality. With the film’s famous stock market crash scene, this locale – previously used for both religious worship (Pagan and later Christian) and a marketplace, now in the post-war era the centre of secular worship of Italy’s economic miracle – is treated by the camera with fascinated detachment for a full fifteen minutes, as if watching an archaic or futuristic ritual about which it offers no inside knowledge. The architecture and escalating activity of an unattractive, fascinating human drama gradually eclipse any sense of narrative, making us forget the purpose of the scene. As the slowly percolating action develops into an ‘event’, more documentary-like yet immaculately composed images take over the film, framing the graphic attractions of seemingly chaotic movement within an ancient Roman built environment renovated for modern purpose. When our presumed protagonist, Vittoria (Monica Vitti), arrives very late in the scene as the stock market crisis reaches its crescendo, her appearance is quite a surprise.

L’eclisse, 1962

L’eclisse, 1962

By its closely embedded historical nature, Antonioni’s project necessitates a remaking of realism. As articulated in the epigraph quote at the top of this article, this means that in its classical Hollywood narrative, Italian neorealist, documentary, or politically revolutionary forms, realism no longer appears realistic in terms of what its shows and how. To confront this challenge the director explores everyday reality’s uncanny and sometimes bizarre appearance as powered by rapid economic, technological and environmental change – including, and as reforged by, the image – in sustained and diverse portrayals of this modern world’s physical and perceptual conditions. Such rendering of form and experience via a medium reflexively acknowledging its own crucial role in the re-conceiving of reality as inextricably marked by radically enhanced ambiguity is arguably the central event offered by this cinema.

Far from a rarefied philosophical issue, Antonioni’s films demonstrate that ambiguity is at the very heart of the modern everyday in all its confusion and provocation. Lefebvre sees ambiguity as “a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category” of contemporary modernity, continuing with a highly resonant passage:

It never exhausts its reality; from the ambiguity of consciousness and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. These, at least, have clear-cut outlines. They maintain a hard, incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity – only to let them rise once again.(17)

Lefebvre’s words evoke uncannily well both the post-war reality charted in Antonioni’s peak modernist cinema and the fundamentally paradoxical lens through which we see it on screen, in an image simultaneously realist and abstract.

Politics in and of the real

One of the most historically important discussions of ambiguity in the cinema occurs within André Bazin’s account of Italian neorealism, in which he influentially argues that the late 1940s films of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio de Sica, and Luchino Visconti “transfer to the screen the continuum of reality.”(18) This much-heralded, still highly influential Italian cinema of the immediate post-war years is in part famous for innovations later expanded upon by Antonioni. Of particular importance is the concurrent liberating of both space and time from the dictates of narrative movement so as to stress, or forge, a much more ambiguous image. The deep focus textures of such an image, Bazin argues, allows the viewer an enhanced perceptual realism and therefore a much more ambiguous kind of cinema to aesthetically explore and thematically interpret.(19) But this ambiguity does not do away with broadly felt political engagement and commitment, traditionally seen as essential for any realism worth its name.

Just as Antonioni’s early-’60s cinema heightens neorealism’s emphasis on ambiguity, the political emphasis seems to have receded. This is in one sense important to emphasise for marking both a significant shift of cinematic language and socio-historical change within Italy. But it is not as simple as may initially appear, especially to non-Italian audiences. As neorealism itself demonstrated, expanded ambiguity does not necessarily override politics per se. It can in fact lead to a deeper level of insight. The price is a debilitating, if in many ways familiar, one exemplifying modern experience itself: the undermining of surety and purpose.

While the kind of political, social or humanist idealism that so many viewers still find inspiring in neorealist cinema seems in very short supply in the films that are my focus, they do offer significant, if slightly subterranean and usually elliptical, historical commentary on Italy’s social and political development. In addition to the attention the films lavish on the spatial and material elements of contemporary reality, their special realism can also be found through quiet attention to political transformation. But while there is a more specific engagement with such transformation than may initially seem the case – and even at times a strain of critique – it works to further enhance the films’ foregrounded ambiguity, by providing multiple strands of realist clarity through which modernism’s vapours take effect.

Antonioni’s essaying of political and cultural change typically emerges through rather brief details of dialogue, character, or mise en scène. Some kind of lingering leftism is often faintly invoked, but it usually comes across as out-of-step with – or impotent in the face of – a resurgent capitalist Italy reaching prominence as an increasingly significant European economic and political power. The trajectory portrayed in the films is of a national culture, often portrayed both through characters’ occupations and ages but also the details of their physical environments, shifting from the left (associated with the war years and those immediately following thanks in part to the prominent Communist role within the anti-Fascist partisan resistance) to the right (Italy’s subsequent capitalist expansion under a series of strongly US-aligned conservative governments). This can be seen in the form of individuals’ own apparent transformation, or through the replacement of one previously prominent cultural type with a newer model.

In La notte, for example, the very bourgeois Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) is a writer with apparently leftist interests (he praises his dying friend Tommaso’s recent article on Adorno), who appears to lament lost idealism. His almost comical ennui and muted crisis results in considering a surprising offer of work by a rich industrialist whose lavish and decadent mansion party he and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) spend the second half of the film attending. In L’eclisse, the story of this political shift comes not just through a quip made by Vittoria’s stock market-obsessed mother at the Borsa during the crash – “It’s all the fault of the Communists” – but also in Vittoria’s choice of lovers.Guido Bonsaver points out that the prominent presence of Communist cultural journals on Riccardo’s desk in the film’s first scene suggests the home office of a leftist intellectual, while Vittoria’s subsequent drift into an affair with the unabashedly capitalist Piero (Alain Delon) “takes her to the other end of the political spectrum.”(20) Even without viewing Vittoria as reductive national symbol, the fact that her rejected lover, Riccardo, is middle-aged and rather pathetic in his lingering, unwanted advances, while the dashing stockbroker is strikingly youthful and handsome – although, it turns out, similarly impatient (even rather sexually predatory in the scene where they visit his parents’ apartment) – fits the notion of Antonioni portraying a progressive intellectual class as ageing and marginalized (Riccardo lives in the EUR), left behind by a resolutely urban and youthful capitalist culture.

L’eclisse far from passively embraces such a shift, contradicting familiar cultural sentimentalising of urban centre over periphery. Moving between both spaces, our protagonist also lives in the EUR and seems slightly more comfortable there. Her vocation as a translator and overall temperament place Vittoria ultimately closer to Riccardo’s left-intellectual milieu. Meanwhile neither she nor the film seem capable of understanding Piero’s job and world – the lure of the stock market (located at the heart of the ancient metropolis’ historic centre) that has her mother and so many others in its thrall. While we can certainly detect such incompatibility in snatches of dialogue and expression, this odd couple’s essential mismatch is largely played out through contrasting temporalities. As a creature of the new market economy, Piero never stops moving and seems always to know what he wants. As the observer of this strange new world – and the figure with which the camera largely aligns itself – Vittoria is his exact opposite.(21)

The apogee of Antonioni’s heroines in this regard, Vittoria is an apparent beneficiary of Italy’s post-war economic boom (we glean that her family has poorer origins) and the expanded personal freedoms afforded a new middle class less tethered to the traditions of family and Church than was the case for women and men of the pre- and immediate post-war periods. But she doesn’t know how exactly to utilise this freedom, if not wishing to become a fully paid-up follower of what appears the default modern religion of market capitalism. Startlingly passive and tenuous in her wandering and gaze, the female protagonist at the heart of L’eclisse and the other early-’60s films is something of a gentrified, updated and gender-appropriated version of neorealism’s wandering male seers. No longer part of an agrarian, proletariat, or impoverished family fighting for external survival or broad based revolutionary change, the now seemingly well-educated and notionally single female protagonist exemplified by Vittoria comes across as much more modern than her forebears. She is thereby also, however, newly riddled with ambivalence, concurrently intrigued by and fundamentally dissatisfied with the modernity of which she is a direct product.

Facing a quandary that would become ever more widespread within most Western countries in subsequent decades, the newly ‘liberated’ subject passively moves through and observes her post-war world with no essential sense of direction, unable to conceive definitive or desirable action within it. This figure is at once gifted with genuine agency and choice, and shackled by debilitating doubt. She is also much more intimately felt than the often heavily archetypal, non-individuated characters of neorealism. Yet the realist-modernist fusion of Antonioni’s early-’60s films at the same time entirely fails to support the ontological inscribing of subjectivity and its gaze. Subjectivity is both more strongly sensed and portrayed as operating from a position of spiralling uncertainty, a crisis itself fuelled by an uncertainty as to what constitutes the objective world.

When it comes to both subjectivity and mastery of the objective environment, Antonioni’s cinema presents a world made up of conditions effectively described by Jean-François Lyotard: “Modernity, in whatever age it appears, cannot exist without a shattering of belief and without discovery of the ‘lack of reality’ of reality.”(22) The director’s radical updating of realism has the inevitable effect that physical and human reality looks increasingly strange and stylised, hence his cinema’s portrayal by some critics as primarily interested in pictorial effects rather than content. While often challenged by Antonioni’s defenders, like the matter of alienation, this response can also be too quickly dismissed or oversimplified.

The abstract, autonomous image

There is certainly a lot to be gained from reading Antonioni’s films as precise, deeply embedded historical portraits with much to tell us about Italy’s post-war changes. Yet in the process we can also easily underplay the radical impact of the director’s formal and aesthetic innovations. The early-’60s films’ peak modernist style both intimately investigates a distinct grounded reality and transcends it. In this sense they become mysterious and virtual texts that evoke what Martin Heidegger in his famous 1935 essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art” called the “solitary” work that seems to stand apart from the rest of the world, having “cut all ties to human beings.”(23) This cinema is certainly interested in the great human drama examined through very precise samples, but the given means of presenting the subject, its immediate spatial reality, and the inextricably bound relationship between the two, requires significant viewer input to make sense of and ‘feel’, thereby also bringing into play a very different set of contexts increasingly removed from the films’ own. Such aesthetic engagement at the heart of this cinematic event both feeds off history and escapes it. In Heidegger’s words, something very new, different, perhaps even “extraordinary” is in the process “thrust to the surface” by distinct formal construction while “the long-familiar” is “thrust down.”(24)

The crucial abstract, ineffable aesthetic-experiential dimension of Antonioni’s cinema is not, however, ultimately in contradiction with the fact that it emerges from precise historical conditions and maps a very specific human reality with considerable responsibility. It is the films’ uncommonly developed and rigorous means of visualising the latter that can make them look so strange and ‘cold’, in the process collapsing viable distinctions between their formally advanced aspects (to which we can apply Heidegger’s rarefied terms above) and those of the earthly world they visualise. Responding to the already familiar description (and frequent criticism) that his cinema was characterised by a coldness, long-time Antonioni champion and scholar Renzo Renzi argued as early as 1957 that such a gaze “is in fact a sign of self-conscious responsibility, aware of the shortfalls of moral judgment and clear annunciations about the reality from which the films emanate.”(25) Once more collapsing the theoretically contradictory requirements of realism and modernism, but also political art as it is frequently understood, this lack of judgment is concurrently moral and epistemological: not only a refusal to proclaim how things should be but also how they are. Both are cut down through an emphasis on the vagaries of audio-visual perception faced by the viewer.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes of perception that it responds “to a situation and to an environment which are not the workings of a pure, knowing subject.”(26) Fundamentally marked by the moral, political, and perceptual ambiguities of their respective corners of post-war Italian reality, these films’ female protagonists as played by Vitti in L’avventuraL’eclisse, and Il deserto rosso, plus Jeanne Moreau in La notte, are not “knowing subjects”. I would suggest that neither, quite differently, is the viewer, who does not confront perceptual problems with the characters of these films – even if we sometimes feel closer to them than the male protagonists of Antonioni’s later features.(27) The camera’s gaze embodies and offers to the viewer an unusual opportunity to seek out details, textures and environments adjacent to or even outside the human drama.

In his influential essay, “The Cinema of Poetry” (drawn from a 1965 lecture), Pier Paolo Pasolini draws attention to a moment in Il deserto rosso, a film he presents as exemplifying the modern cinema of poetry. During a scene in which Corrado (Richard Harris) attempts without apparent success to entice potential employees sitting in a Ravenna warehouse to sign up as workers for his new Patagonian oil venture, the camera seems to lose its already shaky interest in these human events. The viewer is then presented with what Pasolini wonderfully describes as:

… a stupendous close-up of a distressingly ‘real’ Emilian worker followed by an insane pan from the bottom up along an electric blue stripe on the whitewashed wall of the warehouse. All this testifies to a deep, mysterious, and – at times – great intensity in the formal idea that excites the fantasy of Antonioni.(28)

This description is very precise in emphasising the shift from a “distressingly real” worker’s face to the sheer abstraction of a coloured line. But the cut between the two is in fact less a shift of perspective and focus than a mark of continuity. The camera’s egalitarian gaze treats a decontextualised painted line on a wall and the weather-beaten visage of a human being as of equal graphic and objective interest. With the cut between the human and the inhuman, realism and modernism dissolve into one image.

Meanwhile, the “insane pan” isn’t the end of what seems like the jolting distraction away from already fragile and contestable narrative shards and human vestiges. The film then cuts to a space presumably outside the warehouse dominated by bright blue science fiction-looking bottles stacked on straw bedding. Initially seeming to conclude the remarkable sequence by further enforcing abstraction, when Corrado wanders into this striking installation-like composition from the back of the frame, dwarfed by his surroundings, we are reminded that such a futuristic-meets-historical environment is in fact the same confusing reality within which the human figures live. With such apparent diversions into physical, spatial and graphic reality, no matter how its abstract appearance and compositional effects, important narrative information goes missing. In its place, the viewer is treated to veritable aesthetic and conceptual explosions. Another striking example is when, with far greater attention than initially afforded the human bodies that will become the film’s central characters, Il deserto rosso lingers on huge eruptions of steam (recalling the film’s first post-credits shot of what looks like poisonous gas billowing into the air) emanating from an entirely ‘artificial’ landscape as if from a primordial fissure in the earth’s crust. At the centre of this image small human figures can just be made out, concurrently masters and protagonists of this strange reality but also confused spectators gazing upon it.

Il deserto rosso

Il deserto rosso

The only home we have

John David Rhodes writes of the Chinese Government’s outraged response to Antonioni’s extraordinary 1972 documentary Chung kuo, Cina: “In a sense, the Chinese officials – whether they knew it or not – were saying something true about Antonioni’s cinema: it was often looking at what seemed to be the wrong things. But such looking constitutes his style.”(29) Through “looking at the wrong things,” narrative (or ideological) attenuation and what seems like perceptual diversion generates room for so much else: necessarily elliptical and selective detailing of an always elusive reality. Coming at the considerable cost of its habitual epistemological privilege, the potential opening up of the gaze, this never getting a sense of control over the on-screen world we see, paradoxically enables a much clearer and more properly inhabited vision of what modern reality looks and feels like, as characterised by opacity and fragmentation.

One quiet, rather unostentatious example is provided by a sequence from La notte. In a brief interlude away from the long mansion party sequence that comprises the second half of the film, rather than giving us conventional audio access to the car in which Lidia and a young man appear to talk and flirt, the viewer is offered only the sound of beating rain. We are left to watch the slowly moving vehicle for over a minute, during which the general tenor of what looks like an extremely amiable and increasingly amorous conversation can be ascertained as remotely played out on Lidia’s face distorted by water pouring down the window.

La notte, 1961

La notte 1961

While the viewer can interpret her apparent pleasure at this hermetic, private encounter away from the decadent upper-class gathering, La notte’s notional female protagonist and her problems have been so little fleshed out in the film – now nearing its end – that our attention to both narrative and character development risks badly drifting from already very unstable moorings when denied dialogue in this formally very beautiful scene.

As so often with Antonioni’s work, the already threadbare remnants of traditional form and drama are in this brief sequence from La notte forcibly replaced by another register, with much surer grounding in the reality right in front of our eyes: the moving image. Rohdie describes the above shift as “the camera losing interest in the drama inside the car and the meaning of that escape” from the party, replacing it with “the drama of the form of the car, the rain on the windscreen, the distortions of spaces by light and water and shadow.”(30) The viewer is given an opportunity exemplary of Antonioni’s cinema, to explore the densely textured monochrome gradations and modulating patterns made by streaks of flowing water on the dark vehicle’s glass and chassis as a formal and ‘dramatic’ event eclipsing literary (and ultimately non-visual) elements of story and character. Once more, any distinction between modernist tendency to abstraction and realist interest in a particular environment and temporal moment emerge as entirely artificial, their fusion now absolutely seamless.

Taking a more ‘auteurist’ line, we may of course seek to interpret La notte’s refusal to take us inside this would-be couple’s temporary adulterous bubble for what it might suggest of Lidia’s individual frustrations, or the class she represents. But such immediate tweaking of the sound-image into an authored or socio-historically revealing text to be read not only involves consciously felt hermeneutic work. The will-to-interpretation also seems to commit real violence upon the image in all its rich materialism and elusiveness, its properly ambiguous reality. While different readings of the sequence in the context of this narratively slack film can provide genuine pleasure – and likewise fruitful accounts of the reality offered by La notte as a portrayal of northern Italy’s business winners alongside the film’s more anguished protagonists from the intellectual sphere – such interpretive and analytical frames are also preceded and arguably overwhelmed when it comes to spectatorial experience by the undeniable cinematic facts: constantly shifting patterns and transforming shapes brought about by a slowly moving car in the rain, undulating chiaroscuro effects of a flashing traffic light, and the background architecture of a quiet street.

Rohdie argues that the true productivity of Antonioni’s films lies in “the new shapes, the new stories, the new, the temporary, subjects which they permit.”(31) He immediately follows with a crucial distinction between the dramatic dictates of the sporadic diegesis and its spatial and historical reality versus that of the film itself, and by implication the viewer’s experience. “To lose perspective, to lose identity, which are often open ‘tragedies’ for Antonioni’s characters,” he writes, “are opportunities for the films.”(32) Yet things are, as ever, not so clear. In L’eclisse’s famous final minutes and throughout L’avventura’s entire final two-thirds it is the audience who is challenged to overcome the tragedy of protagonists evicted from the film. This risky film-viewer relationship had been most prominently inaugurated two years earlier by L’avventura, which caused initial scandal before remarkably quick canonisation for the same essential reason (it was voted the second best film ever made after Citizen Kane in Sight and Sound’s 1962’spoll of international critics).

At the May 1960 Cannes festival premiere of L’avventura, the audience infamously jeered and shouted at the screen, before a second screening was arranged following a petition circulated by Rossellini, Janine Bazin and other European cinema luminaries declaring the film’s importance.(33) But for its initial audience, and for many subsequent viewers, L’avventura’s island sequence clearly outstays its welcome in narrative terms. The search for Anna (Lea Massari), who has already disappeared from the film, enters into a realm of increasingly abstract and de-narrativised thematic essaying.

L’avventura

L’avventura

The framing and choreography of bodies within this sublime space comprised of volcanic rock can generate enormous interpretive opportunity for the viewer watching these privileged figures of post-war Italian modernity (marked by the continuity of historically inherited wealth and power) dragging weary and cynically maintained human investments across primordial ground, dwarfed by the overwhelming environment of the stormy Aeolian sea which may have taken one of their number. There is, however, a more modern and logical – and in a way more unnerving and ambiguous – answer to the mystery of Anna’s disappearance, one only available to the viewer. She has simply left the film; or more precisely still, it has left her.

Taking the place of L’avventura’s sublime nature and epoch-spanning Sicilian built environment, Milano’s urban architecture utterly dominates La notte’s first hour from its famous opening credit sequence featuring a lengthy travelling shot down the then-new Pirelli tower’s endless glass façade, upon which is expansively reflected Italy’s northern metropolis and business centre. This sleek world, however, is no more comprehensible or reassuring than what William Arrowsmith calls nature’s “deep primordial time” in reference to Antonioni’s “nature” indexes, such as L’avventura’s volcanic edifice that so looms over the feeble human presence.(34) In a still more overtly reflexive fashion, formal play with line, focus, texture, bodies – human and otherwise – and above all colour, dominates Il deserto rosso. Yet the historically grounded modernist realism, and with the latter film the absolute flattening of distinctions between historical and filmic realities, means that none of these rather tactile, at times seemingly ‘3-D’ or ‘virtual’ images are beyond reality per se. Rather, they portray and exercise the various shocks and radical modifications of familiar experience within this technologised world, irrespective of how different we feel our gaze to be from that of the film’s troubled, closely felt yet never truly accessible protagonist.

La notte

Il deserto rosso

In each of these films, it is the image’s particular material-aesthetic autonomy that is a crucial part of this cinema’s distinction. Each shot in L’eclisse, for example, has an undeniable solidity and clarity in its rendering of a specific material reality within Roma’s various inner and outer regions (plus the small Verona airport where Vittoria enjoys a lyrical interlude), all the time emanating ambiguity’s ubiquitous vapours. With the film’s final minutes, in which the audience is denied its protagonists, we are confronted with the most famous loss of fullness, character and drama in Antonioni’s cinema. The viewer is left to pursue other interests that, while seeming new are in fact comprised of the same environment that dominated much of the film. But now this environment takes a starring role. Highlighting just one brief moment, the camera looks into a rusty barrel within which floats debris, including what looks like a piece of wood that Vittoria had earlier tossed in at an awkward moment of indecision and stasis with potential boyfriend Piero.

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