A NEW ADVENTURE IN FILMMAKING…
The Cannes film festival is famous for its tumultuous screenings, but I wonder if there has ever been a change of heart as quickly as what happened to L’Avventura in 1960. At the premiere screening, the audience became so hostile that director Michelangelo Antonioni and star Monica Vitti reportedly fled the theater. But at the second screening, the film was suddenly cheered, going on to win the Jury Prize, making money internationally at the box office and becoming quite the arthouse classic.
Anna and Claudia (Lea Massari, Vitti) are about to go on a yachting cruise in the Mediterranean together with Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and two other couples. When they all reach the Aeolian Islands near Sicily, Anna jumps off the yacht for a swim but yells that she’s seen a shark. Sandro rescues her, but Anna confesses to Claudia that it was all a stunt to get his attention. Shortly thereafter, the party makes a stop at a small, uninhabited island. Later on, as the weather is taking a turn for the worse, the party prepares to leave the island, but when the others go after Sandro and Anna they find him asleep on a rock. Sandro has no idea where Anna has gone. They all start looking, but there’s no trace of her…
Not a mystery film
Never mind what happened to Anna – this is not a mystery film or whodunit. In fact, Antonioni did write and shoot a scene where her body was found, but apparently the filmmakers ran out of time and the scene never made it into the final cut. Which is a good thing, because that open question contributes to the emotional and intellectual impact that Antonioni is striving for.
The film was his breakthrough, but not the first time he employed themes and a style that he would frequently return to. His earlier movies also used surroundings as an expression of his characters’ emotional turmoil and scenes usually play out in real time, going on for as long as they would in real life. This is one reason why a lot of mainstream viewers consider Antonioni’s films boring; there are long takes where nothing vital seems to happen. But the director uses those scenes as a way of symbolizing the emptiness of his characters or oppressive effect of the surroundings on them. In L’Avventura the impact is unsettling on that isolated island and strangely depressing once the party gets back to Sicily and Sandro and Claudia begin to explore a romance in the shadow of old buildings and ultimately (in that final, gorgeous shot) Mount Etna. The romance is awkward and strange, happening rather quickly and then running into psychological roadblocks as the couple keep looking for clues to Anna’s disappearance.
In the last half hour, both them and us have more or less forgotten about Anna or accepted the fact that we won’t ever get answers. What we have left is a romance that may or may not work, but the filmmakers are obviously more interested in depicting especially Claudia’s sense of alienation. Vitti is excellent in her star-making role.
Antonioni continued his psychological adventure in two other films that together with L’Avventura form a trilogy, La Notte (1961) and Eclipse (1962), but it’s not like his subsequent films were vastly different. My favorite remains Blowup (1966), in color and set in Britain, but nevertheless very Antonioni.
L’Avventura 1960-France-Italy. 145 min. B/W. Produced by Amato Pennasilico. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra. Cinematography: Aldo Scavarda. Cast: Monica Vitti (Claudia), Gabriele Ferzetti (Sandro), Lea Massari (Anna), Dominique Blanchar, James Addams.
Cannes: Jury Prize.
Last word: “In 1960 we lived in a country with the Pope and the Vatican, which have always been extremely important to all of us. There isn’t a school in Italy still, not a law court without its crucifix. We have Christ in our houses, and hence the problem of conscience, a problem fed to us as children that afterward we have no end of trouble getting rid of. All the characters in my films are fighting these problems, needing freedom, trying to find a way to cut themselves loose, but failing to rid themselves of conscience, a sense of sin, the whole bag of tricks.” (Antonioni, 1969 interview by Charles Thomas Samuels)