Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"L'AVVENTURA" the 1960 film by Michelangelo Antonioni, is undoubtedly a masterpiece and a genuine work of art. Not in the stiff, academic, dusty way we usually think about works of art but in the sense that it's exciting, vital and sometimes astonishing. Even after all these years. When first screened at Cannes, it was hooted down by the audience. However, it would win the Cannes Jury Prize and be referred to by some Cannes-goers as the best film ever to play at the festival. The film would also affect (in a very big way) how movies would be made ever since. And that's no small accomplishment. Even more than that, however, "L'AVVENTURA" today is an incredibly absorbing, haunting movie that still packs a wallop. It is also oddly romantic; but not in any kind of conventional way, mind you. What's the movie about, you say? Well, I'll come to that. But first. . . I've heard it called "slow" but I don't see that at all; on the contrary, every single second of screen time seems to me totally necessary and there's literally never a dull moment. There indeed are no car chases, no explosions and no "speeder race" designed to sell video games. And that's good because THAT would be boring! And far from being cold or unemotional, L'AVVENTURA is grippingly engrossing in the emotional impact it has on the viewer who allows himself to feel what the characters are feeling. And this Antonioni does beautifully and skillfully -- without blatantly telling us how we should react to what we see on the screen. Just as in real life, we can't hear inside other people's heads; we have to guess how they feel or what they're thinking by outward appearances. And this is what Antonioni has us do. Most movies before L'AVVENTURA would have us watching a character think while the actor provides voice-over narration TELLING us exactly what they're thinking. Not here. That's one of the truly groundbreaking things about L'AVVENTURA: we watch the actor's face, we watch what they do, how they act, how they look, what they touch and are NOT given any interior monologue by Antonioni. It's the surface that's the thing. The surface of objects and the surface of people is all we get in real life (and this includes the words that come out of their mouths which may or may not be how a person truly feels -- in real life that's all we get). Antonioni is monumentally concerned with surfaces. Objects and locations carry a lot of significance in L'AVVENTURA. Characters are often seen looking -- looking -- looking at objects, touching them, letting their fingers run over surfaces. And locations, buildings, are indispensable aids for the viewer reflecting the character's emotions or inner thoughts. We may not hear what they're thinking but their surroundings provide vital clues. Sandro, who is a failed architect, is often seen with examples of great architecture behind him -- as if to taunt him at his artistic failure. Antonioni also makes sure that everything in the frame is in crisp, perfect focus: the actors in the foreground as well as EVERYTHING behind them and around them. Antonioni gives as much importance to the space around the actors -- the negative space -- as he does the actors themselves. Every object, building or location is just as important as the actor. Nothing is unimportant in Antonioni's frame -- and each frame is beautiful to look at in ravishing, crystal clear black & white. But what exactly are we dealing with in L'AVVENTURA? What's it about? Well, as I see it (and the film is famously open to more than one possible interpretation), L'AVVENTURA is about human beings and their utter failure to connect with one another. No matter how desperately Antonioni's characters reach out to each other, there is always an invisible wall between them which they just can't break through. Much like the island (or islands) prominently featured in L'AVVENTURA, we resemble them -- surrounded on all sides by water -- there seems to be an invisible membrane around us all which keeps us from REALLY connecting with each other. When Antonioni's characters hunger for this intimate human rapport, they often resort to unfulfilling and unsatisfying sex as a last desperate attempt at connection. When this also proves to be lacking in intimacy, Antonioni's characters often become more bewildered and unhappy. This becomes even more evident is Antonioni's later film "L'ECLISSE; L'AVVENTURA is generally considered the first in a sorta trilogy continuing with "LA NOTTE" and ending with "L'ECLISSE". Antonioni's fascination with surfaces and objects would be brought to even more prominence in "L'ECLISSE" as well. Antonioni also utilizes a technique that perfectly shows the failure of people to communicate or reach each other -- whenever two people are talking to each other they usually don't look at each other. One person will usually have his back to the other or one person will look away into space while talking. But I still haven't said what L'AVVENTURA is about. What happens in L'AVVENTURA? What's the movie about? Well, quite a lot, actually -- but not in the way we are USED to things happening in movies. This is another of the groundbreaking facets of Antonioni's film. L'AVVENTURA literally means "adventure" in Italian and some people see this as ironic since nothing outright "adventurous" or "exciting" happens in the film. I think of it more as a double meaning: the film is an adventure in the sense of human relationships and emotions but "l'avventura" is also the Italian term for a "fling". And this will become more appropriate as the movie goes along. L'AVVENTURA opens with a glimpse of well-to-do Anna (Lea Massari) talking to her diplomat father. There is something wrong between them -- some tension or disagreement that Antonioni does NOT tell us about. It's like we came upon these two people in conversation and, just as in real life, they don't stop to explain what they're talking about but go on with their day. Anna is meeting her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) to go on a cruise around the Aeolian Islands with some friends on their boat. The two women drive to meet Anna's lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti -- who played the crippled Morton in Sergio Leone's "ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST"). Anna and Sandro have been apart for about a month and Anna seems reluctant to see him again. When they arrive, Claudia remains in the street below while Anna goes up to see Sandro and has some of that unfulfilling sex I was talking about a while ago. Notice in the picture above Claudia can be seen out the window below while Anna and Sandro get on with it. Later, the trio meets up with two other couples and departs on their pleasure boat to a remote, desolate, rocky island. All during the boat trip, Anna tells Claudia her relationship with Sandro ain't so hot. The time apart has done something to her and she just wants to be alone somewhere. Once on the island, Anna and Sandro go off together to discuss things. Anna's feelings are a mess: she tells Sandro the thought of losing him makes her want to die but, in the same breath, she just doesn't feel him any more and they shouldn't get married. Anna's emotions, in fact, are as turbulent and swirling as the rough waves crashing on the island rocks. Perplexed, Sandro lays down on a rock and falls asleep while Anna broods in the foreground. Antonioni dissolves the scene to sometime later when the weather is changing; the ocean is getting rougher, the sky is getting cloudier and it's time for the party to leave the island. However, when the group gathers, they can't find Anna. They search the small island to no avail. Anna has disappeared. In fact, Anna has left the movie. Permanently. We never see her again. Sandro, Claudia and the one of the others stay on the island in a shack overnight but Anna still does not turn up. Anna's father arrives with a search party -- but no Anna. Has she secretly slipped off the island somehow to "be alone"? Or has her inner turmoil caused her to commit suicide? From here on, Sandro and Claudia go on a search for Anna all around Italy. But gradually the two begin to have feelings for one another and, while they still go one searching for Anna, they (and we the movie viewers) practically forget all about Anna. And in fact, Antonioni never tells us what happened to Anna! And by the end of the film (or even much before that) we don't really care. The movie becomes all about the growing romance between Claudia and Sandro with all the guilt and confusion of feelings their situation entails. And the final scene is stunning in its emotional rawness and impact -- one of the most haunting final images in film. Now, some people have called L'AVVENTURA "hard to understand" but I found it to be nothing of the kind. In fact, I found it to be stunningly up front and clear. There is a deliberate feel of mystery in the movie but anyone who WATCHES the film knows what's going on. Of course, that does presuppose the viewer will WATCH L'Avventura with their full attention . . . if you're going to multi-task and "sorta" watch it, you're not going to SEE the movie. As I said, EVERYTHING on screen. . .EVERYTHING that happens is meaningful. Nothing is superfluous. In that way, L'AVVENTURA is jam-packed with action and emotion. Just not the "summer blockbuster" kind. So you have to actually WATCH L'Avventura to fall under its spell. If you do, it will engulf you like an ocean wave. And now, having said all this, I will mention that Antonioni's third film in the trilogy begun with L'AVVENTURA is even better. That film is L'ECLISSE. THE ECLIPSE. And I hope to write about that one soon. . . if I can figure out just how to do it.

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