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L'avventura: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Monica Vitt, Gabriele Ferzetti, and Lea Massari

Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

What is Michelangelo Antonioni's L'avventura about?

Certainly, we know what happens in the film. A socialite goes on a yachting cruise with some wealthy friends and disappears. Two people — her fiancé and her best friend — commence looking for the young woman, but instead of completely dedicating themselves to the search, they have an affair. The woman is never found, and the budding romance ends in ambivalent stasis.

No, there's no problem figuring out the plot. But what is the film about? At the end of the day, what is the point of the laconic faces, the excruciatingly long takes, the protagonists' listless ennui as they chicly drift down barren streets, the pointless dialogue, the white walls everywhere, and the film's whole patina of Italian upper class postwar élites whining about their empty lives, precursors to the denizens of Woody Allen's Manhattan? (In fact, Allen parodied the Antonioni style explicitly in Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask, while that shameless magpie Mike Nichols borrowed both aspects of Antonioni's visual style and the Maestro's obsession with sinister, entrapping corners for both The Graduate and Catch-22.)

L'avventura, it should be remembered, was released in 1960, at the height of an onslaught of heavily symbolic European imports. The Seventh Seal, La Strada, Last Year at Marienbad, Breathless and La Dolce Vita all came out within months or years of each other, and all revolutionized the cinema — or at least deeply altered what many Americans thought constituted the cinema. The time from the late '50s through the early '60s was an exciting period in film history, when fierce debates in mainstream magazines such as Esquire and the New Yorker about the meaning of Last Year at Marienbad were not uncommon. The European and Asian films released during this phase of history have continued to influence directors to this day.

However, Antonioni's L'avventura was a different matter altogether. The first of the really, really hard to figure out European imports, the film was not universally accepted or even loved. There is no really no "school" of Antonioni imitators to rival the flood of ersatz Fellinis or Godards in the wake of their films. L'avventura was booed during its premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15, 1960. Specifically, the hostile element of the audience at Cannes was impatient with, among other things, a long scene in which Monica Vitti rushes down a hallway corridor looking for someone, opening or peering into every door. The audience hollered "Cut." Elsewhere, the film roused passionate worldwide debate or near-blind adulation.

This must have all come as a shock to Antonioni, who surely thought his film was as plain as the bucolic Italianate day the film in so many ways celebrates. He began as something of a neo-realist under the sway of Rossellini. Earlier films of his were respected and even won the occasional festival award, but it was L'avventura that made Antonioni an international name to reckon with.

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All of Antonioni's films share a common cause of exploring the difficulties of relationships, asking if they can survive the coldness of modern life. L'avventura is the quintessential work in his canon. Whole books have been written on this one film, so the wise celebrator does not presume to provide a definitive answer to its mysteries in the space of a simple review. Yet a clue to the secret of the film is found in its title. As the liner notes in Criterion's DVD package explain, "l'avventura" means obviously "the adventure," but also has the more subtle meaning of a fling, or side affair. At the heart of the film is a disparity between what one woman thinks and how one man behaves.

As the film opens Anna (Lea Massari) is walking out of her house. She meets up with her father outside. There Antonioni poses the ever-shifting characters between wreckage and growth as we see in the background the flat lands and high rises so characteristic of films by Visconti, Fellini, and Pasolini at the time. They quarrel, and in the background we see Claudia (Vitti) pass by, a blur but still someone we can tell is deeply staring at the other two. Beautiful in its casualness, it is one of the greatest introductions of a character in the history of cinema. Vitti's Claudia (like Anthony Perkins in Psycho, as many reviewers noted at the time) will rise to the foreground, subverting the position of the then-more-well-known actress playing Anna. Anna and Claudia meet up with Anna's boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), a former architect now working as some kind of accountant for a rich man. The trio depart on a yachting cruise off Sicily, where — on Lisca Bianca, one of the smallest volcanic islands in the area — the quarrelsome, dyspeptic Anna vanishes.

Militia, boats, and choppers are called in, but she remains vanished, with the suggestion that she either committed suicide or sneaked out on a smuggler's boat. Sandro almost instantly turns his attention to Claudia. She resists, is attracted, feels they should be looking for Anna. The two separate, but Sandro plots their reunion. Their affair commences, perhaps inspired by their brief visit to one of the lonely, geometric, unpopulated towns Mussolini built, where — in a mysterious but beautiful moment — Antonioni has the camera track slowly toward them as they leave. Shock cut: They are making love in an open field near a train. But having conquered Claudia, Sandro is already losing interest, and during a huge party in a hotel his attention drifts to someone else. In the bleary light of dawn, Claudia finds Sandro in the arms of another woman, a careless golddigger. She runs away in tears, and he follows. They have nothing to say to each other. They are merely human.

Vitti's Claudia is an unexpected character in all this angst. She is an obvious outsider, observant. She is always touching things, taking delight in small pleasures, likely to do an impromptu dance to a pop tune. She the film's life force, threatened on all sides by hypocrisy, cunning, dissipation, greed.

Great as it is, in the end, L'avventura isn't particularly hard to figure out, though it does tell its story with a certain visual panache. Nor is it necessarily Antonioni's masterpiece on those themes (that title is held by L'eclisse, made a couple of years later). But for Antonioni L'avventura inaugurates what came to be a trilogy of black-and-white widescreen films on modern social anomie, followed by the sometimes embarrassing La Notte, and rounded out by L'eclise, one of the greatest films in history. L'avventura and L'eclisse are two of Antonioni's strongest films because they are rooted in existential humanism — the best philosophy foundation, so to speak, for commercial cinematic narratives.

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Michelangelo Antonioni is an original. Like only a handful of directors — fellow existential humanists such as Kubrick, Welles, Kurosawa, and Bergman — he has such a strong visual style that the mere mention of his name evokes the look and feel of his distinct cinematic world. Like Kubrick, he emphasizes photography as a means of propelling narrative forward, and also like Kubrick (and others), he likes to tell stories more novelistically, with an emphasis on character revealed through observation, rather than just providing a forward-stumbling narrative. Unlike Kubrick, however, the range of subject matter in Antonioni's films is somewhat limited. If ultimately he seems on the surface less "great" than Kubrick, Welles, or Kurosawa, it is because we viewers, in our hunger for novelty, keep demanding new locales and subject matter from the great directors, behind which they hide their small cluster of obsessions, rather then allowing them to mine the ore of familiarity until they have cracked their themes.

Curiously, L'avventura was released roughly around the same time as Godard's Breathless. Two filmmakers couldn't be more stylistically different, and they set the tone for two competing styles of cinema for several decades, with Antonioni austere, essentially non-political (at least on the surface), more classical in his narrative structure, with a little modernism thrown in, resurrecting the long take as a means of communicating lived time. Godard, on the other hand, was experimental, political, rough-hewn, visually unpredictable, inventing the jump cut to speed things along by deleting redundant information. If we today see the influence of Antonioni in the work of Theodoros Angelopoulos and Kieslowski, Goadard lives on everywhere else, from Scorsese to Tarantino.

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Criterion's two-disc release of L'avventura on DVD restores aspects of their Laserdisc release and offers additional supplements, while also removing other things. Disc One features the restored widescreen transfer (in what the box says is anamorphic 1.77:1; the original film was released at 1.85:1). Criterion's literature notes that this new digital transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive on a high-definition Spirit Datacine, with help from the MTI Digital Restoration System to remove thousands of scratches and other damage marks. Though the film looks good, with better contrast in the black-and-white photography of Aldo Scavarda, there are still some long scratches that have eluded the magic of MTI. There also are times when bits of what look like dust cling to the edge of the frame, moments that hark back to the days of dusty 16mm projectors in a grade-school cafeteria. But perhaps this is to quibble. The monaural audio also has been mastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack. The digital English subtitles have been retranslated.

Retained from the Laserdisc is film scholar Gene Youngblood's detailed audio commentary track. A true lover of the L'avventura, Youngblood's chat is keyed to the visuals, detailed, effortless, and deeply informed. He knows the film's history, Antonioni's career, how contemporaneous audience members (of which he was once one) would have weighed the importance of actor to role, and so on. He knows the names of all the towns the characters visit. The track is in the great tradition of superb Criterion audio commentaries.

Dropped from the Laserdisc is a catalog of photos, maps and illustrations from a traveling exhibit about Antonioni. In its place is a documentary made for French Canadian television, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, a 58-minute tour of Antonioni's place in contemporary cinema (and one of the few films about himself of which the director approved). The movie features rare footage of Antonioni at work, directing a short called The Screen Test made in 1965, and many other Italian masters comment on their friend and colleague, including Fellini. Also on hand is a pair of writings by Antonioni, read by Jack Nicholson. The first is a statement by Antonioni on L'avventura, the second Antonioni's thoughts on actors (essentially claiming that they are Trojan horses endangering his movies). Nicholson also cheerfully ad-libs some personal recollections of working on The Passenger with Antonioni, which are quite funny and show the actor as a learned fellow with a pithy vocabulary.

Finally, included is the original theatrical trailer, a restoration demonstration, a small brochure with a new essay by Antonioni specialist Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (who wrote a fine book about the film in the BFI Film Classics series), and some other historical matter related to the film. Taken together this rich fund of insight and information helps the viewer plumb the depths of the most unmysteriously mysterious movie in the annals of film history.

— D. K. Holm

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