L’Avventura (1960 Italy 145 mins)

Source: ScreenSound Australia Prod Co: Cino del Duca/PCE/Lyre Prod: Amato Pennasilico Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni
Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra, from a story by Antonioni Phot: Aldo Scavarda Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Prod Des: Adriana Berselli Mus: Giovanni Fusco

Cast: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari, Dominique Blanchar, Renzo Ricci, James Adams, Dorothy De Poliolo

The first and only time l’avventura is uttered in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterwork, it’s a small but shattering revelation. For what at first seems like an ironic reference to something good, gone bad – on a jaunt to an ominously inhospitable rock in the Aeolian Sea called Lisca Bianca, Anna (Lea Massari) mysteriously disappears – is, finally, something bad, gone worse. Uttered in passing during forlorn fornication between Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), l’avventura is also impertinent Italian parlance for the serial sexual adventures of one-night stands, the terra incognito of strangers feigning intimacy as they try to find love without moral compasses.

Surely Antonioni recognised his contemporaries as another lost generation. Indeed, among Anna’s possessions – given to her father as a symbolic bequest contrasting the old and the new testaments of truth – are a Bible and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tragedy Tender is the Night, the most stirring and deeply felt memoir of an earlier lost generation scarred by war.

“A new man is being born…” Antonioni explained after L’avventura had been jeered and shouted down at its premiere in Cannes. “This new man immediately finds himself burdened with a heavy baggage of emotional traits which cannot exactly be called old and outmoded but, rather, unsuited and inadequate”.

Those emotional traits are what Antonioni, before the fashionable crowd at Cannes, could not quite bring himself to call the guilt and shame of sin associated with conventional morality, and the yearning for spiritual liberation. Informed by eternal Catholic truths and influenced by existential modern art, the film is, at once, scathing and humanistic. Antonioni’s visionary interior realism manifests itself in smouldering tumult, a latently post-war Italian version of film noir – only here the heart of the matter is not solving the dark mystery of how Anna has gone missing, but realising how little anyone cares. The modern society hipster has evolved by the end of the ’50s to abandon God, love, morality, natural law and eternal order for the temporal, hedonistic, volcanic eruption – and subsequent burial alive – of sexual revolution, cynical indifference, and material corruption.

At Cannes, Antonioni denounced eroticism in the popular art of his day as “a symptom of the emotional sickness of our time”. (Imagine what the elderly Antonioni must think now.) The symbol of the modern condition isn’t the existential bromide, “God is dead”, but, as Antonioni declared, “Eros is sick”. L’avventura suggests that in the absence of traditional moral restraints, an unbridled animal nature seduces sexual love and, more seriously, shipwrecks agape, leaving men beaten and mean, with no satisfaction, feeling mutually exploited and hardened, yet still filled with desperate yearning.

His critique of eros in art, which he connects to a plainly pornographic impulse, translates into a theme of brazen acts of display and witness. Claudia (who tellingly admits that she’s sensibly nouveau riche, an outsider encountering the practiced decadence of the upper class) sees Raimondo (Lelio Luttazi) grope the patrician Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli), who remains as indifferent as a statue. (All of the character posing, in fact, lends a undercurrent of Greek tragedy to the dramaturgy.) Later, when Sandro is drifting on what he supposes to be Anna’s trail, he witnesses a riot of men who have followed a publicity-seeking sex-pot, “Gloria Perkins” (Dorothy de Poliolo), to a mock asylum at a police station, a frenzied mob rutting outside, the collective “id” gone wild at a glimpse of strategically torn skirt. Later, when the lesson of Anna’s miserable period with Sandro seems completely lost on everyone, Guilia (Dominique Blanchar) insists that Claudia follow her and a jejune social-climbing painter Geofreddo (Giovanni Petrucci) into his studio. Giulia says she wants the protection of an escort, when clearly she’s seeking Claudia’s approval for an encounter intended to move her contemptuous older sugar daddy Corrado (James Addams) to jealousy. When Claudio responds with a hint of opprobrium, she is rudely dismissed. It’s as if these encounters, these “adventures”, are so fleeting and meaningless that they have to be verified by a third party to exist; they somehow need to prove they’ve advanced beyond the old-fashioned virtues of chastity and modesty. After Claudia has succumbed to sin, Antonioni projects her guilt into the emotional truth of a menacing public square that seems entirely composed of men – as if her “adventures” are known to all and any of them might be next.

These unnatural eruptions, which seem somehow less theatrical as depicted than described, come out of Antonioni’s strongest, most original strain. This is the artist for whom social-sexual relationships seemed absolutely transparent in the devastating masterworks Le amiche (1955) and Cronaco di un amore (1950), and who essayed existential alienation in his tour-de-force trilogy (L’avventura, La notte [1961], L’eclisse [1963]), The Passenger (1975), and others.

Melancholia and listlessness are only the surface expressions imported from American noir; L’avventura critiques the spiritual poverty of men living as buffeted, barren islands. “Without God, the universe may seem to have no ultimate order or rational unifying principle”, writes philosopher Peter K. McInerny of existentialism, as if writing a precis of the film.

Without God, there may seem to be no objective values, so that any action or way of living is as good as any other. Without God, human history and our own individual lives are of no significance for the universe at large. Nothing we do will have any impact on the immense and everlasting universe. The individual feels alone and adrift.

Before Anna disappears, Antonioni literalises the notion of being “adrift” during a joyless swimming party where the characters seem untethered – providing a birth image of the new man. On the island, the characters perambulate and view one another against the phenomenologist’s horizon, the literal vanishing points of the composition, with a kind of clarity they can’t seem to confess, up close and personal. Corrado’s grimace, Giulia’s devastation, graphically measure character distance – and traverse it with astonishing economy of style. These famous compositions during the search suggest the isolation of the individuals as islands.

Antonioni illustrates a central notion of existential art in Anna’s “replacement” by Claudia, something Anna seems to have prepared. Leaving Claudia in the public square below (where their figures and fancy car clashes with the nuns in an old world/new world dichotomy) Anna insists on a joyless sexual reunion with Sandro. As Claudia looks up at the balcony, and considers coming through a half-open door (these internal split-screen compositions, representing emotional dichotomies, continue through to the final image), it is as if Anna has seeded Claudia’s imagination with a lie of her sophistication, or love fulfilled. Anna, who’s been wearing virginal/bridal white as if to impress a Father at odds over her apparent willingness to surrender her purity to a playboy who has no serious intentions, gives Claudia some clothing aboard the yacht – it’s an intimate but nonetheless discomfiting seduction. Throughout the search for Anna, one haunting answer comes back repeatedly: “Nothing” – or nothingness. As Claudia moves toward Sandro, her clothes transition from dark, to black and white stripes, to Anna’s white. At the point where she’s begging for Sandro’s declarations of love, and he’s offering marriage – proposals as difficult to entertain as to dismiss as insincere – Claudia becomes a disposable replacement, another “other” woman.

For his part, Sandro suffers classical alienation from his labour that spills over into contempt. An architect who shelved his creative impulse to provide building-project estimates for a boss he dislikes, he tellingly admires classical architecture. And atop a church bell tower, the site of the spiritual high point of Sandro and Claudia’s affair, where one sees genuine repentance for their behaviour and affection toward each other, he tells of his admiration for the Renaissance architects, and in a nod toward Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the frustrated architect ruefully notes “what extraordinary freedom” they had. (This is, perhaps, the freedom of undoubted, collective faith.) “Who needs beautiful things now, Claudia? How long do they last? Once, they had centuries before them”. Tolling bells between unseen lovers at towers across town seem to suggest that even islands can communicate support. But later, dangling keys from a plumb-line as a symbolic extension of his manhood, Sandro deliberately ruins the drawing of an architecture student studying classical form – as if the young man’s idealism assaults his selling out.

None of the characters find strength in faith. The old church and friendly nun contrasts with an earlier explicit image in the sepulchral-white town of Noto: a shuttered, abandoned modern church. Claudia’s cry returns only a hollow echo of herself. This is not Antonioni’s most subtle imagery, but its virtues – unambiguous, direct and forceful realisation of ideas, rather than construction of metaphors – can’t be ignored.

This faithlessness in the name of the perceived liberation of technological progress – what priest-theologian Henri de Lubac, SJ, called Europe’s “atheistic humanism” – separates Antonioni’s existential art from that of the 1950s beat artists, their heroes ever on a spiritual journey and rarely the agents of unintentional evil. Antonioni’s characters wound one another. “It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God”, Lubac said during the Nazi occupation of France. “What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man”. In the absence of a loving God, Antonioni’s characters seem incapable of true intimacy. It’s not until the final scene, when Sandro and Claudia have abandoned the façade of false sophistication, when they’re both broken, that true compassion surfaces, a grace note giving the film hope.

Amidst the characters’ troubled searching for Anna, there’s an important interruption from the past, the sudden appearance of a working-class Australian who inhabits the ancient ruin on Lisca Bianca. He personifies Antonioni’s critique of the search party: Not intimidated by Sandro’s impertinent interrogation, unimpressed with the leisure class (“Is 5 am early?”), he represents the simple faith they’ve lost. He enters hooded, as if wearing religious garb. He takes comfort in showing his guests the pictures of his family, people whose love for him traverses unseen distances and seems to comfort and centre him. Hanging on the wall is the film’s only crucifix. Prompted by their search for Anna, he speaks of searching for his lost lamb – almost too obviously, he’s the good shepherd. This is one of those Antonioni scenes that at first glance may not seem to advance the narrative, in a conventional sense, but is rather giving viewers the keys to the inner sanctum of his art.

In L’avventura we find Antonioni framed by two contemporaries. Italian decadence is seen equally lucidly by the prototypically Roman Catholic Federico Fellini (whose similarly themed La dolce vita won at Cannes the same year L’avventura, despite its reception, won a Special Jury Prize), Antonioni’s former collaborator on The White Sheik (1951). And in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), one sees the influence of earlier Antonioni projects. But while Resnais is concerned with the past, memory and its effects on being in the present, Antonioni sees the future through his deep understanding of emotional truth. Antonioni’s gift/curse is that of an artist seeing so far into the future, it’s as if he were picking through the shards of world to come as an ancient ruin of civilisation.

About The Author

Gregory Solman is a film scholar and critic who has written frequently for the Boston Phoenix, Film Comment and for express.com as the pseudonymous Undercover Critic. He's a former editor of the motion-picture trade magazines Millimeter and Variety and resides in Los Angeles.

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