Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964) was the Italian filmmaker’s first feature in colour. This might seem like a major change for the director known for what had become his stylistic signature, namely the stylish, impossibly crisp black-and-white cinematography of his films. This look reached its apex in a trilogy that Antonioni made just before Red Desert which includes L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), all three depictions of alienation in a rapidly changing world. 

During the early days of Italian neorealism, the films had a more documentary-like approach. Works such as Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945), Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) and Umberto D. (1952) looked at working-class people struggling to live a dignified life amidst the rubble and confusion caused by the recent war, even if in these films too, sometimes the rubble was mental as well as physical. Going into the sixties, neorealism in general and Antonioni in particular produced more stylised works that considered more middle-class and abstract concerns, such as one’s feelings of worth and purpose, which led to artists moving away from a strict sense of realism to render these more conceptual ideas visible.

Between 1958 and 1963, Italy produced what is often described as the country’s Economic Miracle, when unemployment was extremely low and growth increased year after year. Italy’s transformation into an economic powerhouse didn’t occur without making any victims, however, including a segment of the middle class that felt that they had become unmoored in a society that marched forward regardless of how you felt about it — if you even knew how to feel about it. L’avventura, La notte and L’eclisse are all meditations on those feelings of loneliness and alienation while surrounded by (middle-class) riches and the resulting breakdown of human relationships.

In this sense, an argument can be made that the similarly concerned Red Desert is indeed the fourth film of Antonioni’s trilogy, despite being in colour. And Red Desert is not subtle about tying the characters’ inner struggles to progress, as the story starts near a petrochemical factory that billows smoke and emits an industrial clanging that starkly contrasts with the natural surroundings. Surprisingly, Antonioni uses intense colours only sparingly. In an early scene, our protagonist, Giuliana, is wearing a moss-green coat, a natural colour that stands out against the surrounding dark grey, as if the plant had rained down mud and soot on its environs. It is said that Antonioni had some of the exterior elements, including the grass, hand-painted to fit his often monochrome palette that would make his carefully selected splashes of colour pop. (One could almost argue that the rare flashes of colour are alienating elements in a drab world.)

A similar feeling of nature-versus-progress is evoked in an impressive sequence at a radio observatory. Even the sky does not seem the limit anymore for technology but people rarely seem to stop to think about what it could do to people’s heads here on earth. (Pointedly, Giuliana keeps adjusting her coat’s high collar, as if to make sure her head is protected — or does she just not want to be seen?) Large steel arms, painted red, reach into the sky, as we get an unsettling sense that something might have happened in the past that is responsible for Giuliana affirming so vehemently that she’s “very well” to a man she doesn’t seem to want to admit she knows. 

Giuliana is played with steely determination and yet an always fragile core by the director’s then-paramour, Monica Vitti, who also headlined his black-and-white trilogy. She’s the perfect match for this material because her beauty acts as a facade and a distraction all at once. There’s a sense that she’s smart but also that she keeps her persona hidden, using her elegance as a kind of shield against the outside world. Men, including Giuliana’s husband, seem either impressed or distracted by her looks and it doesn’t occur to them that she might have an inner life, too. This, in turn, only heightens her sense of alienation. The men’s reaction to Giuliana also parallels the Italian people’s reaction to their Economic Miracle. Everything looks so shiny and brings so many benefits, it hardly seems worth going under the hood to see how it really works or what the real cost might be in the long run.  

The one person who seems able to meet Giuliana head-on is Corrado. He is played by Richard Harris, whose fair Irish looks make the businessman almost seem as out of place as Vitti. A more melodramatic narrative might have turned their encounters into an affair that helps Giuliana find her self-worth but Corrado’s presence here is mainly used to highlight Giuliana’s sense of disconnection, not only from him but also from her preteen son and her husband. 

There are several scenes with heavy sexual undercurrents but they, too, only underline Giuliana’s sense of detachment. This is especially the case in the sequence that is perhaps the film’s most famous, in a cabin that’s been painted a fiery red and where Giuliana and some friends meet and fool around. The scene initially suggests that the red might signal passion, love or excitement, before it becomes clear, once the colour is literally stripped away, that red might have instead been the colour of repression, resentment and maybe even danger — or at least a very unhealthy form of brooding.

With each new viewing of an Antonioni film, new complexities and connections are revealed. If we learn one thing from watching his work, it is that alienation — possibly even more present now than it was then — is a multifaceted state of being. In Red Desert, the cost of progress is measured by how much we manage to get inside Giuliana’s head. 

Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964 Italy 117 mins)

Prod co: Film Duemila, Federiz, Francoriz Production Prod: Antonio Cervi, Angelo Rizzoli Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni Scr: Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra Phot: Carlo Di Palma Ed: Eraldo Da Roma Art dir: Piero Poletto Cost: Gitt Magrini

Cast: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti, Xenia Valderi, Rita Renoir

About The Author

Boyd van Hoeij has worked in the film industry for over 20 years and is now based in Luxembourg. He was a contributing critic for U.S. trade paper Variety before moving to The Hollywood Reporter in 2013. Since September 2021, he's been a Senior Critic of the all-review web destination The Film Verdict. He also regularly contributes to De Filmkrant (Netherlands) and is the recipient of the 2020-21 Plume d’Or, awarded by the Union of French Cinema Journalists for excellence in film writing. Besides criticism, van Hoeij is also active in funding and programming. Since 2018, he has been the President of the Selection Committee of the Luxembourg Film Fund, which awards development and production support, as well as Luxembourg City Film Festival’s Curator at Large. He also teaches film grammar workshops and dissects classics at festivals around the world and has been a jury member at festivals including Cannes, Venice, Sydney, Mar del Plata, Hong Kong, Thessaloniki and Palm Springs.

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