My first viewing of L’Avventura was eons ago. It was my first Antonioni, and possibly my first Italian classic film. It is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made, a major turning point in Italian art-cinema, and by extension, world cinema. I remember that my first impression was not altogether rosy. It wasn’t that I disliked the movie, just that I did not understand why it belonged on such a pedestal. In the years since, I’ve revisited on several occasions and it has had a different affect on me. Many foreign art films tend to be more meaningful on multiple viewings, especially those that are selected as part of the Criterion Collection, but L’Avventura is even more impactful because of how it deconstructs the classic narrative plot structure.
I doubt that anyone reading this review has not seen the movie, so please be warned that I am going to spoil major plot points including the ending. It would be impossible to discuss this film openly without talking about the mystery of Anna, so please be warned not to continue reading if you would like to avoid spoilers.
Anna shows early on that she is an apathetic lover. She is not enamored with her lover, Sandro, yet reluctantly and impulsively makes love to him when they first meet. They go away on vacation, and her body language and actions are that of discomfort. When their group reaches a remote island off the coast of Sicily, she goes missing. We do not know whether she deliberately leaves, kills herself, hides, or what happens to her (although there are a couple of hints that are revealed on multiple viewings). This is unusual because her going missing and the initial search on the island occupies an entire third of the film. For the time, it was revolutionary for the narrative to leave the focal plot point so quickly and never revisit it.
That is why it is essential repeat viewing, because you have to understand that Anna is never found to get a proper reading of the film. That is why I was underwhelmed on that first viewing because I kept waiting for them to resolve the Anna situation, and it felt unsatisfying when they didn’t.
Like most of Antonioni’s best work, L’Avventura is a quiet, visual and challenging film. He makes the most of his landscapes, long shots, and juxtapositions of natural scenery versus humanity and technology. The images are startling in their beauty, and that includes the actors, most notably Monica Vitti, whose expressions he uses to tell the story as much as the dialog. The location shots are fantastic, from the abandoned village near Nota to the final shot with Mount Aetna in the background. Antonioni has been described as a painter, and just about every shot can be paused and enjoyed for its visual splendor. That is even more apparent with this 4k Criterion restoration. Antonioni likes to let the image linger and wash over the viewer, which is all the more pleasing with this home video release as it likely was on 35mm back in the 1960s.
Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) may be earnestly seeking out and following clues to find Anna’s whereabouts, but as time goes on, they seem less interested in discovering the missing friend and lover. It becomes more about them and their growing relationship. Towards the end, Claudia reveals that she no longer really wants to find Anna, that her old friend’s return would ruin how the situation has evolved. Compared with the resolute Anna, Claudia is needy and confused. She practically begs Sandro to confess his love for her, which he does non-committedly.
Sandro is a flawed womanizer who is not ready to settle down. If Anna had not gone missing, the relationship would have likely been over in the same time it took Claudia and Sandro to develop theirs. He is lost when it comes to love and relationships, uncomfortable, and always has his eyes out for something more promising. That is evident not just by the fact that he is later caught cheating, but that he pursues Claudia during the search for his missing lover in the first place. He is the more forceful in developing this relationship while Claudia is more reluctant, at least at first. When she commits, he strays and eventually breaks her trust.
Morality is at the heart of the film. Most of the characters are immoral and lust crazed. This includes Claudia and Sandro, but also the supporting characters. Guilia and Corrado are terrific examples of this. They exchange barbs during the island vacation, even after Anna goes missing, showing that their marriage is fractured. Guilia is tempted by a youngster and succumbs to his advances, obstinately telling Claudia to leave and tell Corrado that he can find her there. It is as if she is wishing to be found and have their marriage ended. These two characters represent the future of relationships, painting a bleak picture, and helping Claudia reach a level of understanding. If things worked out between Claudia and Sandro, this could be their future.
This movie is easily compared to La Dolce Vita. Fellini’s film was also a monumental and influential piece of art-house Italian cinema. In addition to being released in the same year it shares other similarities with L’Avventura. Fellini strives to contrast the modern and the old world, and uses the framework laid down by Italian Neorealism as his canvas, only he approaches his subject with a distinctively different style than Antonioni. His lead male is also a flawed and immoral person, only his film is from the male’s perspective whereas Antonioni’s is clearly through the eyes of Claudia. Both men at the end come to terms with their shortcomings albeit to different degrees. Fellini’s Marcello is all too aware of how miserable he has come, and that is why he acts out at a party. Antonioni’s final scene of L’Avventura involves a party, but the crime is quiet infidelity rather than creating a scene. It is not until he sees Claudia’s reaction and her drastic change in character that he comes to terms with his failings. When he is sitting on that park bench, sobbing in shame, Claudia touches his head in a show of part pity and part disdain. She has grown up, seen the world, and most likely has become jaded like her forgotten friend, Anna.
Film Rating: 9.5/10
Commentary with Gene Youngblood – This was recorded in 1989 and I had already heard it on a prior listening. Rather than listen to the entire thing, I listened during key moments, including the first third of the film, the Noti sequence, and of course the ending.
Antonioni uses his characters to form an ‘escapist sensuality’ which explains why Anna makes love to Sandro at the beginning, why Guilia accepts the advances of her young admirer, and why Sandro takes up with the young lady near the end (who was likely a prostitute).
When Claudia and Anna change clothes in the yacht, they change the place of each other. Soon, Anna will disappear and Claudia will begin the process of searching for her, taking up with Sandro and becoming Anna.
Not every scene advances the plot, which is why people initially had trouble with the film, while others appreciate this. In the scenes where nothing seems to happen, like when they are taking refuge from bad weather on the island, it contextualizes their situations.
Youngblood talks about the evolution of neorealism. Rossellini was an early pioneer of the genre, but he pushed it more towards being image-oriented in his trilogy with Ingrid Bergman. A good example is with his Journey to Italy, and you can see in that film where the transition from filmmakers like Visconti, De Sica and Rossellini transformed towards Fellini and Antonioni.
Antonioni portrays strong female characters unlike all Italian filmmakers (although I would disagree because of Rossellini’s Bergman trilogy), but still are men’s films. He concentrated on the female component, especially L’Eclisse and Red Desert, but they tend to realize they are living in a man’s world, which in essence, they were. In L’Avventura, the real adventure is Claudia’s journey towards self-knowledge.
Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials – 1966 documentary was the first to get Antonioni’s approval. He is a reserved individual and it is difficult to capture filmmaking by following the process, which is rife with problems and errors.
Grew up in Ferrara, had a bourgeois upbringing, and started his career working at writing and directing plays. He switched to documentary films and eventually features.
Lots of people talk about his early work, including Fellini who collaborated with him on The White Sheik, and had very good things to say.
L’Avventura took 7 months and bankrupted a production company (5 months filming). There were major production problems, including having the cast and crew stuck on an island for a view days. Vitti talks about her experience at Cannes. It was her first film festival, which was a different universe for her. The Cannes audience laughed at the film, hated it, and she felt terrible. By the next day, prominent people came out and stated it was the best film they’d seen at a festival.
Jack Nicholson – essays – Nicholson narrates essays from Antonioni.
1. L’Avventura: A Moral Adventure: People who try to discover his motivation spoil the film for themselves. He does not feel that director’s can or should explain film, and sometimes film cannot be understood. Despite his reservations for sharing motivations about L’Avventura, he agrees because he is sufficiently removed from the project.
Morality is the key, which has changed in human history history. He explores how we go astray and away from our outdated moral conventions, and he is merely portraying our weaknesses.
2. Reflections on the Film Actor: Intelligent actors that try to understand their role can become an obstruction. They should arrive in a state of virginity. Rather than try to guide thing, they should exploit their innate intelligence to employ what the director has instructed. When that happens, the actor has the quality of a director.
3. Working with Antonioni: Jack recounts his experiences working with the master, and agrees with Michelangelo to some degree, but it is impossible to not be thinking during his films. Jack remembers Antonioni saying contradictory things than what he writes in essays. There was very little conflict on the set of The Passenger, and Antonioni even cooked for them in the evenings. Jack tells an interesting anecdote about how the cast and crew returned from lunch and accidentally forgot the director, leaving him stranded, Antonioni pulled him aside and said “Jack, I have to pretend I am furious.”
Olivier Assayas – a 2004 analysis of the film. He breaks it down in three parts.
1. The Empty Center – Can consider it a documentary on the loss of meaning. Anna diving off the boat is A pivotal moment, but not THE pivotal moment. It breaks from the conventional plot because there is nothing for us to hold onto. Anna, and by extension modernity, is the “empty center.” The narrative after the first act shifts from Anna to other characters who pretend to care about looking for her. Do we care?
2. Point Zero – Claudia ends up replacing Anna. The path that Claudia and Sandro follows is unbelievable because they end up in the middle of nowhere. Are they really looking for Anna? The church in Noto is empty and unused and can be equated with the loss of faith.
3. The Resolution – Portrays the solitude of a brand new couple. Meaning disappears. Once they are together, they begin to drift apart towards solitude. After Sandro is caught cheating and Claudia’s flight, there is an acceptance of each other.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10
When Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura premièred at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, it was greeted first with boos and later a Jury Prize. The polarization was so extreme, in fact, that members of the jury, along with filmmakers and critics, felt compelled to issue a declaration in support of its “exceptional importance” and in opposition to the “displays of hostility it has aroused.” It can be easy to forget, more than 50 years later, the degree to which Antonioni’s film rewrote the language of cinema, questioning its addiction to storytelling and opening up the possibility for other, more enigmatic and poetic forms of expression. Witness New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who spent his tenure denying or resisting every advance the medium made during the period. He likensL’Avventura to “trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost,” and complains throughout the review of its “big pot-holes” and omitted details. He seems to know these elisions are deliberate (“Antonioni deals only with what seems to interest him”) and recognizes that “there is a great deal of beauty and excitement in the pure composition of movement against architectural forms.” But he can’t bring himself to assign great value to it, shrugging it off as a “weird adventure.”
Crowther wasn’t alone then—or even now—but it’s worth remembering how radical Antonioni’s film was, in part because his filmmaking values have been so widely adopted in the decades since. The Cannes that booed L’Avventura in 1960 now has a competition slate where a solid majority of films share its DNA—including this year’s winner, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep—and his influence is so invisibly pervasive that critics can claim he’s “out of fashion” without recognizing that his style is draped over every mannequin in the store. In truth, the subsequent entries in Antonioni’s trilogy of alienation, 1961’s La Notte and 1962’s L’Ecclise, refined and deepened L’Avventura’s modernist gestures. But that first shot across the bow remains a wonder, in part for its surpassing beauty, and in part for its almost perverse refusal to play by the rules.
Some of its enduring majesty is owed to the otherworldly presence of Monica Vitti, who is simultaneously bewitching and obscure as her character processes a series of conflicting emotions that not even she can easily identify or control. In the opening, Claudia (Vitti) and her best friend Anna (Lea Massari) are summoned by Anna’s long-distance lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) for a boating trip off the coast of Sicily. Along the way, Anna expresses some frustration about her relationship with Sandro, which isn’t entirely abated by a spontaneous lovemaking session before the trip. Once at sea, the three join two other wealthy couples for a jaunt around the Aeolian Islands, noting their barren climes of volcanic rock. Anna and Sandro go off on their own. They fight. And then Anna simply disappears.
What happened to Anna? The authorities are called in to investigate, along with her father (Renzo Ricci), and L’Avventura has the makings of a classic procedural, with Sandro as a possible suspect. Fully aware of what’s expected of this narrative, Antonioni takes it from foreground to background, replacing it with Claudia’s private existential crisis and her tenuous romantic relationship with Sandro, tangled in guilt and desire. (Ferzetti’s failure to live up to Vitti’s magnetism is the film’s one persistent flaw. He gets top billing, but she resolutely dominates.) It isn’t like Anna’s disappearance is irrelevant to the narrative—to the contrary, it lingers like a fog over every scene—but Antonioni’s interest in following through on the investigation and answering the question of what happened to her is virtually nonexistent.
Of greater interest to Antonioni and L’Avventura is finding other ways to express these characters’ psychological states, from landscapes and architecture to contemplative silences and the contours of Vitti’s face. And though it keeps a cool emotional register, the film is nonetheless revolutionary for its refusal to engage in the conventions expected of it. Crowther had it right that Antonioni was dealing only with what interested him, but he couldn’t quite come around to the thought that that’s what a great artist does, however much it cuts against the grain. World cinema eventually caught up to L’Avventura, but for a time, it had the rest of cinema choking on its dust.
While the 4K digital restoration is new, the extras on the L’Avventura disc largely aren’t. Still, it remains a formidable collection. On a 1989 commentary track, film and video historian Gene Youngblood gets into the film’s genesis and sometimes-tortured production history, while focusing heavily on Antonioni’s emphasis on architecture and framing to tell a story. “Antonioni: Documents And Testimonials,” an hourlong black-and-white Film Board Of Canada documentary from 1966, relies to an unusual degree on raw footage of the director at work, supplemented by archival interviews. Jack Nicholson, who worked with Antonioni on 1975’s The Passenger, reads two of his essays in his inimitable voice, and spends a third track talking about working with the man. (“If you think you can work with this old Italian bird without thinking…”) Last but not least is a three-part visual essay by Olivier Assayas, who calls L’Avventura “a turning point in the evolution of film.”