By Daniel Barnes
You don’t need any cheeky and reductive “trilogy” categorizations to understand that L’Avventura is a film about the many forms of “modern” alienation. Every frame and narrative fragment reeks with moral disintegration and self-denial, and there many striking shots of characters turning away from or otherwise unable to face each other. As it stylishly drifts between languorous satire and a chilly sort of experimentalism, L’Avventura is a film that often feels alienated from itself.
That sense of beautiful desolation extends to star Monica Vitti, who served as Antonioni’s muse, probably because of her ability to look both dead-eyed and intensely soulful at the same time. Vitti plays Claudia, who is initially presented as a supporting character, while her friend Anna is the focus early on.
Anna is the daughter of a wealthy developer who we see razing a poor neighborhood in the early scenes, and much of the elliptical satire in L’Avventura savages the moral vapidity of the absurdly rich. Anna is unfailingly callous, capricious, dishonest, and cruel. In a beautifully framed scene, she has sex with her fiancée Sandro while Claudia lingers outside in the street. She brings Claudia and Sandro on a sea cruise with her fellow wealthy friends (a succession of hilariously broken couples, with Claudia as an all-purpose third wheel), but intentionally disrupts the tranquility by pretending to see a shark in the water.
The group goes ashore on a small, ancient island (“Islands…I don’t get them,” is just one of many weirdly zen koans that pepper the script), but Anna’s moodiness reaches an almost supernatural level. After fighting with Sandro, she says, “I don’t feel you any more”, and as though willing it to happen, she seems to disappear.
Thinking that this is just Anna crying wolf again, the group searches the entire island for her, but comes up empty. The idly rich royals bow out of the search first, and it doesn’t take long for Anna’s unexplained disappearance to become a card table punchline for them. Sandro, a soldier who sold out his principles and ambitions to indulge in a lifestyle of fast cars and motorboats, is not far behind.
Claudia, who does not come from money, persistently searches for Anna, even as she begins to fall in love with Sandro. As they leave the island and follow increasingly frayed leads across the Italian countryside, it becomes more and more apparent that they are chasing a ghost, and one that they begin to hope they never find.
There is some talk about ancient ruins on the island where Anna disappears, and later Antonioni includes a haunting scene in which Claudia and Sandro come across a vacant mountainside town overlooking a cemetery. “All of this was built to last centuries,” says Sandro, an ex-architect, while contemplating the dead city. Antonioni suggests that the culture of privilege he depicts in L’Avventura may be on the brink of extinction as well.
Claudia and Sandro finally abandon the search for Anna and become a couple, but their alienation from each other only seems to increase, until it finally becomes airborne. A bellhop is compared to an automaton; Sandro pointlessly destroys a work of art; a passionate kiss becomes a screaming train whistle; and while Antonioni ends the film with a rare moment of tenderness and forgiveness, the music on the soundtrack swells ominously, instead of in closure or inspiration.
In my Intro last week, I talked a little bit about the contemporary “relevance” of Antonioni, who was incredibly influential in his time (L’Avventura placed 2nd on the 1962 Sight and Sound critics poll, just 2 years after it was released) but seems to have gone out of fashion of late. There are some fairly obvious films inspired by L’Avventura – for example, although based on a true story, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock has a comparable style and explores similar themes.
As I stated in my Intro, Antonioni’s strongest contemporary influences are probably on the films coming out of Iran, a country that became culturally isolated around the same time that L’Avventura slipped off the Sight and Sound list altogether. Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, with its tenuously defined couple and wandering narrative, could almost be viewed as a digital-era remake of L’Avventura, and his earlier Iranian films that I’ve seen also show those influences.
The influence of Antonioni can also be felt in the more slow-core segments of the American independent cinema, perhaps most notably Gus van Sant’s own post-Finding Forrester “alienation trilogy” of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days. And while I’m not a fan of David Gordon Green’s recent Prince Avalanche, I can recognize that the film’s atmosphere of spiritual desolation and drifting consciousness owes a debt to Antonioni as well.
Do you have any examples of films or filmmakers influenced by Antonioni, and especially L’Avventura? Leave a comment about that or anything else below, and please give your opinion on L’Avventura in the poll on the right.
TOMORROW ON ESFS: Daniel Barnes reviews Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis, available to stream on Hulu Plus.