I recently revisited Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, in mourning for the death of the man who was perhaps the greatest living filmmaker (the other candidate, Ingmar Bergman, sadly and perhaps appropriately died the same day). It was the second time I have seen the film, which concerns the superficial lifestyles of two wealthy boors as they inexplicably search for a misplaced woman throughout sultry Italian landscapes. It remains perhaps the sharpest condemnation of the rich class’ isolation from reality ever made—simultaneously the saddest and the most ironic in its presentation of the pathetic, shallow characteristics of high society. Can leisure be a jail sentence instead of a blessing?
Some wise old man (probably Ebert) once said the greatest films can be revisited time and time again with the promise that each new viewing will be a fresh encounter. L’Avventura is the kind of film that I suspect will always be brand new to me. I’ve only seen it twice now: I viewed it once last year with the intention of writing an essay about it, but I instinctually knew that I needed to reexamine it before I felt comfortable tackling its ideas. Viewing it again over this past weekend and comparing new thoughts with my year-old notes, I feel like I was watching two different films. Antonioni’s critique of the wealthy always remains, but the approaches that I detected in both viewings now seem so different and vast that I stand in awe of the director’s careful, calculated method. It is very telling that Antonioni only knew what his pictures were about during their editing process; perhaps this is why all the films I have seen by him promise different outcomes with each venture into their complicated labyrinths. Yet the glue of L’Avventura—the outrage directed at the rich—remains, even through the different filters. It’s a kind of miracle.
Had I written the essay after my first viewing, it would have read something like this, and it would have been a perfectly acceptable reading:
Much has been written on Antonioni’s use of stark, dry landscapes to define and inform his character’s personalities, and that is rightfully so: No one can better film the simple act of a man standing beside a sun-baked mountain and turn it a metaphor for the overwhelming angst of the human soul. Desolate, all-encompassing deserts are as masterfully utilized and cherished in the works Antonioni as tropical jungles are in the cinema of Werner Herzog, or the dark cities streets of Martin Scorsese (or the Japanese suburbs of Yasujiro Ozu, or the apocalyptic ghouls of George A. Romero, or the beloved Faro Island of Ingmar Bergman, or the…you get the idea). When they are missing, the films just never seem to resonate with quite as much power, good or even great as they might be.
The missing person, Anna (Lea Massari) is a free spirit engaged to the loutish, rich Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Opening scenes show them making passionless love that at first glace renders them both looking quite hypnotized, though examine them carefully—while his face is always zombified, hers twitches with a sadness that rises beyond the boredom in their sex and suggests that she is a woman in search of a purpose deeper than what Sandro offers. Later scenes confirm her uncouth, sardonic mAnnar, which acts perpendicular to her fiancé’s dead eyes and dry interactions. Her sad expression in this initial act of lovemaking will resonate throughout the rest of this complicated picture.
By the end of the first act, Anna has mysteriously disappeared after a boating trip to a small island. The island itself is jagged and desolate, with high coral reefs and deadly rocks below its watery surface. After she vanishes, Sandro and Anna’s best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), who Antonioni carefully suggests might also be her secret lover, embark on a trek across Italy to find her. It goes without saying that Sandro and Claudia become lovers themselves—not because they necessarily fall in love, but more out of an attempt to fill a void that emerges in the wake of Anna’s absence. I suppose we could call that void “boredom,” though the characters never introspect enough to define it. They are too shallow, too superficial, to allow themselves the gift of creative or meditative thought.
Upon my first viewing, I immediately recognized Antonioni’s use of scenery to characterize his protagonists. He and his cinematographer Aldo Scavarda compose shot after shot of Sandro and Claudia consumed by images of nature that more or less provide a running commentary on their blank stares and meaningless conversations. Backgrounds do all the important talking. For example: The infamous denouement, which resolves nothing, ends with the images of Claudia standing beside the image of a volcano and the fickle Sandro slouching beside a cement wall. Their placements in these final shots speak volumes; the tragedy is that Sandro and Claudia are incapable of interpreting what Antonioni is showing us because they are too lost in their own dilemmas, which are so trivial and selfish, to be aware of their surroundings.
And this contrast between self and surrounding is the key element here, and in all of Antonioni’s films: What is primarily fascinating to me about L’Avventura is how these upper-class characters always look away from the landscapes and never into them. They are stuffed, hollow beings—perpetually unaware that their search for Anna is really a search for themselves, and that their barren, empty surroundings ultimately reveal that their “adventure” will end as unresolved as it began—they are literally going nowhere, except deeper into dry, barren countrysides. If they were to just look around and allow themselves a moment of self-reflection, they could be saved. As Thoreau says, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and if I can only walk with sufficient carelessness I am sure to be filled.” Instead, these characters take their droll, meaningless lifestyles seriously, as if drinking and screwing and shopping are the only reasons to search for Anna. They remain vacuums.
And there you have a fairly routine reading of L’Avventura—the kind of reading someone paying attention should come away with in their first viewing. But viewing it again, free from having to interpret events that I had never before seen, I began picking up on Antonioni’s various techniques that reveal an entirely different perspective. A whole different movie emerges from this second examination.
First of all, though she disappears in the first act, I detect that this is primarily Anna’s story. I know this because of the disappointment I feel when she slips away into an unknown fate. Not unlike Pyscho (released the same year) , which bumped off its leading lady in the first reel primarily to sabotage our expectations of what is expected in a thriller, Anna’s departure is a deliberate, intentional rupture of the flow of the film; it instantly shifts us away from her and forces us to consider the viewpoints of characters for whom we care little. She has to vanish from this film, because she is the only character present who feels anything—she is the single, isolated martyr who is able to look into the endless ocean and see herself staring back at her. Sandro and Claudia, with their upper-class superiority complexes, cannot exist in the same world as Anna, who speaks thoughtfully and delicately, and urges self-expression when the other characters say words that mean nothing. The film simply cannot continue with both of these extremes in the same frame; one eventually pushes the other out. Though we follow Sandro and Claudia, the spirit of Anna is what informs us that their search for her will be fruitless. She has too much individuality for them to find her and contain her.
Technically, Anna’s fate is a fairly routine matter. As Sandro and Claudia initially search for her across the island, a crusty old fisherman informs them that the high coral reefs are very easy to slip and fall into; Anna could have plummeted quite quickly and be dead before she could have made a sound, and no one would ever notice her fall unless they were carefully watching the landscape. Unless they were carefully watching the landscape. As there was no way off the island except via the boat from which they came, no other explanation seems feasible. Anna must have died as the fisherman predicts.
Yet this possibility is presented in a throwaway line that Sandro and Claudia never pause to consider. Instead, they embark on a pointless journey across Italy to track her down, as if she slipped from an island that is miles from anywhere without them noticing, made it back to the mainland, and intentionally eluded her friends. What prompts them on such a superficial journey? Do they really expect to find her, or is this search their attempt to avoid the inevitable truth that Anna is dead? Are they simply so shallow that they have to keep themselves preoccupied with searching for her in order to fulfill the monotony left in her absence?
But Antonioni makes clear this search isn’t about their love for Anna, but their lust for each other. For one thing, they never seem distressed that she is missing—if anything thing, they treat her disappearance more as a convenient nuisance: It certainly does not take long for Sandro and Claudia to fall into each others’ arms. To find Anna, then, would only complicate such matters, assuming that their relationship had any substance. Their eventual relationship is summed up in the immortal lines exchanged between Claude and Sandro: “Tell me you love me.” “I love you.” “Tell me you don’t love me.” “I don’t love you.” Both responses elicit the same numb reaction; it is telling that this is the same flippant attitude with which they search for their missing “friend.” We get the feeling that these characters are so lacking in substance that either one of them could also disappear, only to have some new, rich face could step in and take their place as “lovers.”
One sentiment is key throughout: We want them to find Anna, because we miss her honest, interesting soul. This longing is what makes us recognize Anna as the hero of the piece—especially in contrast to the attitudes of Sandro and Claudia. Maybe that’s why Anna removed herself from the film—she knew these two deserved each other. Their “love” scenes together surely make it easy to see why, if by some miracle Anna did make it back to the mainline, she would want to flee from her companions. Her openness, her honesty, and her sarcastic jeers in the face of her indifferent fiancé and insecure friend seem to have wandered in from a different movie. We remember them as we follow Sandro and Claudia’s journey, and we cannot forget that in the opening scenes prior to the island, it is Anna who both literally and figuratively rocks the boat. Watch the way she moves about below the deck, speaking honestly about her feelings and expressing disdain for her engagement while Claudia looks in the mirror and stares at herself. We like Anna immediately, even as we are jaded by the others’ obsession with their high-society appearances and social interactions. This is absolutely Anna’s story, because of the way Antonioni makes us long for her charm as the others move about the film robotically.
Antonioni’s composition of various shots also provides sufficient clues toward his strategy. If Anna is truly dead as the fisherman predicts, then the delicate angles on the island and beyond seem to represent her otherworldly eyes as she watches Sandro and Claudia from afar. The effect is not dissimilar to the many birds eye shots in the samurai classic Lady Snowblood, which seem to indicate a vengeful God witnessing the protagonist’s bloody revenge from Heaven. Consider the way Antonioni places his camera between various ridges and surfaces on the island, or from staircases or doorways later in the film, and contrast these to the more simplistic long shots before Anna’s departure: Are we watching Anna’s point of view in the ensuing acts, as she mysterious and quietly haunts her friends’ spaces? Certainly the way we notice that all men stare lustfully at Claudia as she walks across a room is an observation that the more thoughtful Anna is more likely to make; Claudia is too concerned with her own private affairs to be concerned with shameless gazes, except when she feels inclined to satisfy her own.
When considering Anna’s ghost as the protagonist of L’Avventura, it’s difficult not to turn to Antonioni’s later film The Passenger for additional insight. That film essentially reverses L’Avventura’s format by beginning with a shallow, disenchanted reporter’s lonely trek through the desert. Only when he finally picks of “the passenger” of the title, a nameless woman who is filled with life and naive insight, do we recognize the film as a chronicle of the reporter’s slow trek to suicide. Her viewpoint fills in the gaps that the silent, stoic reporter keeps silent. The film might be his story, but it is the passenger who is the critical character, because she gives the film its context and provides the eyes through which we are able to interpret his fall. She keeps the film moving forward. The same idea is happening in L’Avventura, except we begin with Anna and then are left interpreting Sandro and Claudia’s interactions based on the perspectives she has already provided. In a way, we are the passengers here.
Ultimately, L’Avventura is too tricky in its method, too subversive in its storytelling, to be pigeonholed into one reading, which is why it often appears on so many lists for the ten best films of all time. I watched it once and saw the landscapes, and I decided that the film was about characters too vacant to realize that their surroundings defined their circumstances. I watched it again and saw the specific camera angles, and this made me think that it’s not the surroundings that do the defining so much as the displaced Anna’s ghostly observances set around them. I have a feeling that I could watch this film again in another year and write an essay with a completely new perspective.
But in both readings, what remains fascinating to me is how so little happens in the film in terms of resolutions and plot developments, yet how much Antonioni reveals about the way human beings—especially those of privilege—can go through life’s motions without having to think of any reason to do so. My idea of hell has always been living life as I do now, except stripped of the capacity to gain any new perspectives or ideas. The characters of L’Avventura would consider my personal hell to be simply business as usual. Anna’s mysterious plunge from high reefs now seems to be Antonioni’s mercy killing of a soul who’d rather be in hell than inhabit the same film as these pitiful characters.
Anna: Lea Massari
Sandro: Gabriele Ferzetti
Claudia: Monica Vitti
A Cino del Duca production. Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Written by Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra. No M.P.A.A. rating, but contains sexuality—mostly implied. Running time: 145 minutes. Original Italian theatrical release date: June 29, 1960. In Italian, with English subtitles.