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Michelangelo Antonioni, the master of modern alienation was one of the most lauded film directors of the 1960s. Whereas Federico Fellini's protagonists are dogged by the pressures of work, family and religious doubt, Antonioni's characters seem cast adrift in an existential limbo, unable to find meaning in their lives. Personal relationships break down in L'avventura and L'eclisse, leaving individuals isolated and ill at ease. Antonioni's actress-muse Monica Vitti plays different women in these films, but all suffer from an indefinable discontent. Architecture is an important part of Antonioni's plan -- the very forms of "places" seem to reject Vitti's lost soul. The narrative "engine" simply breaks down in L'eclisse, leaving the film to finish in an extended montage of mysterious city streets.
Nowhere is this more apparent or clearly stated than in Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film. Controlling every aspect of every shot, the director conjures an encroaching industrial world and challenges poor Giuliana (Vitti) to find her place in it. We're told that the neurotic Giuliana hasn't properly recovered from a traumatic car accident. She picks at her clothing and is prone to irrational urges, like buying a half-eaten sandwich from a striking worker. It soon becomes obvious that Giuliana's environment is more responsible for her condition than any accident.
Giuliana is the wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), an industrialist planner who provides for her material needs while her emotional life goes wanting. She wanders around the grounds of her husband's enormous chemical plant, a grotesque wasteland of massive constructions, black mud, multi-colored pollution and plumes of smoke and steam. Ugo is outwardly thoughtful but lacks passion, and her small son (Valerio Bartoleschi) provides little emotional satisfaction. Giuliana gravitates toward Corrado (Irishman Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), an associate of her husband who is putting together big plans for a chemical plant in far-off Tierra del Fuego. Corrado describes himself as a loner and a drifter, albeit a very upscale one. Giuliana shows Corrado the space she's rented for a ceramics shop, an idle project seemingly chosen as personal therapy. Giuliana and Corrado eventually make love, an act that solves nothing. Along the way she makes a reckless gesture that might be a suicide attempt, and another that seems an abortive attempt to run away.
Giuliana's muted anxiety plays out against one of the most carefully controlled backgrounds ever concocted for a movie. Her modern house sits right on the waterfront. Huge freight vessels are seen crowding its window views, as if beckoning the woman to escape. One would think that a wealthy industrialist's wife would spend her leisure time in a more accommodating locale, but Giuliana takes walks through blighted land covered with black soot and sickly vegetation. The marshy wetlands give off noxious gases. A small group of equally wealthy friends congregates at a tiny shack on a fog-shrouded pier, choosing to lounge about on mattresses (and each other) and exchange spicy conversation about quail's eggs being an aphrodisiac, etc. There's no stability to be found there -- another husband talks openly about his extramarital affairs.
Red Desert's obvious distinguishing aspect is its famed color stylization. Antonioni approaches color in a painterly, classical manner, carefully modulating hues and complimentary contrasts for specific emotional effects. In this respect the film is often completely unrealistic. Antonioni, his cameraman Carlo Di Palma and his art director Piero Poletto paint entire streets in muted blue-grays, and cover the ground with inky tones of tar. The fruit on a vendor's cart appears to be painted to match the objects around it. Anyone who has ever been in a petroleum or chemical plant knows that every surface will be coated in grime, but Giuliana walks with ease among clean railings and brightly colored piping. Antonioni uses real locations as if they were stage scenery, customizing them for specific psychological effects.
Although the director claimed that many of his choices were intuitive, the film's themes beg to be decoded. Giuliana's temperament is incompatible with the futuristic power stations and earth-destroying industrial facilities. The materialistic lifestyle of her husband's associates also doesn't appeal -- she craves a sensual existence while they settle for trivial teasing. A technocrat in the making, Giuliana's son finds it easy to trick his mother into thinking he's paralyzed. By contrast, the boy's toy robot walks when it shouldn't walk; Giuliana must come in to 'put it to bed', as if it were the son's mechanical twin.
Giuliana seeks escape (all those big, intimidating boats) but is afraid to go it alone. Her infidelity and her suicide attempt are alternate forms of escape. Corrado is a momentary diversion, but he can offer Giuliana no real relief. Once again, the architectural landscape is used to make unsubtle thematic statements. Giuliana visits a striking array of radio telescopes, giant constructions stretching into the distance. Scientists are trying to listen to the stars, but men haven't yet learned how to communicate with each other.
Although the future is clearly destroying the natural environment, industry has its own beauty. The factory smokestacks belch colorful bursts of flame. Huge volumes of vented vapor billow from a gigantic building, white plumes of 'artificial fog' that contrast with the real fog that will later blanket the seashore. Unlike the man-made steam, the fog on the pier with the mystery boat is not under human control. Giuliana gets lost in it, and it may inspire her to do away with herself. Antonioni is not making a conventional ecological statement. We see no wildlife affected by the corrosive pools of chemical sludge -- it's just another photogenic post-industrial reality.
As in science fiction films, humanity is forced to adapt to the demands of technology, as seen in the group of Italian workers willing to leave their families to take jobs in a barren area of South America. Ugo and his friends barter for skilled workers as if they were livestock. Giuliana's neurosis seems rooted in her resistance to change: she doesn't want to become less emotional or less sensual. In her storybook vision she imagines a girl enjoying a colorful, pristine tropical lagoon. Like Giuliana, the girl in the story also cannot leave by boat, but she hears beautiful, soothing singing. The music emanates from the sea, the rocks -- from everything. Giuliana's post-industrial environment is the exact opposite of this vision of paradise, but it sings as well. Throughout Red Desert we hear the humming of machines and the droning of pipes pumping chemicals. The final scenes are dominated by strange electronic noises that resemble the electronic score for Forbidden Planet. Industrial man is replacing nature's harmonious singing with his own artificial music, and Giuliana will just have to live with it.
The only aspect of Red Desert we must adapt to is Richard Harris' subdued appearance and dubbed Italian voice. It's actually rather startling how quickly we accept his new identity. Ms. Vitti is the expressive center of the story and is in almost every scene. She does quite well with the mysterious Giuliana, whose inner confusion is never directly expressed in words.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Red Desert is an excellent opportunity to see Michelangelo Antonioni's much lauded color experiment in a reliably accurate transfer. The muted, arresting color schemes will be of great interest to viewers conversant with the intriguing theories of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, correlating specific emotional value to specific colors. At any rate, the visual control imposed on the film's look by Antonioni and cinematographer Di Palma is nothing short of masterful.
Criterion's disc producer Kim Hendrickson offers a short list of prime-source extras. The aristocratic Antonioni appears in a French interview, using charm and diplomacy to deflect requests to explain his movie. In her much newer interview Monica Vitti is as intent on reminiscing about her fond relationship with Antonioni as recounting what it was like to make films with him. She recalls how difficult it was for the director to raise the money for L'avventura when backers realized that the missing girl in that story would never be found.
The commentary by scholar David Forgacs delves into all aspects of Red Desert, from its odd title to myriad technical details. When Giuliana wanders down a marsh road, she passes a lonely house. Although it is seen only for a few seconds, Forgacs tells us that Antonioni had the entire house painted charcoal black.
Of special interest is the inclusion of director Antonioni's first two documentary films, made in the 1940s. Both Gente del Po and N.U. are handsome studies of Italians at work. The second film follows the daily routine of Rome's street cleaners, who go about their business around public monuments and sleep on benches during lunch breaks. The disc's fat insert booklet contains a useful essay by Mark Le Fanu, and Antonioni's own screening notes on these interesting short pictures. With their acute sense of locale, they directly inform the architectural context of the director's later feature films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Red Desert Blu-ray rates:
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