Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This review rewritten (and improved!)
for the 2014 Blu-ray
There are Art movies and there are Art movies, and L'avventura is Art with a capital A.
Beautifully made in all departments, it's one of the Auteurist Italian classics that can hold its
head high ... this is no sexy, commercial romp using its status as 'Art' to intimidate audiences.
L'avventura is worthy of the title classic. But it's not an easy read, and although
easy to watch, it will probably bore or frustrate anything resembling a 'standard' audience. And
that's just fine.
Claudia (Monica Vitti) is invited on a posh cruise by her friend Anna (Lea Massari), who is unhappy with
her boyfriend Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti, of Once Upon a Time in the West). While
casually spending an afternoon on a rocky island,
Anna simply disappears, cueing a fruitless search. The rest of the wealthy boat-guests get back
to visiting one another in villas or on the hotel circuit, while Sandro and Claudia keep trying to locate
Anna on the mainland - and fall into a complicated, guilty affair at the same time.
Michaelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, Red Desert) is an easy target for film reactionaries.
It's his films
that are criticized as being about people standing around doing nothing ... he's the artist whose
movies are compared with 'watching paint dry.' In film school, there were some pictures that just
seemed to be too much damn work to even approach, let alone appreciate or enjoy. Last
Year at Marienbad, because I wasn't ready to commit hours of research into Resnais, remains a
puzzle for which Savant's honest reaction is, 'Wha?' And I like to think of myself as open to
On this new Criterion DVD, I had no trouble whatsoever with L'avventura The 'it just
happens' approach to plotting, with events and character reactions being frustratingly arbitrary,
no longer was a bother. After years of movies with tight little stories for empty little minds,
the freedom of L'avventura's lack of imposed structure on its events is refreshing.
Like Psycho and The Seventh Victim, L'avventura involves a missing woman.
But it refuses to become a thriller. The petulant Anna is here one
moment, and gone the next, and the mystery is both unexplainable - and infinitely explainable.
The film doesn't pretend to 'get inside' the characters, who are all blends of readable and unreadable
reactions and behaviors. Several could be quiet, conscience-free killers - but probably not.
There are loose ends that lead nowhere - the hermit on the island, the boatmen who may be hiding
something more than their smuggling. There's even a boat seen cruising in the distance, about the time Anna is
noticed missing. Perhaps Anna just took off, out of shallow pique, and is staying with other
friends elsewhere. Ever lost a dog or cat, and wondered how it could have disappeared into thin
air? Anna could be under a rock five feet away, or, as we naturally suspect, following her searchers as they check
from town to town.
L'avventura seemed more accessible this time around because there wasn't the nagging
necessity of saying something 'meaningful' about it, that ruined most of my film-school writing.
The script is often not quite so mysterious. As a rumination on relationships, it uses the
disappearance to upset the applecart of a few lives ... and, lo and behold, once the novelty of her
disappearance has passed, we find out that everyone's favorite woman is hardly missed. Alfred
Hitchcock must have bounced off of L'avventura hard, as it obviously influenced him for his
The Birds. A mysterious unresolved tale of really unexplainable events should be
even a bigger 'art' success, right?
One standout scene, where Sandro follows a reporter as he covers a starlet's publicity stunt,
provided the key for Savant. The woman is the exact opposite of 'missing', throwing herself into
a fake situation calculated to attract the attention of huge numbers of men. Her cheap trick of
tearing her dress is like the lie Anna tells about the shark: Anna wants to shake things up, wants to
feel needed and essential and irreplaceable, needs that the amorous but aloof Sandro doesn't fulfill.
Tonino Guerra's script is structured as a collection of similarly orchestrated bad relationships.
From the indolent Patrizia's (Esmeralda Ruspoli) heartless handling of her gigolo, to the
unhappy wife of the pharmacist, nobody seems able to comfortably relate to their chosen
companions. At first we feel sorry for the browbeaten Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), until we
see her selfishness and wanton ugliness, grandstanding her surrender to a young artist, using
Claudia as an audience.
Under the circumstances, the chemistry between Claudia and Sandro is almost a nuisance. The
hesitancy and pain of their 'fling' (apparently a second Italian definition of 'Avventura') comes
not just because the 'ghost' of Anna is always there to remind them of their unfaithfulness to her,
but because neither has much faith in their future. This same situation that added another
sickly dimension the The Seventh Victim. Yet there are no emotional
scenes in L'avventura of the lovers lamenting the fact that they're searching for the one woman who can spoil their
new love. It's as if they've lost belief in such things, as if sophistication has killed
their ability to stand behind their own emotions.
A master of using film space, Antonioni's naturalistic compositions are very carefully worked out to
enforce a feeling of individual isolation, no matter what the situation. People roam a rocky hilltop,
with distance and rough terrain separating them, or swim in a sea that might swallow them up at any
moment. No sharks, perhaps, but silvery dolphins, yes. The mood of the characters changes
depending on whether they're supported by 'traditional' architecture or oppressed by a blank and
empty prefab town on a high ridge. Sandro 'manages' women but can't
relate to them ... he relates better to architecture, and when feeling vulnerable, is capable of
meaningless acts of aggression, as shown in the bit where he jealously provokes a fight with a
younger architecture-lover, big old dog vs. younger upstart.
The gorgeous visuals of Claudia rolling
in ecstasy show her happy in romance and fixated on Sandro, who she obviously distrusts just the same.
Yet the ecstasy is contained within her, merely enjoyed by Sandro instead of being shared.
For Sandro every woman seems to be a fling, some more serious than others, but no woman is more
important than his self-image as a ladykiller. Men, after all, are those threatening aggressive
faces that suddenly multiply on the street (almost like crows in The Birds), putting the
powerless Claudia in a situation that inverts the starlet's earlier control of the crowd of hopped-up fans.
Yes, the movie does end with the characters settling into a stasis-composition, he in tears, she
compassionate to the man who's wronged her, before a background that's half ancient building, and half
distant, snow-covered mountains. It's a slow ending, and can be interpreted to one's wit's end,
with the snow representing the coldness between the characters, blah blah. Or, if you just
watch the movie and don't worry about critical analysis, you can feel these same ideas, your
mind interpreting them for you.
Criterion's DVD of L'avventura is a thing of beauty, as can be seen from the before & after
restoration demo. Those shimmering images (great on a widescreen TV) look so much better freed
from a storm of flaky dirt. A second disc contains a long and interesting docu on Antonioni from
really serious film enthusiasts have an extra reason to be attracted to the disc. The commentary
by Gene Youngblood, an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and Antonioni's own statements on the film
are also included. Youngblood's critical-studies analysis of the film is authoritative, and
as appropriately esoteric as film criticism gets. Janus films' original 1961 American trailer
shamelessly uses every moment of exploitable activity to make the movie look like an uninhibited
romp of decadent Italians, a la La dolce vita.
Reacting to L'avventura in itself was enough for Savant. ... It's stylized in a way
separate from Hollywood films yet its images communicate better than a literary script.
It's a discriminating movie, but its joys are the same as any other film. Monica Vitti
is a very likeable and very 'alive' presence on-screen, and I'm sure I'll watch it again soon just
to enjoy being with her some more.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: 2 discs, documentary Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, Audio
commentary with Gene Youngblood, Jack Nicholson's personal recollections of the director,
Nicholson reading some writings by Antonioni, trailer, restoration demonstration.
Packaging: Double keep case
Reviewed: June 7, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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