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When Michaelangelo Antonioni showed "L'Avventura" at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival it received wildly mixed reviews. The festival crowd thought it too slow with no point, while fellow filmmakers and critics thought it offered a new cinematic language and subject matter to the film world. Consequently, it won an award for originality and within a few years it was honored as one of the top ten films ever made.
The story ostensibly is about the disappearance of a young woman but where most films would try and explore the mystery of the disappearance "L'Avventura" deals with the effect it has on the other characters.
Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) is engaged to Anna (Lea Massari), who, while they are visiting an island disappears. Her disappearance leaves opens many questions: did she run away on a boat, did she fall off a cliff into the ocean, is she hiding or was she kidnapped? Sandro and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) stay on the island looking and then – back on the mainland – go in search of clues they find about Anna's whereabouts. Along the way Sandro and Claudia fall in love and they eventually abandon the search. But Anna, who they believe is still alive, haunts their relationship.
As in many of Antonioni's films the plot is not as important as the character development and the development is primarily internal rather than external. Due to this it often appears as if nothing is happening. The characters communicate a little then drift along from one boring social function to another. Antonioni's main message is that each of these people is spiritually empty. They are bored with their petty lives and their only escape is through trivial sexual activity, but even that isn't enough.
Antonioni started in Italian neorealism, which emphasized the life of lower and working class Italians in realistic settings. With "L'Avventura" he moved into a sort of neo-interior realism, where he was more interested in the melancholic inner feelings and the spiritual malaise of the upper classes.
Antonioni shows us the ennui that the characters are feeling by slowing down the pace through editing and shot selection and in this way he lets us feel the time passing. He uses architectural space to show the spiritual emptiness of the characters and he puts in subtle visual representations to comment on their lives.
The film is presented in the Aspect ratio of 1.77 to 1 and it looks very good. It was transferred from a 35mm fine grain master positive and Criterion used an MTI Digital Restoration system to clean up thousands of pieces of dirt, debris and scratches. The black & white contrast mainly emphasizes gray tones and, in fact, looks a little better if you set the contrast and the brightness on your TV down a bit so the image isn't so bright. It's also recommended that you turn all the lights off in the room while watching to get optimal effect.For a good example of just how good looking the cinematography by Aldo Scavardi is on this DVD check out Chapter 5 when the characters are sailing to the island and Chapter 12 in which every single shot is a masterpiece of composition.
The only problem with the image is that it occasionally shows some compression artifact especially with white surfaces on black. In particular in Chapter 25 and 26 when Vitti wears a black dress with white polka dots the dress shimmers so much it's as if it's going to leap off of her. There is also a bit of artifact in some of the shots of the sky and in one brief shot of some Venetian blinds the image shimmers fiercely. Still, the DVD transfer is a better looking print than anything that was previously available in VHS. The film also offers white subtitles, which can be removed should you learn Italian.
The sound was mastered from a 35mm optical soundtrack and it is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. There are some cracking and hissing on the track and the sound on your TV needs to be turned up a bit but otherwise the sound is warmer than most DVD transfers from films made in the early 1960's. Obviously, since the film was made well before Dolby sound it's as good as it is expected to be. Also as seems usual with DVD's of older films the audio is better on the audio commentary track than the normal sound track.
Criterion presents "L'Avventura" as a two disc set. On the first disc is the movie and a commentary track. The commentary track -- done by UCLA film professor Gene Youngblood -- was done back in 1989 for the Criterion laser disc but since nothing new has been added to the film it loses none of its effectiveness. Youngblood's commentary is highly informed and really helps us see the film in a different way. He clearly explains how Antonioni's editing and shot selection help develop a new visual language. Sometimes he uses some film theory lingo (he refers to Antonioni's shot selection as being 'metanymic' rather than symbolic) but never so much that the commentary becomes too academic. Youngblood's delivery is simultaneously insouciant and enthusiastic. It's as if he is commenting on the film for the 100th time yet he clearly loves to talk about it. There also is a menu for the commentary track.
Disc two features a documentary, writings by Antonioni, the original theatrical trailer and a restoration demonstration.
The documentary "Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials" by Gianfranco Mingozzi was made in 1966 and is 58 minutes in length. It includes interviews with many people who had worked with Antonioni up to that time. Shot in black and white the documentary has not been restored so there are many bad scratches throughout the print. But since most of it was shot in grainy hand held 16mm and 8mm there isn't much they could do to improve the look. Still, this is the best documentary available on Antonioni. It also includes an interesting three-minute scene that Antonioni pulled from the final print of "L'Avventura".
There is a 21-minute excerpt reading by Jack Nicholson – who worked with Antonioni on "The Passenger" – on the writings of Antonioni about the film. Nicholson's husky voice seems almost antithetical to Antonioni's world but, if anything, it is an entertaining addition to the disc. There is also a five-minute restoration demonstration, which shows a good before-and-after example on a few of the clips that had major dust. There is also a vintage trailer, which looks good but hasn't been restored.
The DVD box contains a reprint of Antonioni's statements about "L'Avventura", circulated after the film's premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. Part of it is actually the same text that Nicholson reads but translated a little differently. There is also a good essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith who wrote a book on the film. The film is 145 minutes long and there are 35 chapters.
This is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in the history of film and particularly in anyone who is interested in the importance of Antonioni's contribution to the art of cinema. Criterion has done a fine job in presenting the it all in two discs for viewers to enjoy. Best of all there is enough on the disc to please any ardent fan as well as recruit new ones.