Michelangelo Antonioni’s enigmatic and brilliant L’Avventura is one of the benchmarks for international art cinema, a somewhat disputable designation that was, nevertheless, very much in vogue at the time of its release. Take the 1960 Cannes Film Festival for example, where L’Avventura debuted to one of the event’s most divisive responses, with initially more boos than cheers greeting this affront to conventional film narrative and form. Yet, this was also the year of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (the Palme d’Or winner), Chukhray’s Ballad of a Soldier, Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, Kalatozov’s Letter Never Sent, and Buñuel’s The Young One, to name just a few of the other titles at the festival, where, ultimately, L’Avventura came away with the Jury Prize (shared with Ichikawa’s Odd Obsession). With this impressive company to give Antonioni’s film competition, how does one explain L’Avventura’s standing, then as one of the most controversial releases of the year and now as one of the pinnacle achievements in film history, by one of cinema’s greatest masters?
To start with, there is the story, which begins as a group of upper class, self-centered northern Italians visit an island. There, without any rhyme or reason, one of the women, Anna (Lea Massari), seemingly the main character, disappears. A search ensues but this proves to be unproductive and the investigation continues back on the mainland. But as the film progresses, the search for Anna becomes secondary, if not totally unimportant. This as opposed to the relationship that develops between her lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). In what would become familiar Antonioni fashion, the film ends ambiguously, without a clear conclusion in the search for Anna nor a definite establishment of Sandro and Claudia’s union.
This superficial account, however, overlooks the film’s vagaries, which can simultaneously frustrate an audience’s identification with the characters while also developing these same people into some very complex individuals. We know, for example, that Anna’s father disapproves of her relationship with Sandro, but other points of tension are left unspoken or unexplained. There is a generally glacial pace to get to the disappearance of Anna, with inane dialogue and various digressions along the way, and yet, when the moment of drama comes, it is rather fleeting, it soon subsides, and the characters move on with only intermittent and essentially unrelated conflicts. Those shown in the film are frequently cold and distanced from one another as well. When there is some passionate spontaneity, as often as not it is born from carelessness or a momentary selfish desire. As Anna’s friends and family debate her disappearance—a criminal act, an accident, suicide?—their attention is easily diverted, even by something as irrelevant as an ancient vase found amongst the rocks or as frivolous as yet another sexual tryst.
Within about 24 hours of the mysterious tragedy, the bond between Sandro and Claudia matures. Within about three days, though the search is still on, it is generally overshadowed by this new primary couple. By the end of the film, Claudia admits she doesn’t even want Anna to be alive, so that she and Sandro may live happily ever after (it’s soon shown that this fantasy isn’t very likely). Through it all, inquires about Anna don’t necessarily stop, and Claudia and Sandro do follow up most leads as they receive them, but this motivation is basically driven by a need to have some purpose, some reason to do something. Anna remains on their mind, but they are equally preoccupied with unproductive indecisiveness and detours that lead nowhere: anything to prolong an inevitable outcome or resolution.
The reoccurrence of unrelated deviations goes beyond the characters; a reluctance to reach a conclusion is at the heart of the film itself. There is frequent discussion in the picture about needing things to be clear and obvious, for actions and behavior to have a degree of certainty, but for Antonioni, this is not at all a principal concern. People will act impulsively, often without any definitive incentive, and we’re left to wonder, sometimes with the other characters, why they do what they do. Upon receiving Anna’s Bible, for instance, her father asserts she must not have committed suicide—how could someone religious do that?—but this is a false assumption, one that naively presumes life to have explainable rationale.
Further, L’Avventura is where we see the most overt early example of Antonioni’s use of location as a metaphoric and metonymic device. There are often-cited examples of how Antonioni presents running themes through careful framing and character juxtaposition, both in regards to setting. In his commentary track, Gene Youngblood points to the opening scene where Anna and her father discuss her relationship with Sandro, her intentions, and where they both may be heading in life. Behind the two, as this conversation goes on, we see at once older structures as well as the construction of new, modern high-rise apartments. The conflict of the old giving way to the new, of modernity overcoming the more rigorous and aged, is not only in the discussion between the father and daughter but is shown in their knowing placement in the midst of this construction.
Then there is the yacht ride to Lisca Bianca, setting up the conflicts amongst the various other, rather extraneous characters of the film. As they approach the uninhabited island, we begin to see it in the distance growing in stature and expansiveness. Antonioni stages the frivolous and egocentric bits of dialogue against the backdrop of an island and the association is explicit. Whether or not the characters are truly affected by what will take place there, the fact that it occurs on an island brings into focus the connection between this isolated and inhospitable solitary land mass and these characters so self-absorbed, so surrounded and yet so alone.
Similarly, the last image of the film has Sandro on a bench and Claudia standing by his side. This much is situated on the left half of the frame while a large wall takes up the entirety of the right. For this couple, now with issues of their own, their surroundings are closing in. Like the fog in Antonioni’s earlier Il Grido (1952) and later Identification of a Woman (1982), where the environment limits the vision of the characters and forces them to address more immediate and localized concerns, here Sandro and Claudia have to face themselves, to face the present, and to decide the best course of action for their uncertain yet increasingly moribund future together.
Throughout L’Avventura, Antonioni’s audacious camera placements (like this divided final composition) cut off or conceal part of the setting, obscure part of a body or a face, or deny the audience the object of a character’s attention. This sort of visual strategy likewise reflects the film’s narrative refusal to be complicit in conventional forms. And as the characters roam in and around various places, Antonioni’s acute attention to detail puts forth so much in the interior spaces as well as the exterior locales that one contemplates without any clarification their presumed, but by no means obvious, significance. The newly released Criterion Blu-ray of the film, which looks spectacular, allows for exceptional focus on just this sort of pictorial devotion, highlighting much of the film’s visual density.
This disc also contains the original English-language trailer for the film, an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, a copy of what Antonioni had to say about the film during its Cannes premiere, two essays by Antonioni, read by Jack Nicholson, star of the director’s extremely underrated The Passenger (1975), and Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, a documentary that covers his life and work. Youngblood’s commentary is a thorough analysis of this controversial picture, with much indeed in it to analyze; and that there is still yet more to say about the film is evinced by Olivier Assayas’ readings and examinations of various aspects of the movie, from style to character interaction.
Following L’Avventura, Antonioni’s next film in what would come to be considered a trilogy of sorts was La Notte in 1961, with L’Eclisse following in 1962. While these films revisit a number of the same themes and aesthetic designs that would be crucial to Antonioni’s work throughout his career, it is with L’Avventura that one truly gets the sense of ground being broken. That’s not to say it is the best film he ever directed (though I would argue it is), but this is the film of his that most clearly worked to usher in a new form of cinema, from which there was no turning back.