For a film that, on the surface, appears to be held in such high regard, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) seems to have distanced itself from a number of its audience. While I often wish to adhere to the third person in criticism, this article cannot help but revert to a personal reception of the film and also refer to recent personal reflections shared online. After a recent rewatch of Antonioni’s film, I discussed it with several cineastes on social media. It appears that the film is far more divisive than I first believed though negative reaction appeared at first to be born more of ambivalence than of a stark dislike.
This message was reiterated and heightened the very next day when I started Geoff Dyer’s Zona, a book chronicling Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). As if in supreme irony, Dyer uses L’Avventura as the example of a typical, long-winded art film from Europe, going further than anyone I had spoken to in articulating his dislike of the film with such passion that it took me by surprise. This was especially so in the context of having watched the film the day before and being completely enamoured within its polished walls yet again (this viewing was my third). An interesting take indeed for a film that has consistently done well in Sight & Sound Polls and even made it into Scorsese’s Criterion top 10 this week. This article isn’t so much about it the film being underrated (it’s not) but more specifically how its thematic content can create a more distanced reaction to the film.
Dyer states that “L’Avventura is the nearest I have ever come to pure cinematic agony.” and then goes further to address its apparent skill in slowing down time to the point of discomfort; an irony in book that treats Tarkovsky as a religious entity (a notion I am also admittedly guilty of). It also suggested that cinematic discomfort was a negative occurrence and yet, when approaching most of Antonioni’s work, I rarely do so with intention of basking in some warm light or emotional blanket any more than I would when approaching films by Haneke, Tarr or von Trier.
This, I feel, is the crucial point in understanding both Antonioni as a director and L’Avventura as a cinematic experience of the purest kind. While its surface layer has that beautiful patina of wealth that a number of Italian films from the era have in vast quantities (alluring the viewer into a false sense of welcome), beneath this is something far more distanced, troubled and emotionally discontented. This can at first seem jarring for a number of reasons. Unlike Antonioni’s La Notte, the characters don’t appear to have a specific cause to their distanced nature (they’re distanced before the film’s main event has even occured). Though they are clearly as wealthy as the characters from any Antonioni film, they do not, for example, have that isolated creative distance that being set around a creative character has as in La Notte (1961) or Blow-Up (1966).
L’Avventura is more abstract than La Notte and as at least as surreal as Blow-Up though few would probably agree from a single viewing. It concerns the disappearance of an unhappy lover on a bourgeois island trip and the subsequent, ill-fated relationship between her best friend and the, potentially widowed, man. The first thing to note in this ambiguous narrative is that the disappearance is key to building some form of reading of the film’s extended running time. Everything that happens within the film outside of this one event happens because of it. Not only does it seem like some powerful deus ex machina suggesting the designed fate of our eventual two leads but it is also so shrouded in mystery that it hints of some darker forces at work.
This is typical of Antonioni’s style; to leave a gap considerable enough to fill with forebodings of all sorts of psychological problems. However, L’Avventura is a film about the fallout left by this gap rather than about the gap itself: perhaps one of the reasons why approaching it through the direct path isn’t always the best angle in understanding the film. This also links in to the film’s title which, for so long, has been a kind of battering ram by the film’s detractors (usually going something along the lines of “it’s a rather boring adventure isn’t it?”).
It is my firmly held belief that “The Adventure” that the title speaks of is not in fact what the film shows us but, quintessentially, is what happens off screen to Anna (Lia Massari) after she has disappeared. Anna has the adventure but the viewer (and also importantly the characters) simply don’t witness it. While this implies the knowledge of some theory as to how Anna, Agatha Christie- like, disappeared off the island, it is not for this essay. Suffice to say, like so much of Antonioni’s work, this is a metaphysical problem and one not simply resolved or finished by the director but by the viewer (Blow-Up being another great example).
Then, of course, there is Monica Vitti whose performance heightens the distance by switching between deep melancholia and the sprite-esque ecstasy at being in love. Her performance is not a warm one in spite of such smiles and graces but is one that is layered, adding to the distance of the film, at least the viewer not hypnotized by her the perfect mess of her endlessly lively hair. For L’Avventura alone she stands as one of the era’s best performers.
The presence of Vitti brings to mind a group of Italian films, all dealing with the upper and upper-middle classes and their gradual distance from reality and from each other. The previously mentioned La Notte instantly springs to mind. It’s a trend still happening today with the likes of Bertolucci’s Me and You (2012) and, more earnestly, in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013). Most would argue that this subset of Italian cinema is highlighted by Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and La Dolce Vita (1960) yet Antonioni addresses most of those film’s themes (bar the act of filmmaking itself in the former) with far more subtlety.
L’Avventura‘s distance from the audience is perhaps what made it so refreshing and so poignant, to the point of brutish nerve in attempting to challenge Citizen Kane (1941) for best film in Sight & Sound’s 1962 poll of greatest films ever made: coming a respectable 2nd a mere two years after its release (though to contextualise this poll, it was only the second of its kind). While this distance can alienate viewers to a certain extent, it is this feeling of a hand pushing at my chest, warning to stay away that keeps me pushing forwards towards L’Avventura like a moth desperate to feel the heat of a beautiful, Italian flame.