The title of Michelangelo Antonioni's breakthrough feature, L'Avventura, translates to "The Adventure," an ironic header for a film in which practically nothing of consequence happens. When something does, it disappears quickly into the morass of ennui that rolls off the characters as if perspiration. Even the rollicking Italian music that opens the film misleads the audience, who initially reacted at Cannes with such fervent boos that the film's eventual Jury Prize win must have raised a few fists, much less eyebrows.
With time, however, Antonioni's film, the first in a trilogy concerning man's alienation in a changing world, has asserted itself among the vanguard of foreign cinema, a touchstone of the art house movement that blossomed in America during the '60s (Europe was, of course, ahead of the curve). More importantly, it introduced one of the great poets of modern cinema, a man who, in advance of the full explosion of the French New Wave, could visualize existentialism better than any of the Cahiers lads.
In fact, no other filmmaker so deserves the adjective "modern" attached to his name. Until his output slowed to a crawl after 1975's The Passenger, Antonioni captured the changing world with a keenly perceptive and greatly concerned eye, a master of detail whose precision allowed for a sense of grace and ambiguity. L'Avventura, like some of the other great, visually told works of the '60s -- 2001: A Space Odyssey, Playtime -- deals with modernity and changing social interaction. Where both Kubrick and Tati in at least some respects feared this change, however, Antonioni embraces the modern world. What he feared was humanity's separation from the world it had made.
Consider the environment of L'Avventura: far from the space stations and geometrically pure buildings of those other films, Antonioni's work showcases the Old World, from rocky Mediterranean islets formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago to centuries-old classical Sicilian architecture. This is not a world suddenly foisted upon an unsuspecting species, yet the characters who inhabit it are just as shiftless and alienated as those who bumble about Tati's sleek, right-angled Paris. As becomes clear in the director's later films, humanity has outgrown its past but has not yet embraced its future, thus trapping mankind in a nebulous limbo that prevents meaningful emotional connection.
That lack of resonant emotion informs the sparsity of the plot. Two friends, Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), embark on a yacht trip with two wealthy couples and Anna's lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Upon reaching a rocky island a few miles offshore, everyone falls asleep sunbathing, only to find Anna missing. She is never found. In any other film, that might be a spoiler.
But the point of L'Avventura is not the search for a missing friend. Moments such as Anna's disappearance, in which something actually happens, mark the only time the film ever moves quickly; elsewhere, the film plays out arduously, inching forward to capture nothing while that worth capturing happens just outside these people's field of view. Unlike other films with protracted, loose narratives, the bare plot of L'Avventura appears to be the result of the collective disinterest of its characters, too absorbed in their own ennui to give a damn about contributing to a story.
Such aimless egoism informs the mise-en-scène as well. Unlike those aforementioned visual epics, the equally pristine film here is bite-sized; even when characters venture onto the Mediterranean Sea, the frame is restrictive and cramped. Lisca Bianca, the nearly unpopulated island, is photographed in more severe a manner than Ingmar Bergman's desolate Fåro, its craggy landscape communicating the jagged, stony emotional state of the wealthy young group who vacation there.
Their initial reaction to Anna's disappearance is annoyance, which only develops into concern later. Not that the two feelings look all that different in their faces; these characters default to boredom, and their wealth, proof of Italy's recovery in the aftermath of their defeat in World War II, becomes not a means to show the country's progression away from its fascist turmoil to a cooperative and prosperous place but merely a blanket with which to cover their despair. They sail, suntan, screw and preen with perfunctory automation, distracting themselves from their mounting dissatisfaction. When Claudia and Anna go to pick up Sandro at the beginning, the two lovers have sex while Claudia stands outside, impatient. Far from consumed by passion, however, the couple just seems to want a kick to start the day, as if imbibing a much more fun kind of coffee. Later, when Claudia and Sandro return from the island sans Anna, they strike up a relationship mere days after their friend goes missing, and the two begin flirting before they even leave the island.
Claudia and Sandro's relationship does not seem so much an outgrowth of animosity for Anna -- though Claudia does struggle with feelings of budding happiness that her friend is gone, and guilt for those feelings -- but a demonstration of the existential quandary in which humanity has found itself. It no longer matters who we interact with, only that the interactions continue uninterrupted. Without constant repetition of , these people have nothing tangible to cling to, so they place Anna out of mind and gently rearrange people to fill the gaps. Gloria, a writer friend, comes to visit after the characters return to the mainland, and her beauty attracts the attention of every man in a three-mile radius. Yet Gloria, married and not exactly fond of all the ogling, mentions how much work it is to maintain herself, even if she cannot say why she still bothers to work for the leers she does not want. At some point, the difficulty of keeping up with the standard of beauty simply became a part of life, and she cannot break from it, so she continues to act in such a manner because she feels that the universe itself expects it from her. Even Anna's father, a diplomat who ostentatiously rushes out to Lisca Bianca in a catamaran, appears concerned and angry mostly because he understands that a person in his position should act that way.
Shooting this meandering journey of doubt and buried loathing, Antonioni gives form and beauty to what could easily be dismissed as plodding nonsense. Indeed, L'Avventura moves so slowly in places that one cannot counter the argument that the director has no direction with a mere, "That's the point." But the precision of the camera movement belies any claim that Antonioni is futzing about. With the characters unable to even pinpoint their unease, much less confront it, Antonioni communicates emotion as much through blocking as the actors do with their body language. On the island, he separates the characters with extreme space, capturing the mise-en-scène with deep focus yet presenting nothing for the audience to fixate upon. Characters rarely face each other, all of them instead facing forward and speaking as if into the void, arranged in a way as to be off-center without quite aligning to the rule of thirds. The result burrows into your subconscious, communicating underlying tension without resorting to anything other than clever placement. Even the sound design is nuanced, emphasizing the crush of waves against rock faces and footfalls echoing around vast hallways of old Italian buildings now cordoned off as museums, effectively barricading mankind from taking shelter in its past.
That subtlety of direction is matched by Viiti's performance. Antonioni loved female protagonists, believing women to internalize torment more impassively than men, perhaps because society oppressed them for so many centuries that such behavior became ingrained even in progressive types. Claudia occasionally sheds some tears, occasionally looks as if she might lose it, but her madness is not so kind. It will not allow her to vent. Only the hesitation in her voice and the uncertainty of her movement betray the emotions boiling within.
Antonioni refuses even to allow those emotions to flood to the surface, however, even in the quietly horrific finale, which mounts pressure as soon as a stunned and unsure Claudia does not respond to Sandro's marriage proposal seriously. the director begins to shift everyone else around her, surrounding the woman with men who come to resemble the avian foes of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, perched on ledges above and edging near her with predatory stalks. The night after the new couple sleeps in a fancy hotel, Claudia awakens to find her lover gone and hunts for him through the eerily spacious building before at last finding him with a call girl. Even when motivated to strong emotion at last, Claudia storms off lest someone see her break. As if to prove Antonioni's point about the heightened emotional subtlety of women, Sandro completely loses it in shame, unable to look at Claudia or even the prostitute, who tantalizingly asks him for a "souvenir" (the Italian word also translates to "memory"), causing Sandro to harshly throw down a few Lira.
L'Avventura culminates in its most hauntingly beautiful scene, a wordless non-denouement as Sandro catches up to Claudia, only to drain whatever else is left in him as he slumps into a park bench and somehow summons even more tears. Without any exchange of apologies or verbal resolution, Claudia merely stands over the wretched man, eventually reaching out to place her hand on his head. Having reversed from the front to see this action, Antonioni then pulls back to show the characters now facing away from the camera, now too self-absorbed and broken to even look in our direction. Yet the true power of the shot lies in its suggestive framing: to Sandro's right is a giant wall, blank but for the roughness of its texture. To the left, enveloping Claudia, is a shot of Mount Etna in the distance, swirling as if ready to blow. It doesn't, and neither does she, but dark times are clearly ahead for these two, even with their halting reconciliation.
Antonioni made L'Avventura in a time when artistic movements favored detachment, from the beatniks to the cool jazz they loved. There are good aspects to these styles, of course, such as free jazz's adventurous break from rhythmic forms; hell, detachment informs a great deal of the aesthetic of this film. But Antonioni does not want us to stand so far outside art that we no longer truly care for it. When Claudia walks through an art gallery at the beginning, she walks past some snooty appraisers who take a small glance at a painting and say of its artist, "This one has to starve for a while yet." These bourgeois fools care nothing for the content, merely expecting the artist to destroy himself so that some emotion be placed on the canvas, emotion the appraisers then never have to feel for themselves. Later, however, Antonioni shows us an artist, an aloof egomaniac who dismisses the gorgeous models who pose for him as a "dime a dozen" and puts little effort into his work (this idea would be revisited in more detail with the director's English-language debut, Blowup). When people are in their most desperate need for the guiding light of art to show them the beauty and worthiness of the world, the supposed anti-Establishment types are revealed to be no more alienated than anyone else, and that their detachment only separates them from self-knowledge.
The environments of Michelangelo Antonioni's films do not engender madness in the characters who inhabit them; the locations merely facilitate the release of neurosis. "How are you?" Sandro asks Anna after their first coital session at the start. "Awful," she replies, yet when her lover asks her "Why?" she has no answer. With this direct confrontation, Anna cannot deny her anomie, and she writhes in agony on Sandro's bed as he tries to calm her. Anna understands, and so she disappears, perhaps taking her life in despair, perhaps simply escaping from her life to forge a new one with meaning. Before she slips out of the film, however, she becomes the clearest avatar of Antonioni's own intentions: to him, the changing world is filled with potential, but the state of mankind's spiritual existence is too terrifying to tolerate. It may be long, it may be slow, but L'Avventura is a cry from the heart, a plea for the audience to see how terrible, and unnecessarily so, we make our lives. An optimist might say that the director's eventual decline in output could signify that Antonioni saw humanity adapting to its new world, but the dark implication of L'Avventura suggests that people will always be able to create a new world before they will know how to live in it, and that by the time we adapt to the current model, the next shift is about to hit. Maybe Antonioni, incapacitated for years after a crippling stroke in 1985 after being fitfully active over the previous decade, simply grew tired of watching the world slip just out of the grasp of its creators.