L’Avventura (1960)

Michelangelo Antonioni | 2hr 25min

When young, affluent socialite Anna disappears on a boating holiday, little changes within her social circle. Her friend, Claudia, and lover, Sandro, wander the Sicilian coastline together, leisurely tracing any clues that might explain what happened, but this new gap that has opened up in their lives barely registers. The emptiness they feel has always been there; it is now just a little wider than before. They flirt and make love, trying to fill it in with something, anything. And yet everything they grasp at disintegrates in their fingers, leaving them nothing but a haunting, existential ennui through which they are paradoxically both isolated and unified. 
 
In L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni’s characteristic use of architecture extends beyond the angular, modernist structures of the 1960s, as the breath-taking Aeolian Islands rise up into the scenery to permeate the landscape with rocky outcrops and cliffs. The metaphor of individuals as lonely islands in an expansive sea isn’t easily lost in the unambiguous dialogue, but its true power lies in the crisp, greyscale imagery. Harsh blacks and whites are almost non-existent, as Antonioni opts for low contrast photography which matches shades so closely that the permanently overcast sky virtually blends in with the sea. 

An arresting greyscale palette in this harsh, coastal landscape.

When it comes to framing his affluent characters within these gorgeous compositions, his deep focus lens is the tool he returns to again and again, staggering bodies from the foreground to the background, turned in all different directions. For these men and women, merely the act of making eye contact requires mental effort. Instead, they are left to morosely wander through natural landforms and artificial structures, unable to find any connection to each other, let alone their lost friend. 

Disconnection through blocking. Staggered across layers of the image, and not a hint of eye contact.

At one point on their meaningless quest for answers, Claudia and Sandro venture to a church where ropes stretch across its rooftop balcony. With Anna no longer between them, the two are left to consider how their relationship may evolve from this point on, and upon this sacred ground the prospect of marriage is raised. It is an off-hand comment, thrown out with little thought, and the contemplation that follows only cheapens the spiritual union by appealing to it as nothing but a cure for their chronic loneliness. During this deliberation, Claudia leans on one of the ropes, and accidentally tolls a church bell. In response, church bells from across the city start chiming in response, and suddenly a wide, honest smile stretches across her face. Though it is brief and arbitrary, she rejoices in this connection, this small moment of belonging to the larger world holding more significance for her than any other relationship she has encountered. 
 
Like his Italian contemporaries, Antonioni firmly roots his style in the neorealism of the 1940s and 50s, shooting on location to ground his settings in a world he and his viewers are familiar with. The primary difference here is that Antonioni’s focus isn’t on the struggles of the downtrodden, or the heartbreaking impact of war and poverty. Rather the direct opposite, in fact, as Claudia, Sandro, and their friends lack any experience of earth-shattering events that might justify their constant state of discontent. For the Italian bourgeoisie who sit untouched above the rest of society, there is such a thin line between existence and non-existence that the disappearance of a friend barely registers. The only tangible truths out there are those huge, material constructions which tower over the city, like odes to the superfluity of human progress. 

Antonioni always believed that social problems should remain secondary to cinema itself, which would certainly earn him criticisms today of “style over substance”, if that accusation actually meant anything. The vapidity of his characters should certainly not be mistaken for a flat artistic vision, as L’Avventura poignantly expresses a broad dissatisfaction with society, modernity, and above all, the fact that one even feels dissatisfied in the first place.

An immaculate melding of both natural and artificial landforms in the final shot – lonely souls lost in a harsh, modern world. An all-time great ending.

L’Avventura is currently available to stream on Kanopy, Mubi Australia, and The Criterion Channel.

2 thoughts on “L’Avventura (1960)”

  1. Hi, Declan! Your review is fantastic, but I wanted to ask you what you think about the moments in which Antonioni exaggerates visual metaphors of disconnection. The second picture you have here, for example, shows a scene that approaches self-parody; everybody is facing a different direction and Sandro is in the background so obviously bored out of his mind. That’s why (and I think I’ve told you this before) I have issues with Red Desert.

    I must say, however, that even though I’ve seen a few of Antonioni’s films, I still need to do a proper study on him. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Pedro! I suppose that’s sort of the territory that comes with Antonioni, at least in those films of his I’ve seen. I think it is a tough tone he is trying to balance. It’s kind of like he’s being pulled in both directions of understating some moments to suggest that vague uncertainty, but then at other times he is really driving home how overpowering it all is. I don’t think it works so much when he puts the island metaphor in the dialogue, but when it’s done visually like in that image I admire the dedication to this all-encompassing feeling spreading across all the main characters, and I think it at least earns the moment. It may be one of the less subtle images of the film but still potent. I’m yet to see Red Desert but definitely keen to get to it after watching the alienation trilogy.

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