by Jenny Jones
L’Avventura is a masterful portrait of alienation that still feels fresh and unexpected over 50 years after its release.
Filmed in 1959 on location in Rome, Sicily, and the Aeolian islands, director Michelangelo Antonioni utilizes the sparsest of plots, making the title (translated as The Adventure) a bit of a joke. Several well-to-do friends take an excursion via yacht to swim and sun. They include troubled Anna (Lea Massari), her gorgeous friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), and her vapid fiancé Sandró (Gabriele Ferzetti). They dock at a rocky, remote, and nearly uninhabited island, where Anna and Sandro quarrel, ending with her expressing a desire to be alone. Most of the bourgeois group disperses to different parts of the island, boat, and sea. After some time elapses, the group looks for Anna, but in vain. She has disappeared.
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Producer: Amato Pennasilico
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni. Elio Bartolini, Tonino Guerra
Editor: Eraldo Da Roma
Cinematographer: Aldo Scavarda
Music: Giovanni Fusco
Cast: Gabriele Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari, Dominique Blanchar, Renzo Ricci, James Addams, Dorothy De Poliolo
Runtime: 143 minutes
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Premiere: May 15, 1960 Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: March 4, 1961
US Distributor: Janus Films, The Criterion Collection
And that, seemingly, is that. The rest of the film is spent with Claudia and Sandro searching for Anna. Has she drowned? Run off? Been abducted? The central mystery of the film, though, becomes secondary to both the characters and the audience. Claudia and Sandro quickly become attracted to each other and begin a relationship while continuing their half-hearted attempts to find Anna. Along the way, they see their bourgeois friends and attend their decadent parties in their vast houses. These people use sex as their nearly sole means of interaction: a weak grab for power; a method of revenge; and, ultimately, an attempt to stave off the emptiness of their morally bankrupt lives.
The minimal plot of L’Avventura takes a back seat to the mise en scene—it is the image that holds primacy here. Aldo Scavarda's exquisite black and white cinematography exudes a provocative moodiness that emphasizes the landscape over the actors, highlighting the distance between them. There are times when the camera roves, as if the ghost of Anna is haunting Claudia and Sandro, following their feeble attempts to find her. The sound design, which is mostly diegetic, is haunting too; the wind and the vast quiet of some scenes underscoring the characters’ loneliness and despair.
When L’Avventura opened at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, the audience booed, and Antonioni and Vitti famously fled the theater. But it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize, which recognized that it created a “new language of cinema.” (It only lost out on Cannes’ biggest prize to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, another Italian masterpiece which some consider the flip side to L’Avventura.) The remarkable Vitti, who had previously acted only in the theater, became an international star, and Antonioni a sensation. He went on to make two more films to form a trilogy of alienation and postwar existentialism (La Notte, 1961, and L'Eclisse, 1962).
Now considered a landmark of the new European art film movement, L’Avventura is a movie that made me love cinema. It’s certainly gorgeous, with its breathtaking cinematography, beautiful Italian language, and deliciously pouty Monica Vitti (an actress I could watch all day). But it’s Antonioni’s ability to so powerfully convey alienation—the emotional distance between people—via extreme subtlety, particularly in his groundbreaking use of negative space, that makes the film what it is: haunting. There is nothing in this that hits you over the head, but the film exudes a disquietude that gets in one’s bones and stays there for days. I initially viewed it in the first of many film classes in college, on Italian Neorealism. And Antonioni certainly owes a debt to his neorealist predecessors, directors such as Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rosselli, but takes their efforts to a dreamlike next step. It’s a film that, in my opinion, can’t be appreciated on DVD. It’s so subtle and languid that one might be tempted to take a break and pause it, but that would break its spell. It must to be seen in a theater and on the big screen to fully appreciate its glory, and the Trylon’s 35mm print (a new print struck by Janus in 2013) may be your only chance.