Sunday 3 August 2008

L'Avventura (1960)

One way to purge my soul after the torture of watching Satan's Storybook, surely one of the worst movies ever made, would be to watch a classic, one that I have never seen before, but which has become world renowned and often referenced. L'Avventura or The Adventure is a Michelangelo Antonioni film, which became the first part of a thematic trilogy, to be followed by La Notte and L'Eclisse. It won a special jury award at Cannes in 1960 'for a new movie language and the beauty of its images', and that's hardly surprising given how beautiful this film looks.

There are three leads: one male, two female. Anna is engaged to Sandro, but she hasn't seen him in a month and while he has missed her she's got used to being without him. To reunite, they plan a four or five day Mediterranean cruise together, and Anna takes along a friend called Claudia. How good a friend we don't know, given that Anna is temperamental and contrary and prone to doing things that she knows will have resonance. When the young ladies travel to meet Sandro, Anna tries to avoid him entirely but when he sees her, she heads upstairs and makes love to him while Claudia waits below unaware of any delay.

There are others with them too on the boat, but they only matter because they don't matter. They're associates, who flit in and out of their live as part of the same social set but are really completely peripheral. This becomes very obvious when Anna disappears. They've dropped anchor at a huge rock in the Mediterranean called Basiluzzo, because Anna chose to dive into the sea to swim, but Anna vanishes from the rock apparently without a trace. She continually tells Sandro of her need to be alone, but nobody expected her to be so literal about it.

The film is a mystery in a lot of ways. Partly it's a mystery in genre, as Sandro and Claudia try to track down what could have happened to Anna, but it's not an easy task as they aren't even given a trail to follow, merely a few bad suggestions as to leads. It's even more of a mystery to the viewers than to the characters, as we try to unravel what happened while juggling the various motives of the various people we watch. Is this an accident, a suicide, a murder? Who, what, when, where, how? In many ways these questions, the ones we ask ourselves, aren't really the important ones.

How the characters deal with Anna's disappearance is what matters here, and is far more important than than the disappearance itself. As they investigate, Sandro and Claudia fall in love themselves, which leads us to draw whole new conclusions about what may really have happened. It's also a mystery as to when it will even end; like Hitchcock's Vertigo, we have no real idea whereabouts in the film we are at any point in time. Maybe we're about to finish, maybe we're about to hit a plot twist and go off in a completely new direction for another hour. Whatever it is, it's certainly happy for us to make up our own minds and it's easy to see a whole bunch of starting points for discussions.

The film is constructed beautifully. Every scene is setup like a painting with immaculate composition, even when there are many, many people in the frame, making this one of those films that would literally lose much of itself if in a fullscreen 4:3 version. There are some magical scenes, such as the one in the bell tower or the one where Claudia waits outside a building for Sandro, only to become the target of the eyes of many men everywhere within the city square. Huge hotels resonate with crowds of people only to echo with emptiness a few hours later when everyone is asleep. What makes it most surreal is that it's crowded at night but empty when daylight appears.

There's so much emptiness here, whether it be on a remote rock in the Mediterranean, what appears to be a ghost town or just occupied space temporarily unoccupied because of the time of day. It's also there in the sparse soundtrack, the many scenes that have no dialogue and in the characters of the people we watch. One other question we come to ask ourselves is whether we should even care about these people or not, and if so which ones? It's a very clever film and I'm sure one that would grow with repeated viewings. No wonder it tends to be regarded as a masterpiece.

While it would have looked good and resonated with anyone in the cast, it's enhanced to no end by three very powerful lead performances and a number of supporting roles. Sandro is played by Gabriele Ferzetti, who I didn't recognise, though it seems that I've seen him before as Morton the railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West and as major supporting roles in The Night Porter and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which being the Bond with George Lazenby, I don't know too well at all. He has a long career, dating back to 1942 and he's still going strong today.

Anna is Lea Massari, who I may only recognise from Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart and given how great she is in that film and this, only two movies from her career is far too few. Best of the three to my eyes was Monica Vitti who reminds of a continental Ellen Barkin. She is awesomely deep here and carries much of the acting. She returned for the other films in Antonioni's thematically connected Incommunicability Trilogy, as it has become known to critics. These look to be what established her as an actress, and she'd go on to appear in six of Antonioni's films, along with many Italian comedies. I believe I've only seen her once, as the title character in Modesty Blaise, but even more so than Massari I need to seek out more of her work. At least I have one more on my DVR lined up as the Sundance Channel followed this one up with L'Eclisse.

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