Some films deserve far more words than what I pour out here. Easy on the eye, but tougher on the soul, Michelangelo Antonioni’s beautifully absorbing L’Avventura effortlessly blends enticing scenery of varying scopes with genuine human restlessness and conundrums. The great beauty of 1960 among a flourishing excellence in a new dawn of cinematic history. It was, and still is, a great year for film. With strong competition, including Palme d’Or winner La Dolce Vita from Federico Fellini, L’Avventura was handed the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960 “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images”. This was after the showing of the film remarkably received boos from the audience – a pattern that is now quite familiar at the French festival.
With multiple viewings of L’Avventura the detective portion of your psyche may strive to find clues early on as to the whereabouts of Anna (Lea Massari) following her mysterious disappearance. Made all the more enigmatic by the fact that Antonioni writes and directs an immersing film journey that not only refuses to reveal what happened to Anna, but executes the story so the vanishing itself is almost brushed aside. At least, it is where the characters might be concerned, in particular Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), who, although makes some effort to seek out any information about where Anna may have gone, seems nonchalant. He too is somehow abandoned. An already somewhat agitated figure, working away and neglecting Anna, who was vocal about her worries for their relationship in the opening parts of the movie. In fact, No one appears to take Anna’s disappearance as seriously as her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). These characters are not essentially heartless or cruel, rather distracted and smitten by their own personal landscapes.
Setting the scene for the boating cruise on the marvelous Mediterranean onward to islands north of the delicious Sicily, the film plots itself amidst troubled waters, both actually and thematically. The humming of the boat, the swoosh of the sea, the blowing of the wind. There is limited, paced dialogue. We don’t always speak, we evolve through the silences too. We ponder, we linger, we wonder. Here, the characters and the audience do all of these. The loneliness of islands and the dangers of the water. Sometimes people don’t know what to say. Their predicaments and impulses are tough to put into rational words at times. Their actions are not far different.
Before the party unite, Claudia waits downstairs, as Anna and Sandro make love in his house. We can see Claudia far off outdoors through the window. Anna’s “whole shark thing was a lie” was purely to get Sandro’s attention – it seems she can truly express her isolation in the open, seclusion of the rocky island. Then she vanished without a trace. Later, but consciously not too much later, Sandro and Claudia’s first kiss is still in the midst of despair at Anna’s disappearance, but the setting is much more confined and private. It’s brief, but a forbidden, moment, they know it, and so do we. It is Claudia that remains the moral center of the story, torn between her feelings for Sandro and her friendship with Anna. Antonioni demonstrates that he does not require to give you an explanation as to how human affection can be carried in strange places. Another member of the group holds a negative opinion of her husband, Guilia’s infidelity much later is more blatant and admitting, and she does not care if he knows. Secondary characters, in passing moments, express a disdain for their own partner’s ogling of the opposite sex. That’s the way it is. Relationships have holes, people disappear – on many levels.
Antonioni lures us into the mystery and romance of L’Avventura however we scratch our heads or long to know more. The absence of Anna stays with you no matter which way the story-teller sways you. Claudia’s affair with Sandro is turbulent as it is compelling. Sandro shows a pure romance we do not witness so much with Anna, when Claudia boards a train to Palermo, and he runs after it to jump aboard. We assume they make love on the grass of a deserted village, but the scene is remembered for the train that dashes by. Towards the film’s close, Claudia and Sandro fret about their involvement, but when she accidentally tugs on a rope triggering church bells, she is delighted by the sounds, and the mood alters. Just like that. When Claudia discovers Sandro having sex with another woman the human emotions spill to the surface. The final sequence, a poignant one in spite of what Antonioni puts us through, Claudia’s weeping pulls your heart, but so do the tears of Sandro. Her hesitant, reassuring hand on the back of his head is a gesture of compassion and comfort – perhaps the most intimate moment of the film – and again immaculately framed.
L’Avventura creates such simple intrigue you accept and recognize it as the norm. A steady, non distracting flow of tension – social, sexual, geographical. The picturesque cinematography is a work of art, framing the characters as beautifully as the vast landscapes. Countless frames here could be hung on any wall. The Italian scenery, the language, as well as innovative cinematic language, crystallize through the senses – brushing through you with the same compulsion to avoid as the invigoratingly heavy breeze that blows Monica Vitti’s golden hair all over. Her Claudia has natural, illuminating allure, where crowds of men turn to stone around her as she walks on by. And whether the film-maker intended it or not, we have a welcome array of shots from behind Vitti, often her contoured blonde hair and the flesh of her back. There is so much wonder and acceptance of curiosity here, there, and everywhere, a flow of genuine beauty and captivation. Each scene feeds the senses, while holding your longing, something Antonioni would navigate directly into the plot of his first English language picture Blowup several years later – which did win the Palme D’or. I watch L’Avventura again, over fifty years since its birth, and I know it will never get old.