Some films that are labeled classics, or great films, are not even good films. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless immediately comes to mind. Others, like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, whose title literally means The Adventure, as well as Italian slang for a one night stand, are not necessarily bad, but still only interesting failures, and not worthy of their reputation. L’Avventura was the first in a trilogy of black and white widescreen films Antonioni would make about alienation and personal anomy. The making of such trilogies was the rage at the time in European cinema, and, to an extent, still is. The trilogy was rounded out by La Notte and L'Eclisse in the two following years. When L’Avventura was released in 1960, it was greeted with catcalls at its world premiere, but won a Special Jury Prize at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, and film critics championed it around the world. A few years later, one poll of critics listed it as the third greatest film of all time, after Citizen Kane and Battleship Potemkin. It now comes nowhere near Top Twenty lists. Both L’Avventura and Breathless were part of a claimed European revolution in film, where symbolism came to its apogee, and also included Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8½, and the rest of the French New Wave. The reality of the film lies somewhere between the extremes. L’Avventura is a film that attempts much, but, after its interesting first third, it totally unravels with bad characterization, and narrative anomy, which is the fault of its three screenwriters, Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra.
It follows a group of rich hedonists who are frolicking in the Mediterranean, off of Sicily, in the Aeolian Sea. The three main characters are Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), a playboy architect, his frigid and scheming fiancée Anna (Lea Massari), and Anna’s best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), the archetypal gorgeous brunet and gorgeous blond. They sail to a deserted island, Lisca Bianca, and during the course of their adventure, Anna simply disappears. Before she does, we have seen that she does not love Sandro, is passive-aggressive towards Claudia, and generally disdainful of her life and all others in it. She solicits sex to fill her inner emptiness, and gets her jollies by playing her friends with false claims of a shark in the waters. Before the other characters realize Anna has disappeared, we see a small boat speed away from the island.
Over the next few days, ostensibly in search of Anna, Sandro and Claudia go off on an inexplicable jaunt across the Sicilian countryside, fall in love, and plan to meet up with the hedonists at assorted places, but the disappearance of Anna is just a red herring. The real tale is about Sandro and Claudia. Many things happen that turn this film away from a potentially great mystery thriller, along the lines of the far superior Diabolique, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, when the action is on the island, to a mere pointlessly smug existential wannabe story that drags on far too long, for almost two and a half hours. The first mistake and red herring is the boat that speeds away from the island. Then there is an interrogation of smugglers, a fling between a teen painter, Gofreddo (Giovanni Petrucci), and a disenchanted lover, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), of a wealthy, older sugar daddy, Corrado (James Addams), then Sandro’s planting of a false lead on Anna in a newspaper, the appearance of a flamboyant prostitute, Gloria Perkins (Dorothy de Poliolo), and a few others. By film’s end, Claudia has forgotten all about Anna, totally fallen for the shallow Sandro, in only a few days, but, predictably, she soon catches him with the prostitute Gloria. She runs away, he follows, and she forgives him. For such a supposedly revolutionary film, L’Avventura ends in a very weak and predictable way, with the none too bright, gullible, and weak-willed Claudia ready to take more.
The flaws of the script are so manifest that even this film’s champions do not really use it as a booster for the film. There are some startlingly good visuals, filmed by cinematographer Aldo Scavarda, and some nice scenes where the deep focus allows a subliminal ‘man on the shoulder’ sort of imagery. But, there are far more visually arresting films than this, especially given its reputation for visual bedazzlement. Where the film succeeds most is in the tension that it builds leading up to Anna’s disappearance. When Antonioni tries to be self-consciously deep, the film flails, for it has absolutely nothing new to say on film nor feminism. The characters are not deep, and no more than stereotypes, but nothing is done with them, despite that. Even worse, nothing happens for the bulk of the film. Apologists try to point to small things in the corner of a frame, and try to say they are symbolic, but nothing ever comes of any of it. Simply nothing happens. Nothing really happens, and I say that as not one of those video game weaned modern filmgoers who needs things to happen onscreen all the time, to stay interested. The film is simply a chronicle of dull people doing very little. To say the plot is threadbare is an overstatement. And the dialogue between these emotional idiots is not exactly Bergmanian in its depth, consisting of such bon mots as, ‘I love you, let’s go away,’ ‘Please, leave me alone,’ or, ‘I’m bored.’
Being ‘existential’ is simply not an excuse for dullness, and even trimming the film by a good hour, could only do so much to help. One can argue that little happens in many a Bergman film, such as his Spider Trilogy, but that’s only on an exterior level. Inside and out, in L’Avventura, nothing is going on. Yes, we know that Anna the socialite disappears, and we feel we’re about to embark on a mystery, and then the film shifts to Sandro’s and Claudia’s affair, but the shift is so banal, and so without ant real sparks and chemistry- what draws these two ciphers together?- that compared to, say, the narrative shift in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (also released in 1960), we can see how little this film involves its viewers. This vacancy, paradoxically, is what gives the film’s apologists their opening for shifting the critical focus of how well or not the film works to asking what is it about. This is a standard dialectical method that apologists use when a film lacks substance. In L’Avventura’s case, viewers are told by the apologists that they need to fill in what the film leaves out, which is not unreasonable if the film actually gives other things, enough to draw a viewer in to care about the characters. This film does not, and its greatest flaw is the wholly contrived and unconvincing romance of Sandro and Claudia, especially considering that Claudia seems the more balanced of the two main female characters. She even brags in the film that she’s got sensible tastes, from having grown up poor. She should be able to see right through a shallow cad like Sandro, and her forgiving him, at film’s end, is really a copout. Not that this film is anywhere near as good a film as Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, but its ending is still a big disappointment, as is that superior film’s.
The two disk DVD by The Criterion Collection comes with an hour long 1966 documentary from Quebec, called Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials. It was directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi. There are also writings by Antonioni, read by Jack Nicholson, who also provides some anecdotes of the director, a trailer, other written essays, and a DVD restoration demonstration. There is also an audio commentary on the film by film historian Gene Youngblood, recorded in 1989. It’s one of those really atrocious commentaries, not because it’s filled with fellatio, nor because it’s simply being read from a script, but because Youngblood clearly has no idea what is going on in the film, and acts simply as an apologist.
For example, Youngblood confuses such terms as metonymy, metaphor, and symbolism. Metonymy is simply one thing meaning another, such as stating The White House, when really what is meant is The President of the United States. Yet, Youngblood confuses this with metaphor, when he states that when Antonioni shows something, like a deep focus shot of someone in the far background seeming to stand on another character’s shoulder, like the proverbial angel and devil, this is metonymy, and not a metaphor, nor symbolism. Clearly it is symbolism, good or bad, and Youngblood cannot explain why it is not, nor does he explain its metonymic essence. He simply states it is metonymy, and you should accept it, presumably because he’s the expert providing commentary, not you. A later example, he claims, comes when Sandro and Claudia make out on a grassy knoll. Below them we see a train head into a tunnel, yet we are not to take this as clumsy symbolism for the obvious sex act to come, but merely as metonymy, meaning the train and tunnel represent something else than themselves, literally, but not the symbolic lovers’ passion. He also states that the seeming symbolism of both Anna and Claudia passing through arches is metonymy, not symbolism, and at film’s end, when Sandro passes through an arch, it is not only not symbolic, as perhaps his empathizing with the female, but also non-metonymic, for one character cannot appropriate another’s metonymy….or symbolism. Got that? I didn’t think so. For what reason is this injunction given and supported by Youngblood? He does not explicate. He also, inexplicably, tosses about the idea of T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative, but then drops it, perhaps because he simply wanted to state the term in public, to seem smart, and having done so, felt no need to prove he was clueless as to its meaning.
His comments get even more strained and silly when, at the film’s much overinterpreted end, after Claudia has caught Sandro with Gloria, that she is somehow empowered when, as he weeps on a bench, and she strokes his head. It is clearly an act of forgiveness on her part. But, putting aside the fact that, by then, an audience does not care for either of these vapid characters, Youngblood again gives no support for why her clearly conciliatory gesture is not conciliatory, but, as he claims, merely pitying. Then, as if giving unsupported evidence was not bad enough, Youngblood tries to interpret the film’s final shot as not symbolic, but metonymic, as we see from behind the bench where Sandro sits, and Claudia stands behind him, on the right, a stone wall, and on the left an open sky, with Mount Aetna in the background. Youngblood says that this is symbolic (let’s be real now) of the fact that Sandro’s life has no future, he’s run into a stone wall, while Claudia, who pities him, has a life of latent possibilities waiting to erupt. How does he support this? Well, this is so because Sandro is on the right of the bench, while Claudia is on the left, behind it. Well, that may be how a metonymist interprets symbolism, but let’s take a more traditionally symbolic interpretation.
Clearly, Claudia is forgiving Sandro. She has spent the whole film under his sexual spell- the only possible reason she’d fall for her missing friend’s contemptible fiancée in only a few days- after all, he kisses Claudia the first time only a few hours after Anna has disappeared. What Youngblood obviously does not see is that the bench, with Sandro and Claudia, is in the middle of the left half of the film frame, and if we accept that Aetna represents latent possibilities, it is clearly for the two, as a couple, as Claudia has forgiven Sandro, as the film ends with a classically Romantic final shot. Further proof comes from some penultimate shots to the last one, where we see Claudia and Sandro, below her on the bench, and there is an obelisk above Sandro’s head, and next to Claudia’s. Youngblood interprets this as ironic metonymy, for Sandro is a shamed little boy, and Claudia, according to Youngblood only, wants nothing more to do with him. But, the manifest symbolism is that Claudia has sex on her mind, and that clouds any sense she may have. She forgives Sandro, basically, because he’s a great lover, faithless or not, and she is a slave to their sex. This is not particularly deep symbolism, and hardly a payoff of worth for a film that bores a viewer for its last hour and a half. But, this film clearly is not a story of Claudia’s deep existential search for herself, and she certainly is not asserting herself at film’s end, but again playing into the hands of little more than a gigolo. Youngblood also claims that Antonioni is somehow pro-female, and that there may be an erotic lesbian attraction between Anna and Claudia, but the former claim is certainly not evident in this film, and the latter is so silly and, likewise, unsupported that I will not even bother to debunk it.
When it comes to more basic filmic stuff, like character development and poor narratives, Youngblood dares not broach the subject matter, and shows his lack of understanding of the film by reading far too much into scenes, and the switched points of view that Antonioni employs when he shifts from shot to shot. He does make a good point by calling the film’s start a ‘surprise beginning’, but, as stated, Hitchcock did it much better in Psycho.
L’Avventura, despite its reputation for being innovative, fails for the exact same reasons that most less supposedly innovative films do- it has cardboard characters, does not follow through on an intriguing premise, throws in an unneeded romance that never convinces a viewer of its participants’ sparks, goes on far too long, and is far too pretentious. On a more mundane level, I wish some of the money spent on the restoration could have been used to hire competent actors to dub the film into English. No DVD of quality should lack this feature. Film is a visual medium, and for a film which is supposedly so visual, this should be a must. If only this film’s fans and apologists would actually take only what is seen onscreen, and not imbue the film with what they think is there, or feel was intended, then a more just and objective evaluation of this film as an interesting, but ultimately failed, attempt at something different, could be agreed upon.
In short, in art, intent is meaningless, because if not, we’d have to believe that very recognition of Antonioni’s intent to bore the viewer somehow obviates the natural reaction of boredom, and thus all dull films could claim that boredom was their actual intent, thus leaving them not open to criticism on those grounds. Fortunately, intent is meaningless, and in that way one can say that L’Avventura misses the mark as a work of art, and is nowhere near as good as its vast reputation. Whether or not it’s an actually bad film may depend only upon how much you value style over content, or gorgeous Italian babes in bathing suits. There are worse things to have to ponder, eh?
Although he divided audiences into those who found his mysterious works pretentious or fascinatingly enigmatic, this celebrated Italian writer and director was always interesting and stylish. L'Avventura in 1960 was his international breakthrough although he'd been directing since the forties, and he followed it with La Notte, L'Eclisse, The Red Desert, Blowup (perhaps his most famous film), Zabriskie Point (with its explosive climax), The Passenger and Identification of a Woman among others. He even continued working after serious stroke, Beyond the Clouds being his best known film from his later period.