L’Avventura (1960)

L’Avventura first published by Film4

Synopsis: When a woman goes missing, the ensuing search brings her fiancé and her best friend together. Michelangelo Antonioni’s breakout film is a modernist classic about the dangers of modernism.

Review: In 1960, the Italian New Wave well and truly arrived on foreign shores, thanks to two thematically similar but stylistically different films. Both Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura featured male protagonists who have problems with fidelity and who have squandered their potential talents on low-brow, high-salary jobs. Both featured scenes in which a vapid would-be starlet still has sense enough to know how to play the paparazzi at their own game. Both portrayed a rapidly changing Italy of evaporating morality, declining faith and lost values.

By revelling in the very decadence that he was also decrying, Fellini managed to transform such stern themes into a spectacularly carnivalesque entertainment, whereas Antonioni used the superficiality of his times merely to numb his audience, in a long, slow film that, starting right from its ironic title, repeatedly promises narrative excitements and genre thrills, only to keep withholding them. L’Avventura is not just about frustration, disappointment and ennui, but actually dares to engender these very feelings in its own viewers. No surprise, then, that this most difficult of films was beaten to Cannes’ Palme d’Or by La Dolce Vita indeed, the Cannes premier of L’Avventura was met with hoots, whistles and jeers from the audience. It proved more popular, though, with critics and industry insiders, earning itself the Jury Prize at Cannes (shared with Kon Ichikawa’s Kagi), and being declared by none other than Pauline Kael the most important film of its year. Such accolades led to worldwide box-office success and, three years later, to a second place ranking in a Sight & Sound poll of the greatest films ever made.

Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti) was once an aspiring architect who now assesses building costs for a wealthy firm, and his work means that he and his fiancée Anna (Lea Massari) spend a lot of time apart. Just as Anna is beginning to realise that this arrangement actually suits her, and that her passion for Sandro has long since cooled to indifference, the two go on a late-summer pleasure cruise off the Sicilian coast with Anna’s best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) and a party of wealthy socialites. There, on an island that once accommodated an ancient cultured community and before that an active volcano, but is now (much like the couple’s relationship) cold and barren, Anna declares to Sandro, “I’d like to spend some time alone” – and shortly afterwards she disappears without trace.

There are hints of sharks, currents and other dangers in the waters, there are several references to a phantom boat that may or may not have taken Anna away, and there is even a suggestion that Sandro may himself have done away with Anna. As, however, the search for Anna is taken from where she was last seen to the neighbouring isles and then on to the Sicilian mainland, it becomes clear that only the merest ghost of a conventional mystery is driving the narrative forwards – and it is a mystery that will in the end be left entirely unresolved by Antonioni, who is far more concerned with dramatising how quickly Claudia and Sandro forget the friend they claim to have valued so much, now that they have drifted towards each other instead. Sandro has almost immediately transferred his affections from the brunette to the blonde, apparently without so much as a second thought, and his ongoing yet half-hearted quest for Anna seems designed only to bring him closer to Claudia – but as the latter is confronted by the full force of Sandro’s perfidious fickleness, she will realise that filling Anna’s shoes is hardly an enviable position.

L’Avventura is set against the backdrop of Italy’s (and Italian cinema’s) post-war transition from classicism to modernity. It opens with a conversation between Anna’s father (Renzo Ricci) and a workman about the new houses that will soon ‘smother’ the traditional villa and surrounding woods. Another elaborately frescoed villa that Sandro visits has recently been converted into a police station (“who could have guessed its fate?”) while Sandro’s boss proposes turning a third into “a lovely clinic for nervous disorders” (only for its owner to quip, “it’s already a little like that”). While looking for Anna on the island, one of Sandro’s fellow pleasure-seekers instead finds an ancient vessel and claims it for use as a domestic geranium pot (although it is clumsily dropped and broken before it can ever serve its new function).

Here the past (embodied in part by Anna herself) is buried, barely understood, and available for all comers to take or trample over as they please, while, on the other hand, all-new creations like the modern concrete village through which Sandro and Claudia pass are both literally and metaphorically “empty”, and no longer built to last (let alone to be “beautiful things”). If L’Avventura ushers in a new kind of cinema, at the same time it laments the ravages of change.

One obstacle that today’s viewers of L’Avventura must face is that the brand of superficiality exhibited by its monied characters has now become so commonplace in both our society and our media that one barely recognises it as superficiality at all – something that is more a fault of our times than of Antonioni’s film. It is also paced rather ponderously for today’s tastes, but those who have the patience to stay the distance willl be rewarded with a bleak, even blank, portrait of humanity failing to find again the values it has so carelessly allowed itself to lose. In a film where talk is cheap and, as Sandro puts it, “words are becoming less and less necessary”, in fact every line of dialogue is made to count, offering up (at least to the alert) all manner of symbolisms and symmetries.

One character, a pretentious, womanising artist (Giovanni Petrucci), is heard to assert “No landscape can match a woman’s beauty”, but cinemtographer Alda Scovarda sets out to prove the equal attractions of both, fluidly tracking Antonioni’s actresses through the environments that threaten to engulf them. L’Avventura is, after all, concerned not just with the male gaze, always on the lookout for stimulation, but also with how restlessly it drifts from here to there.

In a nustshell: Antonioni’s film may be an ‘adventure’ without event, a mystery without solution and a search without purpose – but this is precisely what he is saying about the nature of modernity, always ogling the next girl before it has properly finished with the last.

© Anton Bitel