Monday, September 25, 2017

Reeling Backward: "L'Avventura" (1960)

"Believe me Anna, words are becoming less and less necessary, they create misunderstandings."

If ever a film's themes could be summed up by a single line of dialogue, then this one does so splendidly for "L'Avventura," Michelangelo Antonioni's dreamy rumination on love lost and found.

The first of an unofficial trilogy from the Italian master, "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure") follows the search for a missing girl where no one truly wants her to be found. This includes the woman herself, and especially her fiance and best friend, who fall for each other during their quest to find her. The film has been criticized for its languid plotting, lack of narrative resolution and overall "artiness." At its first screening at Cannes, the film was roundly booed -- before going on to win the Jury Prize.

Watching the movie, we get a very distinct sense that what the characters do and say is less important than how they look and feel while doing or saying it.

It's fair to say that Antonioni and his ilk helped redefine the cinematic aesthetic to one more about existential contemplation than traditional conflict and action. Antonioni and co-screenwriters, Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra, peered under the modern advancements of the 20th century to find the discontent that lay like a thick layer of crud beneath a beautiful rug -- particularly how people relate to one another with sinking levels of empathy, or even basic humanity.

"Ennui" is the word that best sums up the mood of "L'Avventura," a sort of listless boredom that arrives from feeling trapped by circumstances and expectations.

Sandro, the male lead played by Gabriele Ferzetti, studied art and architecture but became a wealthy young(ish) man by performing estimates of other people's post-war construction projects. He owns a sporty convertible and a summer home on the coast, tokens of his status rather than things he covets. His fiancée, Anna (Lea Massari), at once misses him desperately while harboring a barely hidden revulsion for her intended. Sandro is absent for long business trips, but when he's back they tire of each other rather quickly after the fire of lovemaking has blown out.

Right before she mysteriously disappears off a remote island where they and other well-to-do couples have stopped for a bit of sun and fun, Anna tells Sandro that what she most wants is to be alone. He dismisses her fears about their impending marriage rather brusquely. When she turns up missing, Sandro undertakes a personal search for Anna more out of a sense of duty than with the enthusiasm of a heartbroken lover.

Tagging along is Anna's best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitta), who eventually becomes the film's real main character. Feeling out of place on the yacht among three couples, she gradually comes to the fore of the story as she and Sandro develop feelings for each other while conducting their "search."

I put that word in quotes because, after the authorities scour the island -- including divers plumbing the shores for a body -- no one really holds out hope that she'll eventually turn up. The only really solid lead is when a smuggler's ship is interdicted by the police, but it's soon clear the teenage petty criminals had nothing to do with Anna's disappearance. After all, what are we to believe: that Anna hailed a passing ship and climbed aboard without anyone else on the tiny atoll noticing?

The disappearance quickly fades from our minds as the brewing romance comes to a boil. We've gotten an idea that Claudia was attracted to Sandro even before they departed on the voyage, and that she holds a level of envy for Anna. She's got what Claudia hasn't: a rich boyfriend, a rich father to boot, nice clothes and few responsibilities. We never learn too much about Claudia's background -- or anyone's, really -- but the impression is she's a working girl enjoying her independence, though open to the idea of settling down.

Claudia makes a great show of protesting Sandro's advances, including one scene where she essentially throws him off a departing train. They later meet again, and this time the excitement of being pursued overcomes her judgement about keeping up appearances. When they eventually rejoin the other couples at a posh hotel, they check into the same suite without batting an eye.

Always, though, reminders of the real purpose that threw them together arrive, and it would seem their love must be doomed from the start. Perhaps it is, especially after Sandro, starved for sexual attention from Claudia, has a dalliance with an attention-seeking floozy (Dorothy De Poliolo).

But Antonioni's famous ending scene, in which each weeps tears at their inability to find and keep love, leaves us with at least the suggestion that they will keep trying to overcome that which keeps them apart.

I was struck watching the film how much observation there is of other couples. To a one, they all seem miserable together, more like prisoners sharing a shackle than the bonds of matrimony.

There is Corrado (James Addams), an older man who seems to spend most of his energies denigrating the actions and speech of his much-younger wife, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar). Corrado is a pinched man, physically and spiritually, who gains joy by denying it to others. Later, we will watch Giulia  dally with a 17-year-old boy right underneath Claudia's nose, and understand her motivations.

Then there is Patrizia (Esmeralda Ruspoli), who acts as something of maternal/guide role for Claudia, seeing what is happening between her and Sandro and offering her understanding and empathy how two people could end up in such a place, without condoning their scandalous affair. Patrizia's own marriage to Raimondo (Lelio Luttazzi) has the feel of a detente, a war that has grown cold and desolate. They have forgotten both the love and the hate they once had for each other.

When their search takes them to a small town, Sandro and Claudia come across a pharmacist and his new bride, who already seem well on their way to a lifetime of regret. The locals regard the searchers as glamorous strangers, celebrities even. (The search for Anna has stayed in the newspapers, due in part to Sandro's bribes to a reporter.) Indeed, when Claudia is briefly left alone in the street she attracts a small horde of men, milling about to ogle the beautiful alien.

(Sinister in tone, this scene takes on alarming notes seen through today's prism of awareness about sexual violence.)

Really the only positive glimpse of romance we encounter is a young pair who have just met on the train. Claudia watches with delight as they perform the intricate dance of the wooer and the wooed. The man insists he knows the girl through mutual acquaintances, she knows he is lying just to get her attention, and allows herself to be lied to.

The shooting of "L'Avventura" was famously arduous, both physically and financially. For weeks at a time the crew operated with no budget, sleeping on the island and even going short on food until a new production company could be found. Antonioni and Vitti were a romantic couple themselves in real life -- before, during and long after the shoot -- which must have complicated matters in a ways that beggar the imagination.

Yet this is undeniably one of the all-time most gorgeous pieces of cinema ever. The photography by Aldo Scavarda remains stunning in its multitudinous layers of gray -- thankfully well-preserved with a top-notch restoration and reissue some years back. In contrast to the hazy, meandering moods of the characters, the film has a crisp realism that veritably leaps off the screen.

Antonioni and Scavarda also make interesting use of Claudia's blonde nimbus of hair, especially in contrast to all the other dark-haired Italian women. It lends her the air of a fallen angel, wandering the land without true purpose or power.

My own feelings are mixed for "L'Avventura." Like "Citizen Kane," I recognize its greatness and appreciate its importance in the evolution of movies without necessarily embracing the experience of watching it. A story of people who are unmoored from themselves, unsure how they should feel or act, it often fails to engage us at an emotional level.

It's like a great masterpiece painting that we are told we must admire, so we do, while knowing in our hearts there are more meaningful pieces hanging on the wall nearby more amenable to our gaze.

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