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Revisit:

L’Avventura

Dir: Michelangelo Antonioni

1960

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

I first saw L’Avventura six or seven years ago, right at the tail end of high school. It perplexed me at the time; I don’t think I was equipped to engage it properly, personally or as a filmgoer. I guess it washed over me, but even so I feel, retrospectively now, that it had an impact. Later down the line in my film-going career, I found that the sensibility and feeling that Michelangelo Antonioni’s film planted in my subconscious prepared me for other challenging cinematic experiences. Revisiting it recently for the first time, I found myself feeling pretty at home with its pace, which I once found trying, and its narrative approach, which is elliptical and indirect, and which I once found confusing and unsatisfying rather than intriguing and full of interpretive opportunities.

The imagery echoed with me right away in this second go-round, I found myself taken back by a great majority of its frames. It’s a testament to the beauty of the film’s photography that this much of its visual material had stayed with me even as its substance seemed to evade me for so long. L’Avventura is a striking movie, widely framed and sparsely populated. It’s got a bleached out look, mostly grey and subtle in its gradations rather than starkly black and white.

It’s thematically and emotionally focused on people pursuing an extreme, willful solitude, and so, while there are other humans populating the landscape, most of the time these people are in the distance, or peripheral to not just the frame, but it seems the world, in some manner, at least the one we’re inhabiting. Antonioni achieves this effect partially by framing the film so that its images rarely seem to be focused on their subjects, but are rather structured around their environments. Watching this film is like watching architectural photography in motion, which gives it a cold, but expressive feel.

The film begins with Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) getting ready to head over to meet Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), Anna’s long-distance boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen in a month, to go on a boating trip together. From the start, Anna seems despondent, although she doesn’t seem able to or willing to articulate the source of her feelings. She bids her father a cold farewell and then hits the road with her friend. Even though she’s ambivalent about her relationship with Sandro, and he’s unappealingly glib upon seeing her again, they make love right away.

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After, Sandro asks Anna how she feels – awful, she says. “Why?” he asks. It seems to destroy her for a moment, then she starts playfully attacking him, collapsing into laughter. “Why why why why why?” This is a refrain that reoccurs throughout the film, its characters are confronted not just with the question, but with the realization that it never occurred to them to ask it, and with the subsequent realization that they don’t want to ask it, because they don’t want to know. Anna and Sandro’s estrangement is solidified visually when they go swimming near a remote, rocky island, later on their trip. Anna calls out that she sees a shark and Sandro goes to get her. She treads water calmly, he swims out to her cleanly, and then as they try to swim away together, as Sandro tries to save her, they’re reduced to a giant flailing mess. Anna jokes about it with Claudia later, telling her she made the whole thing up. After this, she disappears and we never see her again.

Everyone in the party searches for a while, they even stay overnight on the island, but pretty soon they’ve given up hope. Whether Anna is alive or dead, what drove her to disappear, if anything drove her at all and she didn’t just have an accident and die, none of these questions will be answered by the film’s end. In addition to abstracting narrative in a relatively unprecedented way, Antonioni delivers with this film an impactful statement on listlessness, and on loss, in all its horrible, unknowable depth. L’Avventura marked a new approach to cinematic narrative; rather than telegraphing their emotions, it has us watch people who feel human precisely because their internal lives aren’t privileged to us by default. It tells us a story we’ll never really know.

Within a few days almost everyone has forgotten about the incident at all, except for Claudia and Sandro, who maintain a halfhearted search even as they begin an affair. The movie turns self-consciously melodramatic after this, with the couple juggling their feelings and their confusion. They withdraw from all their ambivalent friends and go on their adventure, one which ultimately leaves them both alone, with each other. They become the film’s central mystery, far beyond Anna. Within an hour or so of her disappearance, we the audience have nearly forgotten her, just as everyone else in the world has. There is a scene later in the film where Sandro and Claudia accidentally ring a church’s bell while standing on its roof. In the distance, we hear another bell going, and Claudia is astonished. “They’re answering!” she shouts. “Hear them?” She runs to the edge and looks out in the distance. It feels as if they may as well be transmitting across the ocean, or through space.

by Andrei Alupului
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