L' Avventura [DVD]
Screenplay : Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, & Tonino Guerra
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1960
Stars : Monica Vitti (Claudia), Gabriele Ferzetti (Sandro), Lea Massari (Anna), Dominique Blanchar (Giulia), James Addams (Corrado), Renzo Ricci (Anna's Father), Esmeralda Ruspoli (Patrizia), Lelio Luttazzi (Raimondo)
Every 10 years, the British film journal Sight & Sound conducts an extensive poll of critics to determine the 10 greatest films ever made. Although the list changes quite a bit from decade to decade, often in accordance with shifting tastes and preferences as to what constitutes "greatness," there is a connecting thread among all the films that have ever appeared on the list that is undeniable: Each and every one of them has added something to film language, thus forever changing the ways in which cinema could be imagined from then on.
Consider some of the entries: Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), which brought Soviet montage editing to its height; Orson Welle's Citizen Kane (1941) which used mis en scene and deep focus in completely new ways to evoke mystery and psychological complexity, and Vitorrio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1949), which fully embodied the postwar Italian neorealism that stood in such stark contrast to Hollywood polish. All of these films offered some new, something that had not been fully unimagined before, something revolutionary.
Thus, it is of little surprise that Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura was added to this heralded list in 1962, a scant two years after it was jeered and booed by audiences at its debut at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival. L'Avventura, like the other films on the Sight & Sound list, is one of those rare achievements that embodies an entirely new mode of film language, one that had not been seen before, yet took hold and influenced numerous films after. In this case, Antonioni's contribution to film language was his willingness to discard narrative conventions in pursuit of a deeper meaning that could only be conveyed through images, not story.
This is not to say that there isn't a story in L'Avventura. Make no mistake: This is not an avant-garde excursion into disjointed narrative meaninglessness. Instead, Antonioni takes a simple narrative--a young woman mysteriously disappears and her lover and best friend fall in love with each other while searching for her--and allows it to play out slowly, in real time, with unexpected developments that work into Antonioni's larger themes about alienation and lack of communication, rather than audience expectations.
This could have easily gone in two completely different ways, becoming either a melodramatic potboiler (as a Hollywood director might have done) or an irritatingly unrealistic "meditation" on obscure existential themes (as some avant-garde European directors might have done). Antonioni takes a little bit of both, and crafts an ingeniously unique film that captivates emotionally while also stimulating the intellect, something that is all too rarely accomplished. What makes L'Avventura work so well is that Antonioni doesn't get overly bogged down in the grand meaning of it all, as happened in some of his later works. Instead, he always maintains a human face on his film.
Some have described L'Avventura as cold and calculated, which is how it strikes some people on first viewing becomes Antonioni's compositions are so precise and his narrative doesn't satisfy in conventional terms. But, look again, and you will see a genuine portrait of two flawed, but engaging human beings, Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), who temporarily find something in each other while searching for Anna (Lea Massari), the young woman who disappears early in the story. Vitti and Ferzetti both give incredibly subtle performances--they are not the two-dimensional human stand-ins that often populate films that are "about something." Rather, L'Avventura is first and foremost "about" Claudia and Sandro, and the film's meaning about the sometimes unbridgeable spaces between people in a modern society that has lost emotional and sexual depth, evolves from them and their evolving relationship.
I think this sometimes gets lost because L'Avventura is a masterpiece of cinematic formalism. Antonioni's brilliantly spare style is heightened by Aldos Scavarda's gorgeous black-and-white photography that emphasizes space and distance. Antonioni was always fascinated by architecture, and it shows in his compositions, whether that be in a small Italian villa that contrasts edifices of the old and new worlds, or on the barren, rocky island that is visited by a wealthy group of friends on a yachting trip and becomes the place where Anna vanishes without a trace. L'Avventura is an immensely visual film, one that draws and holds your eye and your thoughts with the kind of long takes and deep focus that French critic André Bazin believed to be the true essence of cinema.
Those who are expecting something conventional and easy will be restless while watching L'Avventura. It is a film that demands a lot from its audiences--patience, concentration, and understanding. Yet, more than anything, it asks for empathy, something that some viewers are not willing to give, which is why they walk away thinking they have seen a cold, calculated film. The relationship of Claudia and Sandro, however problematic, is one of great humanity--two people drawn together in difficult circumstances. In order to fully appreciate and admire what Antonioni is trying to do, we must first have empathy for the plight of these two fragile human beings--one of whom has lost his lover, the other of whom has lost her best friend--and understand how and why they try to fill that empty space with each other.
|L'Avventura: Criterion Collection Special Edition Two-Disc DVD Set|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by film historian Gene Youngblood|
Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials 58-minute documentary
Two essays by Antonioni read by Jack Nicholson
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The new anamorphic widescreen transfer of L'Avventura is beautiful, a vast improvement over all other previously available home video versions, including the 1989 Criterion laser disc. Transferred from a 35mm composite fine-grain master positive on a high-definition Spirit Datacine, the film looks positively radiant, with deep, rich blacks and a stunning improvement in contrast, which adds a great deal of depth and detail to Antonioni's deep-focus compositions. Once again, Criterion utilized the MTI Digital Restoration System to clean up thousands of instances of dirt, debris, and scratches, a process that took some five months. There are still a few spots here and there, and there is a pesky vertical hairline that splits the frame throughout most of Chapters 33 and 34, but otherwise this image is as good as one could possibly want.|
|The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural soundtrack is clean and clear, with little hiss and no distortion. Antonioni never liked the use of extradiegetic music to comment on the action in a film, so L'Avventura features very little in the way of a musical score. However, there are a lot of ambient sound effects, many of which are absolutely integral to the mood and tone of the scene. Although necessarily limited by the one-channel mix, the soundtrack still does a fine job of drawing us into each scene aurally.|
| The only supplement from the 1989 laser-disc set that has been ported over is film historian Gene Youngblood's excellent screen-specific audio commentary. Youngblood is a fervent admirer of the film, and he does a wonderful job of mixing production history and anecdotes with a precise, detailed analytical deconstruction of the film scene by scene. Unlike some scholars who are incredibly knowledgeable but boring as dirt to listen to (having attended and presented at academic conferences on film, I speak from experience), Youngblood is animated and engaging in his commentary, and he isn't shy about pointing out things in the film that don't work for him. His analysis is fascinating, and he does a great job of drawing out the minute details for us to savor. If you've ever wanted a fuller, richer understanding of Antonioni's work, this is the perfect place to start. |
The second disc in this two-disc set is all supplements, starting with Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials, a 58-minute documentary made in 1966 by Gianfranco Mingozzi for French-Canadian television. This is one of the few documentaries about Antonioni that he approved of himself, and one can see why because Mingozzi doesn't purport to explain Antonioni or his work. Rather, he pieces together footage of Antonioni working with a brief overview of his films and lengthy interviews of people with whom he worked. The documentary is a bit ragged and scattershot at times, and age has not been kind to the visual quality. However, it is an interesting look at Antonioni, and it is also worth seeing for the inclusion of a brief scene from L'Avventura that was left on the cutting room floor.
This disc also contains two essays written by Antonioni and read by Jack Nicholson, who starred in his 1975 film The Passenger. The two essays, "L'Avventura: A Moral Adventure" and "Reflections on the Film Actor," were circulated with the press materials when L'Avventura premiered (the first essay is also available in abridged form and in a slightly different translation in the DVD liner notes). After reading the essays, Nicholson offers about four minutes of what he terms "spontaneous and virginal ruminations" about Antonioni and his experience working with him.
Lastly, a theatrical trailer for the film's initial U.S. release is included, which is fascinating in the way it does a good job of summing up the film while simultaneously making it sound utterly banal (U.S. movie advertising practices at that time, which were loud and obnoxious in their hype, did not fit well with enigmatic European films). There is also a three-and-a-half minute restoration demonstration that gives you a full appreciate for how much the image quality has been improved for this release.
©2001 James Kendrick