An Awfully Big Adventure

Another week, another classic movie from The Criterion Collection. This time, it’s one with a reputation as not only a modernist masterpiece but also a famously tough watch. Fiona Pleasance tackles Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 L’Avventura.

Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti in L'Avventura

The list of films which have been booed at the Cannes Film Festival is fairly long and something of a mixed bag. Along with the obvious stinkers are a number of films which have subsequently been accorded the status of classics. L’Avventura is one of these, although its mixed reception at the premiere didn’t stop it winning the Jury Prize that year.

Amusingly, one of the latest filmmakers to be accorded this dubious honour by the Cannes critics – Oliver Assayas, director of Personal Shopper – also pops up on the L’Avventura Blu-ray talking about Antonioni’s film. The interview is a few years old, so the directors did not share this badge of honour at the time, but it’s possible that Assayas is proud to do so now. His intelligent commentary on and love for L’Avventura help to illuminate a famously difficult subject. It is surely no coincidence that, in one of Assayas’s recent films, a female character simply disappears from the story and her absence is never explained.

L’Avventura counts as one of the classics of Italian and European art cinema. International interest in Italian films had grown since just after the Second World War, when the Neorealists had brought the problems faced by ordinary people to the fore. The protagonists of films such as Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D. or Rome, Open City face difficulties as basic as just finding enough money to live on; simple survival from one day to the next.

But the characters of L’Avventura have very different issues. Wealthy, entitled, spoilt: they are clearly completely unaware of the problems faced by the majority of the people around them. When the boat boy complains that, because he was expected to sail through the night, he hasn’t actually slept at all, it’s treated as a throwaway comment, worthy of neither apology nor understanding. Generally, the characters do not act in ways intended to arouse our sympathy. They invent underwater shark sightings just for heck of it, and keep their friends waiting while they make love to their boyfriends. Couples are horrible to one another, and flirt openly with seventeen-year-olds.

There is one exception. Monica Vitti was the breakout star of the film, and her protagonist Claudia is vibrant and human in ways which none of the others ever really match, probably because she is the only major character without a privileged background. Claudia is not worn down by an existential crisis born of material security and boredom, and she is the only person in the film who shows what it feels like to be in love, because she is the only one who actually can feel love. Her attractive, timeless presence lights up the movie.

Few films seem to have inspired both admiration and bafflement quite like L’Avventura, from its reception at Cannes onwards. On the one hand, many of the narrative conventions of classical cinema are largely rejected; the story has a mystery at its centre which is never solved. Few of the characters are particularly likeable or easily readable. The pace is slow.  It is an art film which has alienation and ennui as its subjects and runs the very real risk of provoking both reactions in its viewers: “Antonioniennui”, as Andrew Sarris famously referred to it.

On the other hand, Aldo Scavarda’s black and white cinematography is beautiful, capturing the interplay of actors and settings in distinctive and illuminating ways.  Antonioni’s use of space is masterful. And, thanks to Criterion’s gorgeous restoration, the film shows us world which is clearly delineated yet strange and distant at the same time, truly a different country.

What is perhaps most surprising about the film is how unsettling and opaque it still seems, over fifty-five years after its release. Many critics and filmmakers have written about how L’Avventura shifted the boundaries, and opened their eyes as to what cinema can be and can do. Yet unlike many films which appeared revolutionary on release but have since been absorbed into the canon and become more conventional in retrospect, L’Avventura has retained its power to captivate and perplex in equal measure. That alone marks it out as a rare work of art.

The Criterion Collection Special Edition Blu-Ray of L’Avventura was is out now. In addition to a high-definition digital restoration it includes an audio commentary by film historian Gene Youngblood, Oliver Assayas talking about the film, a 1960s documentary about Antonioni and assorted other extras.

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