Why I Love… #137: L’Avventura

Year: 1960

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Stars: Monica Vitti, Lea Massari, Gabriele Ferzetti

The first and possibly most notorious of Michelangelo Antonioni’s landmark four-film cycle with Monica Vitti, L’Avventura (The Adventure) might just be the most radical movie of the 1960s. This considering stiff competition from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Andy Warhol and many besides. The film was notoriously dismissed when it premiered at Cannes, only to immediately receive fervent defense from a number of critics and fellow filmmakers. Those that knew, knew; this was an important work, as much for its peerless technical excellence as for what it outright rejected.

A group of Italian socialites go on a boating expedition off the coast, over to a series of islands that are little more than rocky outcrops. Among their number are Claudia (Vitti), her friend Anna (Lea Massari) and Anna’s boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). The sea is as calm “as oil”, it is remarked. An unremarkable day.

That is, until Anna disappears without a trace. We don’t get to see what happened to her, though a number of possibilities are presented. Did she fall from a cliff and drown? Is she hiding deliberately? Another boat was heard; has she left with others? Even more fantastic possibilities are hinted. Sharks are said to have been spotted in the area. And, in a flight of fancy that serves dual purpose, a member of the group looks up and sees a cyclone of cloud in the sky. Perhaps she was whisked away like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz?

Claudia and Sandro search thoroughly for Anna but to no avail and, as a storm rolls in, they take shelter in a local’s lowly cabin in the cliff side. The next day, after further searches prove fruitless, they go home. The search for Anna isn’t over but, as Claudia and Sandro grow closer to one another, the enthusiasm wanes, then vanishes. They stop looking and the mystery is never resolved. Indeed the very notion of story dissolves. Antonioni’s film becomes typified by negative spaces and emptiness. After two hours and twenty-three minutes, it ends and we’re left to reconcile a beautiful, slow-moving narrative film that outright abandons us.

Aldo Scavarda’s photography throughout is some of the most breathtaking you’ll ever encounter. Be it people or landscapes, he captures a kind of barrenness that seems loaded with requests. Requests of the audience to imprint on the work their own sense of relevance; to fill in the supposed blanks. It makes L’Avventura both demanding and disturbing. Though the film is PG certificate and contains no material likely to shock or offend, it feels disquieting even before Anna disappears and, indeed, there is subtle foreshadowing of the ‘event’ before it happens. Anna’s encounters before they set out feel like farewells. The opening dialogue between her and her father (Renzo Ricci) has a ghoulish finality about it when you re-watch the film, while her off-camera sexual tryst with Sandro before setting out feels like another kind of goodbye.

Of course, this sense that something is very wrong is most fervant when the characters are active, searching the rock island for their missing member. Claudia clings to the craggy stones at the edge of one of the cliffs. It could be that she is overcome by vertigo, but it also seems as though she might just be overwhelmed by the circumstances. The next day, when divers are dispatched to search for Anna’s body in the underwater rock pools, Claudia cries for her friend and, possibly, for herself. Has Anna’s vanishing cursed them all? Without a certified death, the pall of tragedy has entered the movie. The storm perhaps signifies its arrival, but it remains long after the clouds disperse.

Arriving on the second day, Anna’s father is disturbed to find Claudia wearing a shirt that belonged to his daughter, though she explains the discrepancy naturally enough. However, it is the first key signifier that Claudia is in some way replacing her missing friend, filling a gap, or assuming her identity in a psychological sense. It also harks across time to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me (I was always going to find some link back to Lynch, wasn’t I?). In that film Laura Palmer gets very upset when Donna Hayward wears her clothes – an act easily read as fear that Donna will become kindred to her, or follow her into ruin. Anna’s clothing on Claudia feels much the same. Is Claudia now doomed in some way? You could argue that she is; that Anna’s disappearance becomes a rupture in reality and that Claudia – and all the others – are now helplessly lost forever, their trivial actions in the aftermath seeming increasingly impotent and inconsequential.

L'Avventura

Since cinema became a popular art form it has been used to tell narrative stories. A new canvas for the established patterns of plays or novels. But cinema is also a potent form for abstractions, sharing qualities with painting or music. It needn’t be restricted to such traditional storytelling and even feels conservative or unfulfilled when it adheres primarily to these templates transposed from other mediums. Filmed images generate moods with images and – from the late ’20s onward – sounds, conveying not just ideas but feelings, tones, ideals, suggestions, even dreams.

L’Avventura begins conventionally but then, daringly, cuts the rope. This untethering is a radical rule break. I imagine that, to some, it’s deeply unfulfilling, and the strong reaction to its premiere is understandable. Nobody was really doing such a thing, at least, not in such a high profile space. It makes us question what a film owes us, and what (if anything) we’re entitled to. It isn’t that L’Avventura is unfinished. What’s missing is entirely deliberate. Given that, can’t we accept that some mysteries aren’t solved and that some feelings just… disappear…? The larger implications of L’Avventura are about our presumptions of what cinema should be and, really, how narrow those parameters often are.

Ultimately, I suppose, its also about death. And more keenly Claudia’s and Sandro’s, as opposed to Anna’s. All of our lives – every single one of us – will be, in a sense, unfinished. We don’t know how much time we have and the most of us don’t consider whatever time we do have in terms of a narrative arc. Our stories aren’t neatly tied up in the third act with all questions resolved. We’re not planning callbacks with old flames, or the disasters and illnesses that might still befall us. Emotionally cathartic conclusions are not guaranteed. Life doesn’t adhere to such structures or conventions.

The events of L’Avventura are a stark reminder to Claudia and Sandro of this. Even when they visit a township called Noto (literally ‘known’) they find nothing. Abandoned churches, no people… Vacancy and absence. Perhaps it also speaks to the vacuity of their social class and of contemporary Italian living of the time but even divorced from that, L’Avventura and its characters feel as though they’re confronting something much larger, inescapable and universally shattering. They’re left staring into a void (sometimes literally) and the void offers them nothing in return. But this is a road to nowhere that requests and rewards repeated journeys.

A haunting collapse of the normal, and a reminder of life. ‘The adventure’ indeed.

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