By Sven Mikulec
It was May 1960 when Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura first introduced itself to the public’s eye. Today, this classic of European art films is hailed as groundbreaking, influential and obviously consequential, but to say it had a rocky start would be a euphemism. At the film’s premiere in Cannes, the audience’s reactions—frequent booing, catcalling and rudely audible expressions of dissatisfaction with Antonioni’s long takes—caused the filmmaker to bail out of the projection hall. L’Avventura went on to win the Jury Prize, but the hostility radiating from a large part of the audience forced members of the jury to issue a declaration of support to Antonioni’s film, stressing its “exceptional importance.” From today’s point of view, a film-lover could be puzzled by the initial negative response L’Avventura had to endure, because what Antonioni did in this film is something we’ve grown accustomed to in the years since that distressing Cannes premiere. What obviously bewildered many audience members is the director’s approach to the subject, the shifting of themes, the deliberate disregard for the viewer’s expectations, his refusal to play by any standard rules. By placing images, atmosphere and emotion at the core of the film, Antonioni abandoned the traditional notion of the importance of storytelling and the necessity of the inclusion of drama and action in a picture that was served for the public’s consumption. The same long takes that harsh spectators booed at, in fact, do tell a story, but in completely new and unexpected ways. In a story about a wealthy, estranged young couple who are joined by the girl’s best friend and several other rich couples on a cruise around Sicily, the seemingly crucial moment comes very early in the film, when the estranged, dissatisfied girlfriend simply disappears, never returning from her walk after an argument with her frustrated boyfriend. Even though her best friend joins the boyfriend in a resolved quest of finding her and solving the mystery, the disappearance somehow recedes to the background, even though the film’s viewers were led to believe Antonioni had prepared some sort of a procedural mystery thriller. What comes to the front, however, is the new relationship between the only two people who care enough to start looking for the missing girl: as they begin to fall for each other, the conflicting emotions of hope, loneliness, sexual attraction and guilt emerge, while the incident that set them on the journey of finding their loved one floats above them like a ghost. The critics loved it instantaneously, but how traumatizing Antonioni found negative publicity is evident in an anecdote regarding The New York Times’ review. Bosley Crowther’s harsh text, in which he compared L’Avventura to watching a film with several missing reels, allegedly made the filmmaker cry. Satisfaction and gratification soon replaced the initial disappointment, as great reviews brought new viewers and the image of L’Avventura was quickly transformed.
Based on Antonioni’s idea and written in a collaboration between the filmmaker and screenwriters Elio Bartolini and Antonio ‘Tonino’ Guerra, and shot by Aldo Scavarda, the cinematographer who would four years later shoot Bernardo Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione, L’Avventura stars Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti and Lea Massari. It’s Vitti, the actress who went on to work with Antonioni on La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il Deserto Rosso (1964), who actually steals the show. The famous Italian composer Giovanni Fusco provided the score. L’Avventura is generally regarded as a part of the informal trilogy alongside La Notte and L’Eclisse. Even though Antonioni had already made five feature films before L’Avventura, it’s this film that introduced his work to a broader audience, marking the beginning of the director’s international stardom. Most importantly, the film marked a sudden shift in cinema, a sort of a revolution, as it boldly demonstrated that a film with a drastically unconventional approach to narrative can indeed succeed. Many critics have compared L’Avventura, as well as Antonioni’s other films, to literature, describing his work as visual poetry, praising his use of film as a medium capable of exploring emotions, themes and human psychology in a way that was conventionally reserved for works of literature.
“Too shallow to be truly lonely,” the esteemed critic Pauline Kael wrote about the characters Antonioni shoves under the spotlight in L’Avventura. “They are people trying to escape their boredom by reaching out to one another and finding only boredom once again.” Roger Ebert described the subject perfectly when he referred to “characters who drifted in existential limbo.” Without judging them, Antonioni painted these people and the lives they were fortunate enough to live with understanding, delicacy and passion. L’Avventura’s importance, originality and courage are easy to forget nowadays. Back in May 1960, however, Antonioni swam upstream, hit a couple of rocks and then changed the river’s flow.
Screenwriter must-read: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini & Tonino Guerra’s screenplay (transcript) for L’Avventura [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available from the Criterion Collection in a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
François Maurin’s interview with Michelangelo Antonioni, September 1960.
How would you define your journey toward realism?
I think that cinema, as a form of spectacle, is destined to undergo a transformation in the near future. For years now it has been showing signs of fatigue. In many countries, cinema is no longer able to compete with television, although from the artistic point of view television is at a much earlier stage of development. This is proof that cinema has wasted time following paths which are by now well-trodden. Cinematic narrative has lost a lot of its original character, and it is less and less able to satisfy the demands of today’s public. Old formulas are constantly reiterated. Despite the changes which have occurred in the last few years, directors are limited by technology. Forced to respect a series of conventions which influence his style, the director has lost his freedom over the subject of the film, over his own reality. This is alarmingly apparent in today’s films, and instances of interesting experimentation remain isolated incidents. Producers are undoubtedly the main culprits in this state of affairs. With few exceptions they are highly conservative; and they are such, if I may say so, almost by definition. At times you can still find some producers who venture onto less traveled paths to make unconventional films, but very often the lack of freedom from which cinema suffers almost everywhere dampens their initial enthusiasm. So they end up adapting to the norms and sticking to the tried and true.
After the war-after years of dramatic events, of fear and anxiety, of uncertainty over the fate of the world-it wasn’t possible to talk about anything else. A great French writer said: “There are moments when you don’t talk about trees because you are angry with trees.” There are also times when it would be dishonest for an intelligent man to ignore certain events, for an intelligence that quits is a contradiction in terms. I think that anyone who makes cinema should never lose the link with his own times. This doesn’t mean however that he has to reproduce and interpret its most dramatic events. (You can laugh too, why not? As a viewer I enjoy funny films). It’s a question of finding in ourselves the echo of our times. For a director this is the only way of being sincere and consistent toward himself, and honest and forthright toward other people-the only way to live. And yet I believe that the principle of “ever-greater truth” which in its most crude form is at the root of Italian neorealism, should today be broadened and deepened.
In a world that, in some respects, has become closer to normal, what counts is not so much-or not just-the relation ship of the individual to his environment, but rather the individual per se, in all his complex and disturbing truth. What torments contemporary man; what makes him tick? How do we see reflected in him what is going on in the world? What can we tell about his feelings? What can we tell about his psychology? These are the questions that we have to ask ourselves when we think about the subject for a film. Once we have chosen the subject, what are the paths that allow us to reach realism?
Perhaps I haven’t exactly answered your original question. But it’s difficult to focus on one’s soul. It is very hard because that is always the starting point, even when it’s the brain that is actually working. The spiritual life of a man follows a mysterious and unpredictable itinerary. And it’s difficult to retrace it after you’ve covered it. What I can say is that my way of achieving realism consists of this: trying to understand what is happening inside ourselves, today. In what way? That’s not for me to say.
Do you think a film should be felt rather than understood?
Yes, I certainly do. How do you expect me to “explain” my film?
Three issues emerge in L’Avventura: oblivion, the impossibility of perfect love, and the sense of loss which modern life creates in each of us. Which of these do you think is the most important?
I don’t agree with your list of issues on which L’Avventura is based. It’s obvious, for example, that the first of your three issues, oblivion, blends with the second. And in a sense, both these two in turn merge with the third. I think it would be risky to say that one is more important than another. Today, are men what they are because life is what it is, or is it the other way around? As far as I’m concerned, this alone could constitute a topic of research—an imaginative research, though, not a speculative one.
“Nowadays, even the people who aren’t afraid of the scientific unknown are afraid of the moral unknown.” That was something you said about L’Avventura. What did you mean by it?
I am convinced that today the individual, who takes such pains to widen the frontiers of his scientific knowledge, does nothing to advance himself from a moral point of view. He is still bound by old conventions, by obsolete myths, despite the fact that he is perfectly conscious of this state of affairs. Why should we go on respecting the ancient commandments if we know that they are no longer relevant? Perhaps what is holding us back is the fear of falling into the moral void, even if the void of the cosmos no longer frightens us. Why? Why do we refuse to push ourselves to the outer edges of our moral universe? These are questions to which, at the moment, it is impossible to provide any answers. But I still think it is important to ask them.
You have often been criticized for the slow pace of L’Avventura. What is the reason for that?
I hate the artificial mechanisms of conventional cinematic narration. Life has a completely different pace, sometimes fast, sometimes extremely slow. In a story about feelings, like L’Avventura, I felt the need to link feelings to time. Their own time. The more times I see L’Avventura, the more I am convinced that I found the right rhythm, I don’t think it could have had any other pace than the one it has.
In L’Avventura one notes an almost total lack ofmusic. Why did you make this choice and why, on the other hand, are there so many noises?
The use of music in films, as we think of it in the traditional sense, no longer has any right to exist. You use music to provoke in the spectator a certain state of mind. I don’t want music to provoke such a state of mind; I want the story itself to do it, via images. It’s true that there are certain let’s say—“musical” moments in the development of a story. They are the moments when you need to pull yourself away from reality. In those moments, music does have its place. At other times, you have to use noises, even if you don’t do that in any realistic way, but rather as if they were sound effects-naturally, in a poetic mode. In L’Avventura I believed it was more appropriate to use noises than music.
Could you talk to us about your latest film, La notte?
With La notte I tried to carry on the same discourse as in L’Avventura. We are fooling ourselves if we think that all we have to do is know all about ourselves, analyze the farthest reaches of our souls. That is, at most, a beginning. It is certainly not everything. In the best of cases, you achieve a kind of mutual compassion. But you have to go beyond that. The characters in La notte get to that point, but don’t manage to get beyond it. They are characters of today, not of tomorrow.
May I ask the critic who became a director what his idea of film criticism is?
Without criticism, art would lose its strongest supporter.
Of all your experiences in the cinema, which one has fascinated you the most?
The making of L’Avventura. While I was filming it, I lived through five extraordinary months. Extraordinary because they were violent, exhausting, obsessive, often dramatic, distressing, but above all fulfilling. And I think that in the film you notice it. The most difficult thing for me was to detach myself from all the things that could go wrong—and many things did go wrong. We filmed without a producer, without money, and without food, often risking our necks at sea in the storms. All of that changed the relationships among us, whether they were personal or professional relationships. We watched incredibly beautiful natural phenomena. My greatest difficulty, I say it again, was to cut myself off from everything that was happening, so that only the essential filtered through to the film—so that it had its own atmosphere, separate from what we were going through in real life. I used to get up every day at three in the morning just to be alone, in peace and able to reflect on what we were doing. At five, we would get on board the boat. Often, some of the crew refused to get in because of the weather and just a few of us would leave for the cliffs at Lisca Bianca. At that point, our struggle with the sea would begin: a struggle with the wind, with physical discomfort, with everybody’s bad temper, with tiredness and a strange form of emptiness, a complete lack of energy that often took hold of us. Five months like that. And let’s not forget that the director is the only one who is not allowed to have any of these feelings. He always has to be clear, calm, and collected no matter what happens. Sometimes I had to grit my teeth. When the film was finished, I felt drained. And I had to begin making La notte almost immediately. These are the minor crises that you have to go through. I don’t know whether anyone is interested in them; I only talked about them because you asked.
Jack Nicholson’s audio readings of two Antonioni essays (“L’Avventura: A Moral Adventure,” “Reflections on the Film Actor”) as well as his six minutes’ worth of jolly recollections shooting The Passenger with Antonioni in 1974. This recording originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2001 DVD edition of L’Avventura.
Monica Vitti on the film’s premiere.
“In the latest installment of Observations on Film Art, a Criterion Channel program in which professors David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Jeff Smith examine formal elements of the medium through the work of great auteurs, Bordwell analyzes the elusive style that would become a trademark of the director’s career. Below, watch an excerpt from the episode, in which Bordwell explores the film’s meticulous visual compositions and the way Antonioni withholds narrative information that moviegoers are accustomed to receiving.” —David Bordwell on the Restraint of L’Avventura
A video essay exploring the aesthetic tenets advanced by the Italian neorealist movement and their influence upon Michelangelo Antonioni’s exceptional contribution to the language of cinema.
Martin Scorsese on Michelangelo Antonioni.
Portrait of Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. In 1980 the great French philosopher and author Roland Barthes wrote an open letter to Antonioni. It is an appraisal of Antonioni’s place as an artist in the world. Barthes was a revolutionary thinker who, like Antonioni went beyond conventional modes of analysis. Dear Antonioni is linked by that letter, examines the life and work of one of the true masters of the cinema—with contributions and readings from Monica Vitti, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Vanessa Redgrave, Sam Shepard, David Hemmings, Furio Columbo, Alain Cuny, Christine Boissot, Carlo di Palma and Maria Schneider.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. Photographed by Enrico Appetito © Cino del Duca, Produzioni Cinematografiche Europee, Societé Cinématographique Lyre. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in[newsletter]