L'avventura: Criterion UK Review
Much of the following is revised and updated from my review of the 2001 two-disc Criterion DVD edition of L'avventura here.
A group of friends go on a yachting trip, during which Anna (Lea Massari) disappears. Her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) search for her, but she is never found. As their efforts to find Anna ebb away, they find themselves falling in love with each other.
L’avventura premiered at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival and was notoriously booed by an audience frustrated by the film’s length and slow pace, and in particular its refusal to resolve the mystery it set up. However, at the same festival it won the Special Jury Award “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images”. It was number three in Sight and Sound’s 1962 poll of the greatest films of all time. It stayed in the top ten in the 1972 and 1982 polls, then dropped out as by then it had become a hard film to see, in the UK at least. It had two television showings on BBC2, in 1966 and 1967. It’s the kind of classic you’d read about in any book about world cinema or cinema history, but the combination of subtitles, black and white and “difficulty” were three strikes against it. For many people, myself included, its UK cinema reissue in 1995 (followed by a VHS release) was the first opportunity to watch it. It's easy to forget that quite a few canonical classics of world cinema were not easy to track down before the days of homevideo (let alone DVD or Blu-ray) if you didn't live within range of a city with an arthouse or repertory cinema.
At the turn of the decade, film, especially European arthouse cinema, was in the forefront of the arts, with the French New Wave just breaking, and great directors like Bergman and Fellini either at or approaching their peak. L’avventura was the film that added Antonioni to that list of European auteurs, and – along with Blowup - remains probably his best-known work. Whether L'avventura is Antonioni's best film is open to debate, with many viewers (including me) preferring the final film in the loose trilogy of black-and-white films the director made with Monica Vitti, L’eclisse or the middle one, La Notte. However, given that Vitti only has a supporting role in the latter, some would suggest the trilogy of her lead roles should end with Antonioni's first colour film, Red Desert. Or maybe they form a tetralogy. The choice is yours.
Few films alter our perceptions of what cinema is and can do. L’avventura may appear to be a mystery, but what Antonioni and his co-writers Elio Bartolini and Tonino Guerra do is invert its focus. This film is less about its mystery (which is not solved) but about the effect of that mystery on the characters, those who are left behind. That seems more familiar now, especially in the wake of films like Picnic at Hanging Rock which use the exact same narrative strategy, but in 1960 it was startling. Antonioni – who was forty-six at the time, and who had made five earlier features, all commercial failures – had invigorated cinema by incorporating techniques and themes from modernist literature, especially the then-current French nouveau roman movement. And literature listened too: judging from the references in his novels, the late John Fowles was a film buff, and he wrote his own variation on L’avventura with the novella “The Cloud”, the final story of his 1974 collection The Ebony Tower. Put simply, mystery has power, and to solve the mystery dilutes its power.
However, the real story of L’avventura is the developing love story between Claudia and Sandro. (As well as meaning “adventure”, avventura can also mean fling, or tryst, or affair.) But it’s a love that falters and, in a final sequence, is betrayed. Antonioni’s film is less about the people – whom we see from outside and are not always easily “readable” – than about their attempts to connect with each other, and the gulf between them, especially that between men and women. Particularly amongst the vacuous idle rich who make up most of the characters in this film, sex is simply a way of passing the time and a distraction from the emptiness of these men and women’s lives.
Very little of this is spelled out in dialogue: Antonioni had developed a method of storytelling by showing rather than telling, by letting his images tell us what we need to know. We see the characters from outside, so they are not always “knowable” to us, or, you suspect, sometimes to themselves. It’s certainly a different way of telling a story – and will certainly try the patience of those unsympathetic to it – but Antonioni frequently conjures up pictures that could be taken out and hung on walls, aided considerably by Aldo Scavarda’s pin-sharp, often deep-focussed black and white photography. Antonioni had one of the best eyes for modern architecture and its alienating effects – an influence on Michael Mann amongst others.
Another reason for the film’s impact is Monica Vitti. L’avventura began one of the great collaborations between a director and an actress. How great an actress Vitti is I’ll leave for others to decide, but it’s fair to say that Antonioni got more out of her than almost anyone else. Her presence, indeed her face, is our focus for much of the film, with the slightest shift of emotion having an endless fascination.
L’avventura is a great film, but it’s not light entertainment. Given a prepared audience it can be quite compelling, with sequences that will stay in your memory. Its place in cinema history is surely assured.
L'avventura is one of the first batch of Criterion's first batch of Blu-ray releases in the UK via Sony. The previous version I reviewed was their 2001 two-disc DVD edition, which I reviewed in 2007 in the wake of Antonioni's death. The film was given a X certificate in 1960 for its original UK cinema release, restricting the film to those sixteen and over, but it's been rated PG since 1995.
The DVD transfer was slightly windowboxed, giving a ratio of 1.75:1. On the other hand, the Blu-ray transfer is in 1.85:1, a common ratio in Italy at the time, and which certainly seems correct. This is derived from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and a 35mm finegrain. It looks very good indeed, with Aldo Scavarda's cinematography coming across very well, with blacks, whites and shades of grey all seeming right and grain natural and filmlike. Contrast, which is vital to a black and white film, seems spot-on. Screengrabs follow, the 2001 DVD first and then the present Blu-ray.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 1.0, and is clear and well-balanced. I’ll note in passing that Antonioni was more scrupulous about synchronising sound to the image than his occasional collaborator Fellini.
The commentary is by film historian Gene Youngblood. He begins by laying his cards on the table: he’s an unabashed fan of the film, having seen it a dozen times on first release. Over nearly two and a half hours, he delivers an absolutely fascinating commentary, elucidating the style and themes of the film as well as its effect on Antonioni’s career…in short, just the kind of discussion this supposedly “difficult” film needs.
The other on-disc extras begin with “Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials” (58:15), a 1966 documentary made for the National Film Board of Canada, directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi. In black and white 4:3, with a French voiceover (fixed English subtitles), this is a run-through of Antonioni’s career to date, with a distinctly heavyweight list of interviewees, Fellini, Marco Ferreri and Francesco Rosi among them. There is some behind-the-scenes footage.
Next up, Jack Nicholson (who worked with Antonioni on The Passenger) reads two essays by Antonioni, which were included in the press pack for L’avventura: “L’avventura: A Moral Adventure” (9:46) and “Reflections on the Film Actor” (6:10). Nicholson then continues with his own recollections, “Working with Antonioni” (5:18).
Not on the previous DVD is a 2004 interview with French film director Olivier Assayas. This amounts to a video essay, with shots of Assayas talking to camera (in French with English subtitles) alternating with extensive clips from the film. He discusses the film's techniques: not in itself unconventional, but in context groundbreaking, as he regards the Cannes premiere as a turning-point in film history and Anna's disappearance half an hour in to a film with nearly two hours left to run the point where conventional dramaturgy disappears. The piece is divided into three sections: “The Empty Center” (11:30), “Point Zero” (5:44) and “The Resolution” (9:34). There is a Play All option.
Finally there is the unintentionally funny (American) trailer for “Michelangelo Antonioni’s erotic adventure” (2:13), which promises you a “new experience in motion picture eroticism”. No doubt there were many disappointed faces back then.
Also in the package is an eight-page fold-out leaflet, carried forward from the DVD. It begins with “A Present Absence”, a two-page essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, a fairly entry-level introduction to the film compared to Youngblood's commentary, say. Also in the leaflet is the statement Antonioni made at the press conference at Cannes in 1960, in which he talks about a split between science which projects into the future but a morality which clings to the past. Finally there is the open letter signed by Cannes jurors and members of the press, ecpressing their admiration for the film and recognising its importance, in the wake of the hostility of its reception. Also included are film credits and transfer notes.