The first part of this review is a slightly revised version of the one I wrote about the Criterion edition of L'avventura in 2007. Go to “The DVD” for differences between the two editions.
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. The BFI database records just two television screenings, both on BBC2, in 1967 and 1997. 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 of seeing it. Ten years into the DVD era, we can become blasé about being able to buy this film on a home format (importing it from another country, no less) and watch it whenever we choose to, that it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always the case.
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 it is his best film is open to debate, with many viewers preferring the final film in the loose trilogy of black-and-white films Antonioni made with Monica Vitti, L’eclisse, which is also available on DVD from Criterion.
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” (which can be found in his 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 has developed a method of storytelling by showing rather than telling, by letting his images tell us what we need to know. It’s certainly a different way of telling a story – and will most likely 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 has 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 cinema's great collaborations between a director and an actress: they worked together again in La Notte and L’eclisse, as already mentioned, and also Antonioni’s first colour film The Red Desert. 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. Anyone with an interest in European cinema should see it.
The above was written in September 2007, following Antonioni's death. As I write this, a few days short of a year later, La Notte has had a fine release from Eureka/Masters of Cinema and The Red Desert is announced in SD DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI. In between is this all-regions edition of L'avventura from emerging label Mr Bongo.
The DVD is anamorphic, and in the ratio of 1.75:1. That's the same ratio as the Criterion, and it appears to be correct. However, the running time (143:20 – the Criterion is 143:09) gives away that this PAL DVD is mastered from a NTSC source, and artefacts such as ghosting are noticeable. Also, the contrast level is lower than on the Criterion. That said, this is a sharp transfer, only it's inferior to Criterion's. Screengrabs follow, Criterion first:
The soundtrack is mono, over two channels as opposed to the Criterion's one. There's nothing really to choose between the two DVDs in this respect..
There are no extras at all. For many films, this would not necessarily be a disadvantage. But for a film like L'avventura some context and commentary would be useful, not least because this is a film whose visual language does make demands on us. On the other hand, the Mr Bongo DVD will almost certainly be found cheaper than the Criterion will be.