Red Desert Review
It’s interesting to note that, although they had come by very different routes despite at one point collaborating on one film together (The White Sheik), by the time they came to make their first colour films at roughly the same time, both Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni had felt they had taken their work as far as it could go and were looking for a new way of expressing their ideas through cinema. That direction and break from tradition was certainly marked out by Fellini in his last black-and-white film 8 ½, while for Antonioni, his trilogy of films featuring Monica Vitti, L’Avventura, La Notte and particularly the final extraordinary abstract moments of L’Eclisse also strongly indicated a new path to be explored. Co-incidentally, both directors seized on the opportunity to make their first colour film to experiment with the new dimension this afforded, using colours to explore a heightened inner reality of their characters. Inspired by LSD trips to explore his own personal obsessions through dream imagery, there is consequently little sense of realism in Fellini’s Giulietta degli Spiriti (1965) and Antonioni adopts a similar approach to colour in Red Desert (1964), also pushing it far beyond naturalism, but without the often hackneyed imagery and overt symbolism of Fellini, seeking rather to find a more original means to better represent the nature of his characters in relation to their environment.
It’s a particularly disturbed representation of alienation in response to industrialisation that Antonioni depicts in Red Desert, the film set in the industrial landscapes of the port of Ravenna on the east coast of Italy. The men who work at the oil refinery there are cold and emotionally distant, out of touch with normal human feelings, but they have adapted to their environment with frightening facility and even pragmatism. The film focuses primarily however on Giuliana (Monica Vitti), the wife of the manager of the refinery, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), and the sense of alienation would seem to be rather more emotionally disturbing to the female nature, the viewer soon learning that Giuliana has been hospitalised after a car accident which transpires to have been a suicide attempt. While even her young son, a mere child, will even eventually betray her, there is one man she believes can relate to what she is feeling. Corrado (Richard Harris) has also come to the fear his own environment but can see no other means of escaping it than to keep on moving. He intends to set up his own oil business in Patagonia and is looking for employees willing to make the journey with him, but while exploring options with Ugo, he becomes fascinated by this strange woman so disconnected from the world around them who is seeking to find some means of living in it.
Although it can be somewhat disorientating, making sudden leaps in time and location, the disorientation is appropriate to the subject and the basic premise of the love affair at the centre of Red Desert is still quite evident. There is much more to the film however than it being a simple commentary on alienation and disassociation from human feelings in a cold, unemotional modern industrial environment. There are many ways of viewing Red Desert, but seeing it in any one way to the exclusion of the others is to miss the multiplicity of riches in the film or in Antonioni’s treatment which achieves an extraordinary emotional resonance that is scarcely detectable or even visible in any one element of the film. Certainly the film can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level. It’s a strikingly beautiful film to look at - the framing, colour balance and precision of the photography attesting to the nature of the industrial landscape, with threatening geometrical structures and technology that suggest only death, or at least the absence and incongruity of humanity. The importance of the characters in relation to this environment is then also important, as is the journey they travel through it, Giuliana wanting to escape through the colours she wishes to paint her shop and in the story she tells her son, the only place where naturalistic colours can be seen in the film. All the elements are important certainly, but they are constantly thrown off-balance – the narrative, the manipulated colours of the locations and the characters themselves. The internal gyroscope has failed and it is becoming increasingly difficult to recognise true human emotions that have become lost or corrupted, normal appetites twisted into the striving for mere sexual conquests and business acquisitions, neither of which ever seem to bring any satisfaction.
As a whole, the altering of balance in this combination of every element from the relationships of the characters to the colouration creates a dissonance of its own. It’s the indefinable then that drives Red Desert, the struggle of its characters to comprehend who they are and how they are meant to relate to the increasingly unfamiliar and alien world around them, and to other people who live in it. Whether it is expressed through the radio telescopes that are attempting to listen to the random noise of the stars for a coherent message or through the connections between them that Corrado and Giuliana try to explore, it’s about attempting to find something real and meaningful in this strange world around them. It’s not enough to string together what Giuliana describes as “a nice bunch of words”, nor is it enough for Antonioni to string together a nice bunch of images. Something else must arise out of them. Whether the director achieves that will be down to what the individual viewer makes of it all, and some might not find that there is anything particularly deep in Antonioni’s vision of the world in Red Desert, but the means by which he attempts to control and extend the range of cinematic expression here in every single element, in every single frame and in every word is remarkable, the director indeed finding another level upon which cinema can work and express the inexpressible.
Red Desert is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. The film is presented on BD25 disc with a 1080/24p encode. The Blu-ray disc is encoded for Region B.
In short, the High Definition presentation of Red Desert is magnificent. It’s certainly not a perfect print, but you wouldn’t expect a 45 year old film to look perfect since any even minor flaws would be magnified in HD. On the other hand, Antonioni’s film is so boldly coloured and photographed that it really looks quite remarkable here. Grain consequently is the most evident issue, but perhaps the only one of any significance. Even that is handled extremely well, the dancing grain structure only evident in skies and occasionally in backgrounds, and only really apparent when viewed in freeze-frame. You might not think that you would resort to freeze-frame over normal playback, but this is a film and a presentation that just invites you to stop and contemplate the imagery, framing and colouration. Any close examination of the transfer then will reveal the impressive detail that is visible, the accuracy of skin-tones (or the Technicolor representation of skin-tones at least) and the richness of the deep fully-saturated colouration. The overall tone tends to be a little on the dark side, strongly contrasted, but it seems appropriate here, emphasising the balance/off-balance nature of the film. Blacks consequently can be rather impenetrable, but they hold up impressively with no flutter or noise. There are one or two white flecks, but very few and very infrequently. Some “pops” in the image can be seen in one or two places, but these are acknowledged in the restoration notes in the enclosed booklet as “slight warping and sprocket wear”. They also cause no significant issues with viewing and may even be barely detectable to most people. Movement is fluid throughout and the overall stability is excellent. Not perfect maybe, but still a transfer that will greatly impress the viewer.
The original Italian audio track is presented in PCM 1.0 mono (48k/16bit) and it’s equally impressive, having good clarity and tone, with no trace of any background noise, hiss or distortion. Even the electronic noise on the music score and the occasional high-pitched singing is strong and well-defined. Background noises and sound effects also seem fine, but perhaps are slightly more muffled through noise reduction. Lip-syncing is only an issue in as far as any Italian films from this period are with post-synchronised dialogue, evidently most noticeable in the overdubbed Richard Harris.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They are clearly readable throughout. I only noted one occasion when they weren’t quite as clear when the thin font was set against a brighter foreground, but even there readability isn’t much of a problem.
Extra features aren’t numerous, but all are well-selected and prove to be very informative.
The extended Trailer (3:53) is built around the film’s presentation and success at Venice, where it won the Golden Lion in 1964. It does tend to misrepresent the film as a colourful, swinging relationship drama. The quality of the trailer is good, and it would appear to actually show less grain than the film itself, though colouration and tone is slightly more muted.
David Forgacs provides a comprehensive commentary on the film, providing information on the cast, discussion of the film’s subject and its social context, as well as the techniques used by the director, using quotes and references throughout. He makes some perceptive observations about the characters, their actions and behaviours, and if at times it seems a little bit descriptive of the action or leading the viewer to one particular reading, there’s acknowledgement that any ultimate meaning of the enigmatic film is inevitably going to be elusive or down to the individual viewer.
David Forgacs also provides a clear, lucid essay on the film in the accompanying fully illustrated booklet, looking closer at the economic conditions in Italy at the time and how they related to Antonioni and his work up to that date. There is also an invaluable essay on the film by Michelangelo Antonioni himself where he considers the inspiration for the film and discusses his treatment of the characters and filming technique for the colouring, music and landscapes. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith briefly covers the life and work of Antonioni, noting his key films and the progress of themes and topics, as well as the techniques employed by the director.
Red Desert is one of those films where on the surface not a lot seems to happen, and what does happen seems difficult to comprehend or define. Much of this is down to the disorienting techniques employed by Michelangelo Antonioni through lapses and leaps in time and through the manipulated colouration of the industrial environment his characters exist in. More than what is on the screen, it’s through what your eyes don’t see and what your mind can’t process that Red Desert achieves its impact. That might sound vague and like a lot of hard work for the viewer, but the power of the film is evident in so many other ways, in the aura of the actors, in the cinematography and in the piecing together of the fragmented storyline, keeping the viewer involved throughout. The BFI’s presentation of the film on Blu-ray goes a long way towards engaging the viewer also, with some good commentary and examination of the film’s themes, but most of all through the simply outstanding presentation of an immensely powerful and visual film.