Red Desert Review

There is some debate as to where you would place Antonioni's Red Desert in his filmography. Some would call it a transitional work between his black and white trilogy of L'avventura, La Notte and L'eclisse, all of which star or at least feature Monica Vitti, who was the director's partner in life as well as on screen at the time, and his colour trilogy, made for MGM with producer Carlo Ponti, of Blowup, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger. Or you could note that Vitti only has a supporting role in La Notte so you could argue that Red Desert is the real trilogy closer. Or you could speak of a Vitti tetralogy. However you consider it, Red Desert does seem like a film which closes one part of Antonioni's career while pointing the way to future work.

The black-and-white L'eclisse ends with an extraordinary seven-minute, all but abstract sequence, without any actors (apart from a few passersby). It's as if Antonioni is acknowledging that he cannot go further with the kind of filmmaking he had made his own. One obvious departure in Red Desert is that it is the director's first film in colour. Set in Ravenna, an industrial port on the east coast of Italy, Red Desert displays the same eye for modernist, even futuristic architecture as the earlier films do. And like those earlier films, Antonioni puts a woman centre stage. This is Giuliana (Vitti), married to oil refinery manager Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) and mother of his son. From the outset she is anxious and alienated Gradually we learn that Giuliana was hospitalised after a car crash that may have been a suicide attempt. The only person she seems to have a connection with is Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). Himself restless and not at home with himself, he is considering emigrating to Patagonia, with the possibilities of the oil industry opening up there. Antonioni explicitly links Giuliana's mental state with the brutal, noisy, industrialised landscape she inhabits, as if one is as sick as the other. (You can see in this film the first stirrings of environmental concerns in the mid 1960s.) As always, Giuliana cannot really connect with the men in their life: the only way they know how is via sex, a distraction but one that in no way meets her needs.

Antonioni paid particular attention to the colours in this film, often painting objects and walls a particular tone. Often he clothes Vitti and Harris in dark colours, placing them against grey backgrounds, with only the pink of their faces standing out. A late sequence illustrating a story Giuliana tells her son is the only one in the film where the colour is not manipulated in some way, yet it seems itself heightened and unrealistic. Although Antonioni did some wholesale redecoration in later films, notably Blowup such experimentation with colour is something he did not return to to such an extent. An exception is 1980's The Oberwald Mystery, his comeback to feature directing after eight years, shot on PAL video and reuniting him with Monica Vitti.

Yet Red Desert marks several endings too. Before The Oberwald Mystery, generally considered a minor work, this was Antonioni's last film made in Italy, his last with Monica Vitti and indeed his last film to centre on a female protagonist. (Vitti and Antonioni's affair broke up shortly after shooting, and she went on to have an affair with the film's DP, Carlo di Palma.) Vitti's acting has been much criticised, but that seems unfair to me: she holds centre stage and ably conveys Giuliana's state of mind. Cast somewhat against type and dubbed into Italian, Richard Harris brings a febrile physicality to his role, appropriate for someone whose cure for his own dissatisfaction is never to stay in the same place.

On the surface, very little “happens” in Red Desert as all the action is about the life of the characters and particularly the environment they inhabit and the spaces between them. Yet the film is a compelling mood piece and particularly beautiful to look at.


The BFI's release of Red Desert is ra DVD-9 encoded for Region 2 only. It is also available as a Region B Blu-ray, and that edition is reviewed by Noel Megahey here.

The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced. Like the Blu-ray edition, this is derived from a high-definition transfer from the film's original negative. The results look stunning and true to Antonioni and Di Palma's distinctive colour scheme. Inevitably, given advances in colour film stock, the picture is quite grainy by modern standards. Inevitably, given the age of the film, there are some signs of minor damage. Short of seeing Red Desert on a big screen in a pristine 35mm print, this is (second to the Blu-ray) as good as you will ever likely to see the film.

The soundtrack is in mono, as it always has been. Sound plays an important part in the film, from the loud factory noises to the quiet of in interior of Giuliana's house, to Giovanni Fusco's discordant electronic score. Like most Italian films of the period, Red Desert was entirely post-synchronised and there are some lapses of lipsynch, most noticeable with the dubbing of Richard Harris into Italian.

The commentary is provided by David Forgacs, from the Department of Italian at University College London. This is a clear and informative discussion of the film, its influences within contemporary art and culture (for example, the paintings of Mark Rothko, whom Antonioni had met) and the context in the careers and personal life of its director and leading actors. This commentary has optional subtitles.

The trailer (3:43) is a prime example of trying to have its cake and eat it. It begins with black and white footage from the Venice Film Festival (where Red Desert premiered, and had won the Golden Lion) and refers to “the masterpiece by Michelangelo Antonioni”. In contrast to such high-toned stuff, the rest of the trailer over-emphasises the film's sexual content. This does remind you that one of the less elevated reasons for watching European arthouse cinema at the time was that it often went farther in its depiction of sex and nudity than Hollywood was able to. Compare with the trailer for L'avventura, and consider the difficulties the British censor in particular had with Blowup and Zabriskie Point in particular.

As always, the BFI include a booklet, which begins with David Forgacs again, with a three-page essay on Red Desert. This is followed by a piece, extracted from a 1964 interview, where Antonioni talks about Red Desert, and an overview of the director's life and career by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.

Antonioni's great films from the 60s can be read about in many a film book. However, with television showings akin to hen's teeth, unless you are lucky enough to live near a repertory cinema, chances to actually see the films have not been plentiful. You have DVD, and in this case the BFI, to thank for that no longer being the case. I had not seen Red Desert before watching this DVD for review, and its impact is considerable, visually and aurally and thematically - a film which hopefully will reward repeated viewings on a disc that is more than worthy of it.

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