L'avventura: Criterion Collection Review

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. (Hopefully they will complete the trio with the middle film, La Notte.)

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 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 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 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.

Criterion’s DVD, released in 2001, is a two-disc edition in NTSC format, encoded for all regions. The first disc is dual-layered, featuring the film with a commentary, with a single-layered second disc containing additional extras.

Although the packaging gives the aspect ratio as 1.77:1 (anamorphic) but that’s not quite right, as the sides of the transfer are slightly windowboxed. This makes the DVD transfer 1.75:1, which is a cinema ratio, if a not especially common one. (1.66:1 is more common in continental Europe, though many Italian films use 1.85:1 as indeed does Antonioni in L’eclisse.) This DVD has one of the best transfers of a vintage black and white film I’ve ever seen, with only minor flaws such as occasional scratches. The sharpness and contrast are superb: blacks and whites are just right, with all shades of grey in between.

The soundtrack is the original mono, and is just fine. 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. This commentary has its own index on the menu page but is unfortunately has no subtitles available. The remaining item on Disc One is Criterion’s trademark set of colour bars.

Disc Two begins with “Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials” (58:12), 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 all say their piece and 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” and “Reflections on the Film Actor”. Nicholson then continues with his own recollections of working with the director. These three items constitute one title on the DVD – running 21:09 in total – but there is no “play all” option. There are no subtitles available.

Finally there are the unintentionally funny (American) trailer for “Michelangelo Antonioni’s erotic adventure” (2:12), a “new experience in motion picture eroticism” and a short restoration demonstration (3:32). Later Criterions often have detailed booklets. This one has a leaflet which contains – along with film and DVD credits, a chapter list and transfer notes – an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.

Antonioni’s reputation has been in decline for some time. Although you have to admire him working into his nineties despite suffering a major stroke which robbed him of the power of speech, it’s also the case that he seems tied to a specific decade – the 1960s – and its concerns, with his later work showing a distinct fall-off in quality. Some of this is due to the type of high art cinema that he made – films of undoubted moral seriousness, asking large questions about humanity and society – is now out of fashion, with most of its exponents elderly, marginalised and in many cases dead. Many people have claimed that the films that Criterion have released on DVD are “obscure” but I have never agreed with that. For the most part they are films that most people with any interest in film history will have heard of if not seen – textbook classics of a kind that should be made available. L’avventura is one such film, one of the most influential films of the last half-century and a film still capable of having an impact on those who see it. This DVD has a few niggles – such as a lack of subtitles on the extras – but the picture quality is as good as you are likely to find for a film of this age on standard-definition DVD.

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