Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production: Produzioni Cinematografiche Europee, Cino del Duca, (Rome), and Société Cinématographique (Paris); black and white, 35mm; running time: 139 minutes, also 130 minutes. Released 25 September 1960, Bologna and Paris. Filmed September 1959 through January 1960 in Rome and Sicily (the isles of Lipari, Milazzo, Catania, and Taormina).
Producer: Amato Pennasilico; screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra, from an original story by Michelangelo Antonioni; photography: Aldo Scavarda; editor: Eraldo da Roma; sound: Claudio Maielli; scene designer: Piero Polletto; music: Giovanni Fusco; costume designer: Adriana Berselli.
Cast: Monica Vitti (Claudia); Gabriele Ferzetti (Sandro); Lea Massari (Anna); Dominique Blanchar (Giulia); Renzo Ricci (Anna's Father); James Addams (Corrado); Dorothy De Poliolo (Gloria Perkins); Lelio Luttazzi (Raimondo); Giovanni Petrucci (Young Painter); Esmeralda Ruspoli (Patrizia); with Enrico Bologna; Franco Cimino; Giovanni Danesi; Rita Molé; Renato Pincicoli; Angela Tommasi di Lampedusa; Vincenzo Tranchina; Joe Fisherman from Panarea (Old man on the island); Prof. Cucco (Ettore).
Awards: Special Jury Prize, Cannes Festival, 1960.
Screenplays of Michelangelo Antonioni, New York, 1963.
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* * *
When L'avventura was screened at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival its audience whistled, stamped, and shouted. They were not expressing enthusiasm. Antonioni's film had proved incomprehensible to them, as it was to prove to many an audience all over Europe. Significantly, however, this did not prevent the film from finding admirers and achieving remarkably large audience figures in several countries. This was the beginning of the age of the art-movie, and L'avventura was perfectly suited to the growing number of arthouses. After the debacle at Cannes, 35 critics and filmmakers issued a statement of support for L'avventura and its director, a view which was echoed in film criticism around the world. Within a year L'avventura had secured its place in film history.
What was it about the film that encouraged such extremes of disgust and admiration? The most common charge of the dissenters was that L'avventura was quite meaningless and, consequently, utterly boring. Foolishly, some defenders sought to turn that argument by making a virtue out of meaninglessness itself. To them L'avventura was the perfect aesthetic object: beautiful to observe but devoid of any cognitive or moral import. Apart from the fact that it is patently not devoid of such features, this view (not uncommon in art-house circles) makes the peculiar assumption that the look of a film is somehow independent of meaning, that beauty and meaning are separate elements in art. Others argued more cogently that L'avventura worked with and developed a new language of cinema, and that to understand it was to master an alien form. Hence the anger at Cannes among those not prepared to make that effort.
This claim does have some truth to it, thought it overstates the film's innovative qualities. L'avventura shares much with its two immediate predecessors, Le amiche and Il grido, both in theme and style. It hardly emerged from nowhere, though it is perhaps more unremittingly austere than anything its director had previously made. But it clearly does play down conventional narrative to the point of extinction. The "plot" of L'avventura (and the term is barely applicable) can be described in a couple of sentences. A young woman, Anna, disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro, and her friend, Claudia, search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna's disappearance is never explained, and ceases to be of any interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action seen in real time. Its characters communicate little in dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other out into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape. We are invited to contemplate them, but not to identify. Point-of-view shots are rare, and shot-reverse shot sequences, where they exist, usually include both parties fully in the shot. In these and other ways L'avventura excludes us from emotional involvement in any but the most cerebral sense.
Perhaps, then, the Cannes reception is unsurprising. In the two decades since L'avventura's first appearance, narrative conventions have changed, but they have still nowhere near approached Antonioni's limit. In respect of its form L'avventura is as striking today as it was then, its invitation to contemplate its agonized characters as demanding as ever. Its meanings, however, are less elusive than they appeared to many in 1960. Hindsight and the cultural changes of the intervening years have rendered the film more transparent, its ideas more clearly part of their period. Antonioni himself, in a statement accompanying the film at Cannes, said that L'avventura charted a world in which "we make use of an aging morality, of outworn myths, of ancient conventions." The world had changed, yet human beings were trapped by the old standards. His characters, accordingly, can find no meaningful way to relate to each other, finally arriving, as he describes it, "at a sort of reciprocal pity."
Embedded in this diffuse account of modern social ills is a more specific lament at the degradation of creativity and sexuality. The love-making in L'avventura (except, briefly, for Claudia, the only fleetingly optimistic figure in a deeply depressing film) is without meaning or joy. Creative aspirations are stultified. As Sandro observes in a rare moment of self-perception, "I saw myself as a genius working in a garret. Now I've got two flats and I've neglected to become a genius." Materialism, alienation, and neurosis are the watchwords of this world. These were not new ideas, of course, and by 1960 there was a well established tradition of such despair in European art. What was new, and remains hugely impressive, was Antonioni's facility at expressing such ideas in a cinema shorn of conventional narrative aids. A sense of the alienation of people from their environment and from each other is conveyed in every stark composition, in every studied camera movement. The meaning of the film is there in its very fabric. L'avventura is never meaningless; if anything it is overloaded with meaning.
In an interview with Georges Sadoul, Antonioni made this observation, "when I finished L'avventura I was forced to reflect on what it meant." The lasting impact of the film has been to force the rest of us to take seriously the idea of a genuinely reflective cinema.