Great wide open: L’Avventura

Antonioni’s L’avventura is now more influential than ever, argues Robert Koehler in the latest of our series on contenders for our Greatest Films of All Time poll.

Robert Koehler
Updated:

Poll countdown essay no. 8 | from our August 2011 issue

When Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura arrived in 1960 – amidst a tumultuous reception in Cannes that saw some disturbed audience members wanting to throw something at the screen – cinema was already changing in fundamental ways. The makers of individual, handmade films that had been institutionally kept out on the fringes (Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Norman McLaren, to name but three) were starting to draw more viewers and critical attention. The narrative feature film underwent a revision, from inside the nouvelle vague (Godard’s Breathless) and out (Agnès Varda’s first films, Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad). Meanwhile the Italian film world had already seen the old codes of neorealism swept away – much of it Antonioni’s own doing – and had moved towards a post-neorealist cinema liberated from melodrama and political ideologies, perhaps best exemplified in 1959 by Ermanno Olmi’s first feature Time Stood Still.

A new, maturing modernity became widespread in cinema. The years 1959 to 1960 can be identified as a world-historical moment for film. In line with the development of lenses, film stocks and new and smaller cameras (including a more ubiquitous use of 16mm), the modernism that took hold showed yet again the time lag after which cinema typically comes to embrace changes that have occurred first in other artforms: for instance, the radical overhaul of jazz by bebop; the transformation of the sound world of music by such figures as Edgard Varèse and Harry Partch; the abstract-expressionist movement in painting from Pollock to Rothko; the ‘new novel’ invading literature (on which Marienbad drew, courtesy of a script by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet).

In this exceptional moment, some of cinema’s old props were being kicked away, including Hollywood’s genre formulae, the three-act narrative structure, the privileging of psychology, the insistence on happy and ‘closed’ endings. But what did it mean to free oneself of the securing laws and traditions of genre, its capacity for creating worlds and codes? What did it mean to reject a storytelling architecture that had served dramatists well since Aeschylus? What kind of moving-image experience with actors could exist beyond psychology – which, after all, was still on the 20th century’s new frontier of science and society? What if endings were less conclusive, or less ‘satisfying’? These are the questions Antonioni confronted and responded to with L’avventura, the film that – more than any other at that moment – redefined the landscape of the artform, and mapped a new path that still influences today’s most venturesome and radical young filmmakers.

For some that film would instead be Breathless. Godard’s accidental discovery of the jump cut (courtesy of his editor) helped him rejig a more conventional yet sly imagining of the crime movie into a piece of radical art, a way of fracturing time as important as Picasso’s and Braque’s Cubist fracturing of space and perception. It’s also arguable that Godard had the more immediate impact, especially through the 1960s, since his taste for pop-culture iconography, graphic wordplay and politics positioned him a bit closer to the centre of the period’s cultural zeitgeist than Antonioni (despite the Italian’s subsequent ability to capture swinging London and The Yardbirds in 1966’s Blowup, and Los Angeles counterculture in 1970’s Zabriskie Point). Even a movie with huge pop figures and crossover attraction like Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) would have been unthinkable without the example of Godard.

Yet I’d argue that L’avventura and Antonioni’s subsequent films – perhaps most importantly L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) – have exerted a greater long-term impact (his effect on the generations after the 1960s is something I’ll consider later). One of L’avventura’s many remarkable qualities to note now is its staying power – its ability to astonish anew after repeated viewings. Many great films are of their moment, yet lessen over time. Here, the entrance of Monica Vitti, with her classically hip black dress and sexily tousled blonde mane, amounts to an announcement that the 60s have arrived; a lesser work with her in it would be no more than a key identifier of that moment.

It’s the film’s subtle straddling of an older world and a new one still in the process of defining itself – reflected immediately and perfectly in composer Giovanni Fusco’s opening title theme, alternating between nostalgic Sicilian strummings and nervous, creeping percussive beats – that establishes its rich, unending landscapes of physical reality and the mind. This is part of the film’s timelessness, within an absolutely contemporary / modern setting. The early images of L’avventura trace a parting of the generations, as Anna (Lea Massari) – seemingly the film’s central character – tells her wealthy Roman father that she’s going away on a holiday to Sicily with girlfriend Claudia (Vitti), then seen very much on the periphery of the action, tagging along. But after Anna inexplicably disappears during a boat trip to an uninhabited island, it is Claudia who moves to the centre of the narrative – and into the affections of Anna’s architect boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) – as attempts to find Anna gradually peter out.

What makes L’avventura the greatest of all films, however, is its assertion, exploration and expansion of the concept of the ‘open film’. This had been Antonioni’s great project ever since he started out as a filmmaker after an extremely interesting career as a critic (like Godard). His early documentaries, such as The People of the Po (Gente del Po, 1947), and his earliest narrative films, such as the astonishing Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore, 1950), suggest an artist pulling against what he perceived as the constraints of neorealism towards an openness based on a heightened perception of constant change – a dynamic that was for him the fundamental quality of the post-war world.

A new question

For Antonioni, the issues of neorealism were essential, in that they gave him an aesthetic base from which to launch. The People of the Po is an early neorealist work, both in its submersion in unvarnished realism and its interest in the lives of working people, but it also works against the predominant tendency in neorealism to project sympathy and sentimentality. By the time of Story of a Love Affair, teeming with characters from the upper and middle classes, his was not a class-based cinema; it offered instead a broader perspective – observant, distanced, occasionally unsympathetic. It reached into a more modern realm than neo-realism, a realm that had no name for it – and in fact still doesn’t.

Antonioni was never a leader – nor even part – of a movement. That’s partly because with each successive film he constantly redefined his approach. Roland Barthes, in his profoundly perceptive and concise 1980 speech honouring Antonioni, identified the process this way: “It is because you are an artist that your work is open to the Modern. Many people take the Modern to be a standard to be raised in battle against the old world and its compromised values; but for you the Modern is not the static term of a facile opposition; the Modern is on the contrary an active difficulty in following the changes of Time, not just at the level of grand History but at that of the little History of which each of us is individually the measure. Beginning in the aftermath of the last war, your work has thus proceeded, from moment to moment, in a movement of double vigilance, towards the contemporary world and towards yourself. Each of your films has been, at your personal level, a historical experience, that is to say the abandonment of an old problem and the formulation of a new question; this means that you have lived through and treated the history of the last 30 years with subtlety, not as the matter of an artistic reflection or an ideological mission, but as a substance whose magnetism it was your task to capture from work to work.”

L’avventura builds on the work and experiences of Antonioni’s previous decade, which saw him working through his doubts about genre (film noir in Story of a Love Affair, backstage drama in La signora senza camelie, 1953); about narrative form (the counter-intuitive three-part structure of I vinti, 1952); his love of writer Cesare Pavese (author of the source novel for 1955’s Le amiche) – as important a literary voice to Antonioni as Cesare Zavattini was to the hardcore neorealists. And add to this his growing interest in temporality, the emptied-out frame, the composition that maintains both precision and an expansive gaze that treats bodies, buildings and landscapes with equal importance.

With only a few filmmakers (Mizoguchi, Renoir, Dreyer, von Sternberg, Resnais, Olmi, Kubrick, and more recently Costa, Alonso and Apichatpong) is there such a visible, constant seeking of artistic purpose through the process of each successive film – a striving, a refinement. Antonioni’s 1950s work represents one of the most fruitful directorial decades to watch of any filmmaker. Already in some ways a master in 1950, he proceeded to question his own positions with each film, as if the doubts he had about the state of the post-war world resided, originally, in himself, and then fanned out to the making of the work itself, so that the expression of mortality (most explicitly conveyed in a Pavese adaptation such as Le amiche) inside the film was part and parcel of the director’s own tentative stance. (Tentato suicido/Tentative Suicide is the title of Antonioni’s segment in the 1953 omnibus film L’amore in città.)

These were not only cerebral matters – though the intellectual currents running underneath these films and under the neorealist movement preceding them were crucial to their fecundity – but real concerns rooted in the hard factors that faced any Italian filmmaker trying to get a project off the ground. Antonioni’s tentativeness – a constant fascination to his supporters in the French critical community, and an irritation to many of his Italian contemporaries – was partly based on the tentativeness of Italian film production itself. In almost no case during the 1950s did he encounter a smooth pre-production, firm financial backing or drama-free production periods. The typically poor performance of his films at the box office did little to enamour him to distributors and producers, though in the then nascent world of the auteur film business, it helped enormously that his films did well – even smashingly well – in Paris.

After the commercial failure of Il grido (1957) and an initially limp critical response, Antonioni seriously considered abandoning the cinema altogether, and returned to the theatre, where he had worked in the early years of his career. Even when he did come back to film, to shoot L’avventura, all of his worst concerns came back to haunt him. Already shaky producers bailed out mid-shoot as their company, Imeria, went bankrupt, leaving the crew literally high and dry on the desert island of Lisca Bianca, without sufficient food and water, in a hair-raising episode that makes Coppola’s misadventures filming Apocalypse Now in the Filipino jungle sound like a stroll on the beach.

Surpassing mysteries

This context, in all its intellectual and practical dimensions, is crucial to comprehending the massive achievement that L’avventura represents. How a film of such constant perfection could even be made under such dreadful conditions is, for me, one of the surpassing mysteries of film history. Viewed in isolation (and aren’t almost all films, even more now in our isolated viewing environments?), L’avventura can superficially be seen as magnificently beautiful in its constant chain of stunning black-and-white images from cinematographer Aldo Scavarda (with whom Antonioni had never previously worked, and never would again).

L’avventura is populated by good-looking actors oozing sex appeal. Monica Vitti, for one, had never had a starring film role before, but with her smouldering presence it was she – as much as Sophia Loren or Ingmar Bergman’s ensemble of intelligent and worldly actresses – who set the standard and the look for the new, sexualised European movie star that was key to the successful foreign-film invasion that hit English-language shores (and was perceived as such a threat by LBJ and his White House crony Jack Valenti that they set up the American Film Institute as a nationalist bulwark against the foreigners supposedly taking over US cinemas). For New York downtown hipsters, London cosmopolitans and Paris cinephiles alike, the combination of serious cinema and sexual beauty was simply too much to pass up.

All that may be why L’avventura had its immediate impact. (A special jury prize from Cannes, after all that booing and hissing, also didn’t hurt.) But the endurance of the film, residing crucially in its conceptual openness, describes a pathway that cinema has been exploring and testing ever since. Much as Flaubert’s novels and Beethoven’s symphonies, concertos and string quartets are continually regenerated by way of the new directions they paved, and the new generations of work following such directions, so Antonioni’s work – and L’avventura in particular – is regenerated by the subsequent cinema that came in its wake.

As Geoffrey Nowell-Smith observes in his essential study of the film, the periphery in Antonioni is of absolute importance, for this is where the sense of drift in his mise-en-scène and narratives resides – a de-centred centrality. No filmmaker before Antonioni, not even the most radical visionaries like Vigo, had established this before as a part of their aesthetic project. In the early scenes when Anna visits Sandro, or when they join their holiday boating group, Vitti’s Claudia remains for a long time on the outside looking in, marginalised, seemingly unimportant. And yet there is something in her nervous gaze, her subtle physical gestures, that makes her impossible not to notice, especially in contrast to Anna’s inner tension and outward unhappiness – an unhappiness she can’t identify, even in private to Claudia.

These are most certainly not Bergman women, forever examining themselves, forever able to articulate the exact words in whole spoken paragraphs about their state of mind, their relationship with God. For one thing, in Antonioni, God doesn’t exist. The state of the world is one of humans searching for some kind of connection amidst a disinterested nature; the island on which the floating party lands is both exotically remote and barren, like a volcano frozen during eruption. The landscapes in L’avventura have been interpreted in a number of different ways that testify to the film’s Joycean levels of readings: from Seymour Chatman’s insistence on metonyms for his reading of what he calls Antonioni’s “surface of the world”, to Gilberto Perez’s more valuable view of the work in his extraordinary film study The Material Ghost, across a whole range of possible interpretations, from the literary to the visual. For me, however, it’s always tempting to see these people – on this island, at that moment – as the last humans on earth.

In L’avventura, more than any film before it had ever dared, the centre will not hold. The open film is a fluid thing, pulsating, forever changing, shifting from one centre to another, not quite beginning and not quite ending (or at least beginning something new in its ‘ending’). Anna, the centre, vanishes, with no visual or verbal clues to trace her by, except rumours of sightings. She was in effect the glue that held the party together, having helped bring Claudia in closer to her circle of friends – and to Sandro. But with Anna’s disappearance, the film alters shape in front of us; a sudden absence actually expands the film’s eye. Individual shots become more extended and prolonged, the sky and land grow larger, the elements become more tangible (clouds, rain, harsher sun).

Here and now

What’s even more disturbing is that nothing happens – no discovery, no evidence, no detective work and, finally, no memory. L’avventura is, in part, the story of how a woman is forgotten, to the extent that long before the film is done, Anna is less than a trace on a page, a ghost or a photo in an album. A more sentimental filmmaker or a Hollywood studio would have ensured that Anna lived on through Claudia and Sandro’s love affair and possible union. But here, after a while, they don’t speak of Anna anymore. She gradually fades, which is what happens to the dead as regarded by the living (not that Anna is necessarily dead; the film neither encourages nor discourages the suggestion). Although their joint actions ostensibly trace an effort to collect any information on Anna’s whereabouts, Antonioni suggests that the activity of Claudia and Sandro isn’t nearly as important as their time together in this moment, in this or that place.

About those places. The greatness of L’avventura is multivalent, situated in many realms at once: cinematic, aural, existential, literary, architectural, sexual, philosophical – all of them of equal importance. The open film, beyond its fluidity, is amoral in the best sense, or at least unconcerned with a hierarchy of values. Almost all films of any kind privilege certain artistic values above others, and the great ones do it for several: Singin’ in the Rain honours the body, the sounds of showbiz, the fresh memories of Hollywood at its height; Vampyr celebrates the psychological effect that optical dislocations have on the viewer’s psyche, the spiritual possibilities of the horror film, the blurry line between genres and those alive and dead.

But L’avventura marks a new kind of film, not made before, in which the story that launched the film dissolves and gives way to something else – a journey? a wandering? – that points to a host of possible readings beyond what mere narrative allows, and yet at the same time is too specifically rooted in a form of acting – in situations, episodes and events – to ever become purely abstract. (Though this was an area Antonioni did address in various ways, including the semi-apocalyptic ending of L’eclisse, the visualisations of madness in 1964’s Red Desert and the slow-motion explosion near the end of Zabriskie Point.)

For Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “L’avventura is a film about consciousness and its objects, the consciousness that people have of other people and of the environment that surrounds them.” It is a film that’s also about a change of consciousness – what that looks and feels like: for instance Claudia’s move from the edges to the centre and, in the final passages, back to the edges. This change of consciousness is realised in terms that encompass Antonioni’s grasp of a vast range of materials: Sandro’s relationship with architecture is framed with the couple’s bodies, both above buildings and nearly swallowed up by them, their shared sexuality first shared in open space and then further and further contained within smaller rooms; the sense of new possibilities (new towns, new relationships) seen in the curve of a highway, a train hurtling down the tracks and through tunnels; the insistence on the Old World in the hulking presence of churches, formal dinner parties, rigid bodies against Claudia’s free and easy one, always in motion; the sounds of creaky nostalgic ‘Italian’ music against Fusco’s disturbing atonalities and unnerving syncopations (in one of the greatest film scores ever written).

Still Life

Still Life

Antonioni, as Perez often notes, infuses his cinema with doubt – a doubt that extends to his questioning of psychology as a basis for cinematic drama (let alone his doubt in the value of cinematic drama). But doubt is not an end point in this or his other films; instead it represents the beginning of new possibilities. Thus the open film’s mapping of changes of consciousness – through the tools of mise-en-scène, temporality, elliptical editing, a matching of sound to image combined with a de-emphasis on actors’ faces presiding over scenes (close-ups are fewer by far in L’avventura than any of his previous films) – is a picture of a post-psychological topography of the human condition, a radical effort to find a cinema grammar to express inner thought with photographic means.

This is a map that did (as Perez has noted) go out of style for a time, perhaps during the period of postmodernism, and definitely during the period when Fassbinder ruled the arthouse. But the map has been opened again by a new generation. Its influence can now be seen in films from every continent – to such an extent that the Antonioni open film can be said to be in its golden age. Here are some examples: the work of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, from Blissfully Yours to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Lisandro Alonso’s La libertad through to Liverpool; Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia; C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Anchorage; Ulrich Köhler’s Sleeping Sickness; the entire so-called Berlin School, of which Köhler is a part; Albert Serra’s Honour of the Knights and Birdsong; James Benning; Kelly Reichardt; Kore-eda Hirokazu; Ho Yuhang’s Rain Dogs; Jia Zhangke’s Platform and Still Life; Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation. The list goes on…

Some of these filmmakers may disavow any Antonioni influence – but we know that what directors (including Antonioni) say about their films can’t always be trusted. Besides, the ways in which L’avventura works on the viewer’s consciousness are furtive and often below a conscious level. In Apichatpong’s fascination with characters being transformed by the landscape around them; in Raksasad’s interest in dissolving the borders between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’, or the recorded and the staged; in Alonso’s precision and absolute commitment to purely cinematic resources and disgust with the sentimental; in Köhler’s continual refinement of his visualisation of his characters’ uncertain existences; in Reichardt’s concern for what happens to human beings in nature – especially when they get lost: in all these and more, the open film is stretched, remoulded, reconsidered, questioned, embraced. A kind of film that was first named L’avventura.

Further reading

More information

Back to the top