Ranking: #11/111

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)

Genre: Social Drama/Mystery

L’Avventura is a post-modernist cinematic masterpiece, as well as one of the most unusual movies ever made. I struggled to categorise its genre, eventually coming up with the description of it as a mystery which happens to be an existential social drama.

As the 1960s dawned, Antonioni definitely wanted to make a big statement about the post-modern human condition as being an Existentialist struggle to find meaning in a world without any foundation. The director often spoke about the times he was living in as having outgrown the old moral values upon which Western civilisation was founded, but lacking any alternatives to take their place. He seemed to believe that the post-war world in Europe was quite Nietzschean, even nihilistic, lacking a specific direction to follow. In the post-war Existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, life has no inherent meaning and it’s up to each person to take responsibility for finding their own values (“Man is nothing else but that which he makes himself,” Sartre wrote in 1945 in his seminal essay Existentialism and Humanism, “…That is what ‘abandonment’ implies, that we ourselves decide our being. And with this abandonment goes anguish.”). I think this sentiment has a lot to do with the widespread disillusionment that would inevitably follow a world war, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the emergence of the Cold War.

Antonioni was clearly determined to capture in his cinematic works this zeitgeist of Sartrean alienation. He described his film as “a bitter, often painful film…dismay is the meaning of the film.” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 80-1). The Oxford History of World Cinema explains this aspect of his work, pointing to his “concern with moral disorientation in a modern world which has lost its traditional bearings” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 568). In some ways, he’s the poet of ennui.

The director explained the psychology he was trying to get across: “Today we live in a period of extreme instability…The world around us is unstable. I am making a film on the instability of feelings”, exploring the “morally empty existence” of some individuals, as a result of which they’ve become “more indifferent toward their fellow human beings” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 20; p. 254). It’s a condition of spiritual aridity in what he called the deep “ethical confusion” of his times (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 206).

At the same time, he was equally resolute about establishing a new style of filming. He wanted to push film art to new heights, to go far beyond Italian Neo Realism, Film Noir and other cinematic conventions from film history prior to the 1950s. Later, his new style was called Internal Realism because of the focus on portraying states of mind of his characters. After this artistic breakthrough, he influenced the cinema of the 1960s, which became a period of “authorship or the film d’auteur” (The Oxford History of World Cinema, p. 569). Like Bresson, Bergman and Tarkovsky, Antonioni should be seen as an auteur filmmaker with a distinctive aesthetic style.

In L’Avventura these two career goals came to a head simultaneously to drive the director towards digging deep to produce a great leap forward for movies. It wasn’t just a career-defining moment: it was era-defining, too. A new phase of cinematic art had begun. The fact that there were multiple financial and physical challenges to overcome during the production of the film only makes this achievement all the more commendable. “We filmed without a producer, without money, and without food, often risking our necks at sea in the storms,” Antonioni stated (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 273).

It took significant reserves integrity and guts to pull off this off.

On the surface, the story of the film is simple enough. A woman, Anna, disappears without a trace off a yacht during a boat trip in the Mediterranean and then, during the subsequent search, her best girlfriend, Claudia, and her boyfriend, Sandro, become attracted to each other. The missing woman is then more or less forgotten.

But it’s not the narrative that counts. It doesn’t matter if the narrative doesn’t seem to be really going anywhere during some long sequences of the film. What Antonioni is doing is creating moody geometric spaces on the screen in which the human condition can be examined. Filmed in pristine black and white on location in Rome, on the remote Aeolian Islands, and in Sicily, the settings are presented in long shots, medium shots and pans. The characters move around in extremely long takes where the camera tracks them going through space. There’s often depth of field in the images as Antonioni shoots the interactions between the characters and their landscape. The effect is twofold. Firstly, the settings gain a predominance over humans, who seem small and insignificant compared to the deep physical spaces surrounding them. He has spoken of setting up a rapport between characters and their surroundings. You can see his love for architecture and painting in his cinematography of space and forms. Secondly, the camera invites the audience to come inside these geometric spaces and be part of the human condition he’s examining. It conveys a sense of being-in-the-world.

Antonioni was creating a new kind of cinematic experience to match his rather stark post-modernist message about the challenges of modernity.

Although L’Avventura communicates a message of despair, it is a beautiful cinematic experience to watch a movie with such depth, with such wildness of scenery and with such dynamic interplays between characters and their settings.