Ranking: #8/111

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)

Genre: Social Drama

In my view, this is Michelangelo Antonioni’s finest film. As with all his work, what’s most impressive is the way in which his distinctive techniques of filming reinforce the themes of an underlying existential human drama and social critique. I love this film because of its artistic beauty, its evocation of colour as a symbolic force and its psychological depth. It’s a poetic study of alienation (“There’s something terrible about reality and I don’t know what it is”), a poignant tale of a woman’s loneliness (“It’s when I’m alone that I feel sick”). Red Desert is another masterpiece of post-modern cinematic art.

Antonioni combines a social study of an industrial society, focused on the bourgeoisie, or middle and upper classes, with a psychological portrait of a neurotic woman on the verge of a breakdown. Earlier she attempted to commit suicide in hospital following an automobile accident. It takes guts to delve so deeply into the psyche of a person who cannot relate to industrial society. Monica Vitti is magnificent as Giuliana and her painful inner struggles dramatise the crisis of industrialisation which the director is exploring. Monica’s “nervous acting style”, the director once commented, showed “extraordinary sincerity” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 83).

As in many of his movies, relationships cannot hold together, with everyone remaining separate from one another. At the same time, humanity’s connection to the environment has been broken. “Red Desert also deals with an existential crisis.…the neurosis of these characters originated directly from the environment,” Antonioni explained. (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p.202-3)

The film opens with shots of an industrial zone in Ravenna, Northern Italy. The scenery looks lifeless. We follow Giuliana and her son, Valerio, as they approach a petrochemical plant managed by her husband, Ugo. There is a strike by workers on the go. She is wearing a green coat, which is the colour of life, seen against the bleak, grey landscape. She has a hunted look on her face, a fearfulness. She is surrounded by industrial debris and the noises of machinery.

Even the trees are a dull dark brown, almost black, as if covered in soot. Waste from the factories spills into the poisoned river and stream. The colour yellow represents this poison. The factories and industrial plants dominate the skyline, dwarfing people. Even the massive radio telescopes belonging to University of Bologna seem inhuman, coldly scientific. And the foghorn when it sounds is unwelcoming and forlorn. Antonioni depicts a huge, impersonal world of industry in which Giuliana cannot find her place of belonging.

She is still in a nervous state following her one month in hospital after her accident. Her spiritual emptiness is almost palpable and at one point she cries “My son doesn’t need me, I need him!” She is in a terrible paralysis. Antonioni once said: “Emotions are so fragile that they can become sick very easily, like human beings.” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p. 215)

In a compelling sequence in the movie, Giuliana, Ugo, and his business associate Corrado, played by Richard Harris, are walking alongside a polluted bay when they meet up with some friends and drive to a riverside shack. There they relax, engage in small talk and joke around. Guiliana enjoys a rare moment of calm. However, it is short-lived.  A ship docks near them in dense fog (which is symbolic of the spiritual confusion of the times they live in). It hoists a flag. A doctor boards the ship and they all realise that the vessel is being quarantined, as there’s an outbreak of small pox on board.

This causes the nervous heroine to panic, fearing being infected. In fact, they all run away from the contaminated zone. The fog distorts the human figures and this becomes a visual image of humanity’s subordination to the industry that overpowers individuals.

Soon after, Giuliana has a beautiful dream. A girl is sitting alone on pink sand next to aquamarine water. In the colour code of the film, these colours represent innocence and perfection. A sailing ship comes by, but with no one on board. It’s a deserted beach, but somewhere a lady is singing and it suddenly seems like “everything is singing”, as if Nature has found its voice again. Antonioni is showing the viewer how beautiful Nature was meant to be, compared with how polluted it has become due to industrialisation.

At the end, the film coming full circle, Giuliana is walking with her son near the petrochemical plant once again. Valerio observes a smokestack emitting poisonous yellow smoke. He asks if the birds are being killed by these emissions. In a metaphorically rich reply, his mother tells him that birds learn not to fly near the smoke. The message in this open-ended closing sequence is clear: to stay well, humans, too, must not get too entangled in industrial society.

Red Desert has been praised as one of the first films to deal with ecology and Antonioni made symbolic use of colours to contrast the oppressive greys of industrialisation with more vivid, natural colours. The director literally spray-painted some natural locales to reflect his main character’s changing states of mind and to fit in with the film’s colour code: “For the most part of the film, the reality was seen from the view of the woman who was neurotic, so that’s why I changed the colour of the backgrounds, the streets, everything.” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p.308). He once described himself as a “filmmaker who paints” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p.231).

An established author of several short stories, who wrote most of his film scripts, you always get a highly literate story underpinning Antonioni’s films. In Red Desert, he was revisiting the place where he spent his childhood, which had undergone what he called a “violent transformation of the countryside.” In his central character’s inability to adapt to these changes, he is representing some of the shock he felt to see the countryside he’d once loved change so radicallyh:“…there were immense groves of pine trees, very beautiful, which today are completely dead. Soon even the few that have survived will die and give way to factories, artificial waterways and docks.” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p.284) People, he says, often suffer during such “violent transformations” which are like “revolutions”. “In the same way that some people suffer during a revolution, there is also a malaise connected to progress.” (Antonioni, M, 1996.  The Architecture of Vision – Writings and Interviews on Cinema, p.285)

Red Desert has captured a time of seismic change in European society, its ecological and philosophical messages embedded in a living, timeless story of a woman unable to adapt to the scale of changes she faces.

I will never forget Monica Vitti’s performance in this film, Antonioni’s cinematography of alienation and his mesmeric use of colour, as the vibrant colours of life wrestle in his landscapes against the colours of a living death.