Sunday, May 27, 2007


Michelangelo Antonioni's starkly beautiful L'avventura is one of the great masterpieces of European art cinema, though at Cannes in 1960 it baffled and enraged its first audience. The plot is simple: a woman disappears while visiting a tiny, remote island with friends and it's as if they don't notice that she's gone. What has happened to her? L'avventura disclaims the conventions of narrative cinema in the most radical way: it never provides an answer to this question.

Antonioni has often been labelled 'pessimist' but, as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith argues, his work is not judgemental and is better described as sceptical, concerned with truth rather than consolation. 'L'avventura seems indifferent to either progress or decadence,' Nowell-Smith writes: 'its characters are placed fairly and squarely where they are, with no past to return to or future to advance to. Stripped of consoling certainties, existentially alone, they are observed with a meticulousness that takes nothing for granted.'

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

The dissonant chord which concludes L'avventura says it all, or nearly all. The film is a love story. But it is one which ends with the lovers not marching into the sunset but facing an uncertain dawn. Just as the final chord (a major seventh) does not resolve but remains agonisingly poised, so Claudia's and Sandro's relationship is also on a knife edge. To the uncertainty of what has happened to Anna is added the uncertainty of whether Claudia's and Sandro's affair has any future. It is not a happy end, but not a tragic one either. The flux of life has been halted at a particular moment, in what James Joyce called an epiphany. Life will resume its flux; it is just the story which has ended at this moment.

Stories are not everything, and L'avventura, like most films of substance, is not just a story. The universe it creates has a consistency which is only partly dependent on the events that form its plot and, as it happens, terminate at a particular point. Of course the characters' destiny, as revealed (to the extent that it is revealed) at the end of the film, is important, but no films (even Hitchcock films) exist solely to be concluded.

As well as a love story, 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. At the centre is Claudia, and radiating out from her are her immediate circle, wider society, the built environment, and on the outside nature. The natural environment is indifferent, sometimes seen as benign, but more often as hostile. The hostile aspect is most apparent in the island sequences. The sun beats down on a barren soil, waves crash against rocks, wind whips up a waterspout. The island is uninhabitited, except by a solitary shepherd (we never see his sheep). Even on the mainland there are no cultivated fields, and gardens exist only in the immediate vicinity of houses. Landscape is pure, distant, objectified. Human activity is reflected in a built environment, separated from nature, but itself objectified. The first scene of the film shows suburban sprawl engulfing the outskirts of Rome. Later, the deserted village imposes an alien rectangular geometry on the hill side in which it is incongruously situated. No grass grows in its empty streets. The baroque facades of Noto are a decaying monument. Perceived by Sandro as an emblem of a civilisation ease with itself, they also represent a past which, like that of the deserted village, has been relegated to a liminal status, between the natural and the human.

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