Monday, December 22, 2008
L'avventura (English title: The Adventure) is a strange title for any film. It is certainly a nondescript title, and it implies a sort of light-hearted escapism. But Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960 film offers nothing of the sort. It is a film where the "adventure" - namely the disappearance of a wealthy socialite on an island - plays second fiddle to the characters and their relationships. This deception initially led to a vitriolic public reaction, and the film was booed by the audience when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. But two years later it was voted by Sight & Sound as the second greatest film of all time, and it is regarded as a milestone in foreign cinema today.
The story begins with two wealthy friends, Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) leaving to go on a yacht trip. Anna brings her boyfriend Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), whom she feels frustrated with and distant from. The three depart, along with two other couples, for their excursion. After making a stop at an island, the company soon discovers that Anna is missing. They search the island and call in the police, but to no avail. After a few days worrying, everyone goes on with their lives - including Sandro and Claudia, who are beginning to fall in love.
L'avventura never resolves the mystery of what happened to Anna. It doesn't need to, because that is not what the film is about. Anna's disappearance only sets the stage to illuminate the shallowness of the main characters' lives. Days after his girlfriend's disappearance, Sandro and Claudia share a kiss, and proclaim their love for one another. In the same period of time, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), another friend of Anna's, begins to crack jokes about her disappearance. She has also begun dating a 17 year-old painter, seemingly bored with her previous squeeze, an older man named Corrado. Immediately we begin to understand one of the points of L'avventura - friendships mean nothing to these people. They lead perfectly comfortable yet incredibly empty lives. Pauline Kael put it better than I ever could: "Too shallow to be truly lonely, they are people trying to escape their boredom by reaching out to one another and finding only boredom once again.'' In this way, the themes of L'avventura are very similar to those in La Dolce Vita, another Italian film released the same year.
L'avventura is also notable for its beautiful cinematography. In fact, the film won a special jury prize at Cannes in part for "the beauty of its images." Yet the cinematography did not inspire me in the way that films like Lawrence of Arabia do. It is perfectly adequate, even above average, but I think almost anyone can make shots of Italian islands and crashing waves look appealing. Few images stayed with me, with the exception of the last scene. It is an exquisite, silent scene that relies on the power of images rather than dialogue to bring the film full circle. That is the second reason why the film won the jury prize - it was cited for the creation of a "new cinematic language." The film did not rely on plot gimmicks, narration, or even much dialogue to tell its story, preferring instead to focus on the images.
L'avventura is a very accomplished and influential film, but it did not resonate with me the way that La Dolce Vita did. I found La Dolce Vita a more profound film, with deeper themes. Yet a comparison between the two may be unfair, and I have found that many foreign films require at least two viewings before full appreciation sets in. On its own terms, L'avventura is a fascinating and intelligent film as well as an important landmark of cinema.