Masterpieces: Antonioni’s L’Avventura

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

VittiThe first time they saw Antonioni's L'Avventura, the cineastes at Cannes were as upset as a welter of wildebeests thrown down a well.

Maybe it was just too new for them. Or too great. Or so different from the products of the Hollywood crap factory as to seem inexplicable.

It may have been because Antonioni introduced a different sense of time into the movies. Ever since Griffith, film language had been of the “move-along” sort: next, next, next. The cut was there to zip time forward. Antonioni slowed movie time down to living time … now … now … now. He made the moment momentous; portentous. We get to stare at faces and things. The nows follow one another at a measured human rhythm; conversations happen at human speed. Antonioni exposed the falseness of movie time and graced film with a more authentically human pace and rhythm. He may be said to have brought the languid expansiveness of the novel to the screen (at 145 minutes, L'Avventura is a long movie). There's a certain respect for what's on view. We get a chance to take in people's faces.

And what a face we have in Monica Vitti. I don't think L'Avventura would've been half the masterpiece it is without Monica Vitti's face. Some directors — Antonioni, Bergman, Godard — parade their female stars as objects of loving regard. Their actresses are, in fact, their lovers, and they make images of them worthy of their love. If you love a woman, your camera will romance her, and express your lust for her. And when you have a face like Monica Vitti, there is an arresting loveliness that makes for many images of almost painful ecstasy.

Antonioni also treated space differently. All his people were judiciously and precisely placed in space, with a deep focus leaving not a iota of object or place out of focus. The background is foreground and vice versa. The entire frame is to be paid attention to, whether an actor is in closeup or in long shot. Antonioni's camera either burrows in, or stands way back, and gathers the whole view to be viewed in its ambit. A democratic eye.

There is a remarkable shot in L'Avventura, one that actually draws attention to itself (as opposed to us being lost in the shot), where the camera stands politely back, shooting from a street emptying itself into a square, in which we see a car turn out of the frame, and then enter the frame again as it exits the frame. The camera moves slowly in as all this happens, conveying a feeling of enthralling emptiness, as in an eerily empty De Chirico cityscape. This entering and clearing of the frame is very characteristic of Antonioni: he is fond of faces and heads butting into a space, and then abandoning it.

One caveat: the ennui that so many critics talk about in L'Avventura — what is it? Quite frankly, I don't see any ennui. Perhaps they mistake a slower pacing for ennui. The film is much too vividly alive for that. And Monica Vitti is too much of an ingenue for any ennui.

Antonioni liked to play with scale. His influence can be best seen in Sergio Leone's propensity for putting big closeups in vast landscapes. There is one scene inL'Avventura, when Monica Vitti is making out with her man, where the camera cuts away to a wide landscape with, in the distance, a train passing through. Then we cut back to our principals making out in closeup, and the train rumbles past them in closeup, a few yards away from them and us, making the lovers and their feelings spring blatantly alive.

And there is the final scene, where we cut from a closeup of Monica Vitti's hand to move way, way back from the lovers in long shot, as they stand with their backs to us, dwarfed and isolated in a vast cityscape of angled walls.

A breath-taking end to the movie. In fact, all of the preceding scenes are frankly astonishing. There's the bell-ringing scene, where we finally learn something about the man, and the two characters start pulling the bell ropes and ringing the church bells, communicating not only with each other, but with the world outside, when their bell-ringing is answered by other bells. There is the incredible scene where Monica Vitti walks in a square full of men ogling her. There is the scene where she runs along a hotel corridor and rushes through a reception room, disturbing the branch of a tree lying on the floor, a bizarre intrusion of nature. Every shot is composed to the hilt. L'Avventura is a thing of beauty from start to finish.

A stylized thing of beauty. L'Avventura's greatness lies in the greatness of its style, the novel treatment of space and time, the camera paying grave attention to all before it. The film has an unmistakable personality of its own, unlike any other. It's a sort of neo-realism of the rich, not the poor. A neo-realism of glamour. And a love letter to Monica Vitti.

There is also something paradigmatic about L'Avventura. As Tolstoy's Anna Karenina lays down the template of doomed adultery, with every plot turn in its place, like a series of relentless cliches, so L'Avventura lays down the template of an affair: he pounces, she resists, he persists; then he leaves, she misses him, they meet again, she succumbs, she is exhilaratingly happy; then comes betrayal, remorse and forgiveness. It's all there.

These days culture flashes by like swallows migrating. Like exploding monsters in a video game. Like happy faces on Facebook. But some things stick. Some nuggets stay. In fact, there are a few works of art — from Shakespeare, Bergman, Beethoven, Matisse, Tolstoy, George Elliott, Billy Wilder and the like — that can be considered touchstones of human civilization. L'Avventura is one of them.