As a critic who spends the majority of his time looking at present and future releases, I occasionally worry that I'm losing the faculties to appreciate the kinds of films that made me want to write about them in the first place. I mean, Jaws, Star Wars and Back to the Future are all undisputed classics, but the real reason I devoted what is now the majority of my adult life to examining the art of cinema is because I was invigorated, inspired, and even transformed by the works of directors like Kurosawa and Bertolucci, Cassavetes and Godard. Not only were these filmmakers developing the rules that would come to define the conventions of modern cinema, but they were breaking them at the same time, creating works that transcended simple storytelling and became vital, lasting commentaries on important ideas and issues.
Michelangelo Antonioni is a filmmaker whom I studied with some passion in college, even crafting a term paper on post-neorealist Italian filmmakers that included him alongside fellow luminaries Pier Paolo Pasolini and Bernardo Bertolucci. Sadly, however, I haven't spent a lot of time since then immersing myself in his work, which is why I leapt at the chance to check out Criterion's new Blu-ray for Red Desert. And while I wasn't especially worried that it would be any less of a masterpiece some 46 years after its initial release, I elected it as this week's "Shelf Life" subject to see whether the sharpness of his vision still resonated with an ADD-addled, blockbuster-drunk mentality like mine.
The Facts: Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) was released in 1964, after Antonioni had already established himself as a world master with such films as L'Avventura and L'Eclisse. The film was his first in color, and with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, he went on to win numerous awards, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and a silver ribbon for cinematography from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Additionally, the film boasts a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: To call the film's pacing deliberate would not only be an understatement, it would ignore the meticulousness of Antonioni's careful plotting: the film follows a young housewife's struggle to overcome her anxieties in an increasingly oppressive industrial world, and its story unfolds in hypnotic, subtle measures. Monica Vitti, Antonioni's longtime leading lady, embraces the character's psychological troubles, becoming increasingly agitated as she feels more and more alienated from the world, normal life, even her husband and young son.
Even without that narrative at its center, however, Di Palma's cinematography creates undeniable obstacles for Vitti's character to navigate. In an early scene, Vitti's on screen husband walks the grounds of a factory with his coworker (played by Richard Harris), and the two of them are dwarfed in the frame by machinery, and soon enough, obscured completely by a tidal wave of steam that fills the entire frame. Later, Vitti's character becomes separated from her companions merely by rolling fog, but we identify with her sense of alienation and loneliness without a single line of spoken dialogue. (Even background windows are filled with passing ships, demonstrating the inescapable presence of industrialization around her, and by extension, around us.)
In terms of Vitti's performance, meanwhile, she perfectly captures the poor woman's anxieties, which erupt seemingly from nowhere but are certainly provoked by the landscape of factories, buildings and ships that descend upon her from every side. A luminous beauty to be sure, she manages at once to make her character almost archetypally fetching – there are few things more attractive than a beautiful woman in need of rescue – and also exasperatingly sensitive. The victim of a mild automobile accident, her emotions are the eggshells her husband and would-be lover must cross to be with her, and Vitti gives that fragility both sympathetic and frustrating dimensions.
What Doesn't Work: The way that this movie operates is unquestionably anachronistic – emblematic of a different time and place where patience was rewarded, characters were explored rather than just presented, and stories were as much about the emotional journey the character took as the physical one. As a result, it requires a certain kind of adjustment as a viewer – namely, the expectation that "nothing" happening (as opposed to actually nothing happening) is not only intentional, but meaningful. Not only is much of the film played out without dialogue, it's played out with only the slightest and most subtle of behaviors, reactions, and even the stillness and geography of Antonioni's compositions. Where the characters are in the frame is as important as what they're saying or doing.
That of course doesn't sound especially like something that doesn't work, but it is something that not all audiences will enjoy or appreciate - in particular ones weaned on thrill rides and lightning-fast cutting. And that's not a criticism of contemporary moviemaking, either; it's just that the sophistication of audiences today is much greater than then, and our understanding of certain visual and narrative flourishes is achieved with less effort. Needless to say that also produces a lack of patience on the part of many viewers, who'd no doubt prefer that Antonioni cut to the chase (figuratively if not literally), but it's that adjustment which may produce some negative reactions to the film as boring or without much to say.
What's The Verdict: Red Desert is an amazing, beautiful, transgressive film that manages to communicate Antonioni's concerns about negotiating an industrialized world, but also successfully hints at the poetry of that world and shows how we can live within it. Criterion's Blu-ray offers above and beyond the best home-video presentation of the film to date – perhaps the best presentation imaginable – and includes volumes of supplemental features that further explore its alien landscapes. But for your truly, the best thing about the release is that it reminds me why I love all sorts of movies, and that they still have so much to say, sometimes moreso when they're not actually "saying" anything at all, and taking their sweet time not saying it.