DVD Review Of The Red Desert

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/9/08


  Michelangelo Antonioni is often referred to as a director whose work is not for all tastes. Well, what artist is? What the utterer of such sentiments usually means is that they do not ‘like’ his films, because they are not filled with insipid action, worse dialogue, lack of character development, etc. In fact, some critics of Antonioni even claim that his characters are all warped and one dimensional loners, potential Lee Harvey Oswald types bathed in depression and anomy. What this evidences is that the critic has not really watched the film, or confuses a character that is confused with a confused portrayal of the character. Callow critics often mistake the thing itself for how it is presented. A good example of this tendency is Antonioni’s 1964 film The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso), his first film shot in color.

  The film is lauded as a great example of the use of color, or an expressionistic or impressionistic work of art (apparently critics cannot decide, again proving they do not even know what the terms mean), but then dismissed as slow, dull, or that old stand by, ‘It’s like watching paint dry.’ Well, only if you’re an idiot, or think that the lowest common denominator crap of a Steven Spielberg is somehow an example of ‘genius.’ As with Stanley Kubrick’s later magisterial 2001: A Space Odyssey, this film does not lack a narrative, nor is the narrative poor. It is simply a different form of narrative, and an outstanding example of such. Yet, even The Red Desert’s boosters often make the error of stating that Antonioni is ‘more interested in shapes and spaces than character.’ Not so, for how those characters enter certain spaces, what those spaces are, and how they act and react within those spaces is essential to the story, which is the depiction of how human beings react to the permanence of loneliness in the stasis of change. Although often lumped together with Antonioni’s L’Alienation Trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte, and L’Eclisse), this hour and fifty-three minute long film transcends those three because, by film’s end, the protagonist has learnt how to survive, and will. The heroes of the earlier films all flounder, founder, or despair at their plights.

  It is, in fact, a remarkable script, penned by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra- who also created great films with Federico Fellini and Theo Angelopoulos, thus positioning himself as one of the greatest screenwriters in cinema history (alongside Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen). And, whereas the use of color is often lauded as ‘beautiful,’ there is very little said as to why it’s beautiful, and that’s not because of the colors themselves, but how they contrast with the desaturated world the characters inhabit- such as a fruit stand that appears early on in the film, yet all the fruit appear grayish, as if covered with a mold. The reason for this is that the world is being portrayed subjectively, but from an objective perspective. This is so the audience can sense some of what Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is sensing without having to couch all of that in predictable point of view shots from her perspective. It is a technique that accomplishes what it attempts, but so successfully that few viewers and critics seem to even realize this fact.

  The tale opens with out of focus shots of a factory, that, as it focuses, shows a debt to the Precisionist school of painting. Many critics love to throw painterly terms around, in regards to Antonioni’s, but in doing so reveal only their ignorance of the art for,. An out of focus shot is not Impressionistic- Impressionism was not about blurriness. Nor are the films of Antonioni (and this film in particular) Expressionistic. There are some tinges of these ideas, but as a whole, such would far too limit the director’s art. Similarly, abstract and surreal are two other terms that bad critics append to this film, and neither is appropriate. Above all, image-wise, this film is Precisionistic. Go Google the term and the dialectic is done.

  After these establishing shots, which reverse the normal inward drift of full screen shot, then close-ups, the camera follows Giuliana as she wanders aimlessly in life, with her son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), who is a selfish brat, and cons her with a feigned illness- likely polio, and a husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), who openly lusts after other women, and tries to force his sexual desires upon her, even though she is still unbalanced and mentally recovering from a breakdown that institutionalized her. Ugo is a middle manager type at a huge industrial plant, at the port of a town we barely see. The film was shot in Ravenna, but we are never certain that is where it is set. Then she meets Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, whose lines were dubbed- and quite well), a business associate of Ugo’s, who’s in town to recruit employees for a year long ‘project’ in Patagonia. From the moment he sees her, he lusts for her, Freudianly slipping by stating, ‘I don’t want to start with a lie,’ when he first follows her to a location Giuliana is planning to open a shop in. After that, the film becomes a sort of sexual cat and mouse game between the two, with both eventually succumbing to their mutual seductions, but still not getting satisfaction. Corrado is the opposite of Giuliana. Where she fears change, he fears stasis, and he, early on, gives hints as to why this is. His character, at one point, even states, ‘At times, I feel as if I had no right to be where I am. That’s why I keep moving.’

  While some critics have taken Harris to task for his acting, he does quite well, considering he did not speak the language, and his lack of familiarity with Italian aids his performance as someone confused. He was coming off of his star-making role in Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life, and left The Red Desert early to film Major Dundee with Sam Peckinpah. Reputedly some scenes shot from afar and behind were filmed with a body double, with Harris’s voice double doing the speaking. Vitti is superb- her best performance in the four Antonioni films I’ve seen with her. She has played the sex goddess, the dalliance, the mystery woman, but here she plays a frail, confused woman who utters such vapidities as, ‘I’d like all the people who ever loved me here, around me, like a wall’- the neurotic counterpart to the deranged and psychotic young woman Catherine Deneuve would essay in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion that same year, save for murder, of course, rather than the sensual antipodes of the strong Bergmanesque ice goddesses against whom she is so often contrasted.

  Yet, whereas Repulsion has dated somewhat- not due to the script nor acting, but being a black and white film set in Mod Era Britain (like Antonioni’s later color film Blowup), The Red Desert has not. Its situations, its effects and design, and its character relations, are all timeless. In fact, the ecological concerns of the film are perfectly in tune with the current greener aesthetic that the Global Warming world must deal with, as the industrial wasteland shown was standard in the 1960s. I saw it in real life, growing up in New York City, and it was a concern for films as serious as this, or as off the cuff as Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster.

  The film is a picaresque, in some ways, as many of the scenes, at first blush, seem like mismatched jigsaw puzzle pieces, but, again, they do eventually cohere, and give a viewer some sense of why Giuliana has such difficulty in reacting naturally to life’s lessons. It takes, as example, the whole of the film for Giuliana to even get a grip on what plagues her, and this is alone at night, talking to a sailor on a pier who does not speak Italian. She cannot connect with Corrado, Ugo, nor even Valerio. Before that time the only other moment she seems at ease, if briefly, is at a weekend outing with friends, including Corrado. They go to a fishing shack on a pier, one with a red room and a bed, and an orgy seems ready to break out, until it does not. Instead, the moment ends with a doctor rushing aboard a ship outside, and ready to quarantine the area, as it is drenched in fog. Giuliana is so distressed she nearly drives her car off the end of the pier.

  Yet, Giuliana carries an idyll of serenity within her, one we know from a little tale she tells her son, as he is faking a polio ‘incident.’ It’s a first rate fable, and all the more remarkable since almost no critics, at the film’s release nor later, saw it for what it is: Giuliana’s vision of herself in a world she could manage. It is set on a remote island (filmed in Sardinia) where the sea is light blue and the sand is pink. A young preteen girl in a bikini (Emanuela Paola Carboni) swims and cavorts without anyone around. She lounges about, tanned with a white bikini line on her back. Giuliana describes the place as soundless, but there are waves and animals that make noise, so what she really means is there is no man-made sound. She is joyous until one day a ghost ship arrives in the bay. She swims out to it, but seeing it is deserted, she is afraid and swims back to shore. Giuliana describes the ship as possibly being otherworldly. Then she hears a high pitched woman’s voice singing (a refrain that also went over the opening credits and harkens back to a similar disembodied voice from the earlier Russian Science fiction film Planeta Burg) and does not understand it, nor where it comes from- the sea, the rocks, etc. Valerio asks his mother where the singing was coming from and Giuliana replies it came from everybody and everything.

  By film’s end, Giuliana has seemingly adjusted to life, after her soliloquy to the foreign sailor. It’s not that she is ‘better,’ than she was when the film started, nor as healthy as she was before the accident that precipitated her breakdown, simply that she has adjust to life. Valerio asks her about the yellow smoke pouring from one of his father’s factory’s smokestacks, and Giuliana explains that the birds have learnt to avoid flying through the poisonous smoke. They then exit the frame. Giuliana has learnt to adapt or die, just as the birds, and this is proof that, unlike what many bad critics have claimed for this film, she is not a bored housewife, rather a very sensitive (almost hypersensitive) woman whose very engagement with all things at all levels, and her inability to process all of this, is what so distresses her. There are no faux heroics in this film. She will simply go on, as in real life.

  Technically, the film is a marvel. The score by Giovanni Fusco is brilliant when and where it is deployed- with its quasi-sci fi and proto-industrial tinge (which seems to presage what Kubrick brought to full fruition in 2001), and the cinematography by Carlo di Palma is among the best of his career. Not only does the color scheme alternate between realistic and glaring, but Antonioni makes great use of multiple cameras and angles, wide angle lenses and telephoto lenses to compress the image of Giuliana into her world one dimensionally even as she tries to burst out into higher dimensions of experience, as well as in a Stygian sequence when smoke bellows from the factory as Ugo and Corrado talk business, and their humanity is rendered meaningless next to the monstrous creation they have made, subsumed by the compression of the image done with a telephoto lens. Then there is the scene at Corrado’s hotel room, where she and he have sex, mirrors the erotic landscapes of the fable with the little girl, and afterwards, the room glows pink, just like the sands on the beach. This is a vivid example of John Keats’ Negative Capability- the power to make seeming leaps of illogic that cohere logically in retrospect. Film does this better than any other arts medium because it moves at the speed of light, and is not as abstract as writing is. That so few critics have made this connection is puzzling, since it is almost blatantly thrown in the viewer’s faces; yet considering how dumbed down most criticism, in all the arts, is, it is not really a great surprise. Another oddity about the critical reception of the film is a) how few critics mention the meaning of the title, and b) because even fewer likely understand what it refers to, which is the lack of eros in not only Giuliana’s existence, but in that of all the depicted characters. Still a third rather obvious thing that is never mentioned is that Giuliana’s hair color subtly changes in every scene she’s in. It ranges from a dark auburn to light blond, yet not a word has been written of this, much less its meaning.

  The DVD is Region 4 (Australia), put out by Madman Films, part of their Directors Suite series. The print is superb, stunning, breathtaking. It could have been filmed yesterday for, as mentioned, the look has not dated. It’s in a 16:9 aspect ratio, has the fifty-five minute documentary called Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema, also available on The Criterion Collection’s Region 1 release of L’Eclisse. The DVD also features highly readable golden subtitles. These are simply a must, especially for film companies that are too cheap to include an English dubbed soundtrack. The highlight, in terms of features, is a quite good audio commentary by Rolando Caputo, an Australian Film Professor and co-editor of the website Senses Of Cinema. He discusses the cinematography’s application well, although he often errs by falling into the trap of thinking Antonioni shunned narrative for imagery, rather than building it via color and imagery. He does not atomize the narrative from the color and scene, for the latter two must serve the narrative; what else would or could they serve? Antonioni did not lack interest in narrative, he just employed a different form of it. Like many others, he speaks of Antonioni’s ‘language of cinema,’ even as he downplays the screenplay and character exposition; yet again showing the near total inability of film critics and historians to acknowledge the primacy of the written word’s power over the image in what is usually thought of as a primarily visual medium. Another error he makes is in conflating Antonioni’s use of color with that of the Abstract Expresionist painter Mark Rothko, falling for the psychological and spiritual psychobabble that defenders of Rothko’s monochrome paintings proffer. Yet, Antonioni’s film is the best sort of argument against the claims Rothko acolytes make, for without characters and narrative to lend meaning to the color, there is no emotional import to the scene.

  Yet, there is no denying that Antonioni avoids cheap sentimentality; but this lack only adds to the deeper takes that his camera eye allows the viewer. The characters do not willfully slough off emotions with ease, as in so many wannabe droll Postmodern Hollywood takes (think any Bill Murray film and character). Instead, as in the best films of Stanley Kubrick and Theo Angelopoulos- two other filmmakers accused of lacking character insight and narrative strength, this allows Antonioni’s characters to fully humanize- not merely artificially preen before the camera. We see them think, reject, regret, observe, and many other things. While this bores some simply for the act of doing so, to an astute lover of art, it is how these things are done that matter, not if they are done. And Antonioni does these things superbly, making every glance, facial tic, sigh, etc., count for something that is a throwaway in lesser films.

  If the 18th Century was the century where poetry was the dominant narrative art form, the 19th Century was dominated by the novel, and last century was owned by the film- especially those of giants like Antonioni. What art form will take the mantle this century may not have even been developed, but it will have a hell of a long way to go to match the greatness of a film like this, for, with each successive art form, the complexity of the narrative increased, even if poetry today is almost solely lyrical; thus not even competing in the same area. The Red Desert stands not only as a triumph in the master’s oeuvre, to equal his other masterworks, La Notte and Blowup, but as one of the great films and art works of all time, equal to the very best, and superior to most- be they the best plays of Shakespeare, the best symphonies of Beethoven, or the best paintings of Picasso. Trust me on this, for time will avail both this work of cinema, and my assessment.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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