By the end of the 1950s Michelangelo Antonioni was in his late forties and a well-established writer-director in the Italian film industry. His now-celebrated cinematic style was already evident in such films as Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) and Il Grido (The Outcry, 1957). But it was with the release of L’Avventura (1960)  that Antonioni achieved his breakthrough to international fame as one of the world’s great film directors. The film was made under arduous circumstances, involving difficult location shooting under harsh physical conditions and with production sometimes interrupted by intermittent and uncertain financial backing. After all their hard work, Antonioni and his new star, Monica Vitti were dismayed when at the film’s first screening at the Cannes Film Festival the audience responded with boos and dismissive laughter. Antonioni and Vitti left the theatre assuming that the film would be a commercial and critical failure, but before the festival was over L’Avventura had received fulsome praise from an array critics and filmmakers. The film was awarded the Festival’s Jury Prize, which explicitly praised the film “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images”. L’Avventura not only went on to worldwide commercial success, but Antonioni was placed at the pinnacle of filmmaking genius.
L’Avventura is sometimes classified as the first film of Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation”, which included his immediately succeeding films, La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962), but there is nothing to distinguish these three from earlier and later Antonioni works, other than, perhaps, the heightened emphasis on the anguish caused by the seemingly inevitable impermanence of love. There are still some things about L’Avventura, however, that makes it stand out in Antonioni’s oeuvre. The aesthetic marriage of image, performance, and sound (the score is spare, but subtly effective) creates a continuous mood that seems to capture something essential about the human condition. To a certain extent these visual effects go beyond verbal articulation, and Antonioni himself has suggested the same thing by shying away from explicit commentary on the film’s meaning. This is evidently what was meant by the Jury Prize’s wording, and also to those who respond to the film’s imagery, when it is said that L’Avventura created “a new movie language”.
For those looking for a conventional film narrative, however, the film is maddening. For long stretches nothing much seems to be happening. And worst of all, the presumably most important character and her associated narrative thread is gradually sidelined and eventually completely abandoned. This contrasted significantly with the contemporary film Psycho, which seemed superficially similar to L’Avventura. Both films featured a young woman whose early disappearance became the object of a search by a man and a woman. But while Psycho never loses its focus on that early disappearance, the plot of L’Avventura seems to drift away into aimlessness. As a consequence the conventional moviegoer may well feel cheated and manipulated by what seems to be a cheap artifice. Nevertheless this provocative narrative turn in L’Avventura is not just a trick, and it certainly does lie at the heart of the film, but the role it plays is quite different from what occurred in Psycho.
The story of L’Avventura could be considered to have five basic sections, or movements (perhaps that is a better term, since the movie plays like a musical piece). Each of the sections has a mood to it, and each has an associated environmental architecture which colours, or reflects, or perhaps even influences that mood. Several of the sections end with a startling event that changes our perception of the characters and shifts the narrative direction.
1. Anna and the trip to the island (26 minutes)The meaning of L’Avventura is open to interpretation. Indeed, great films have a richness to them characteristic of life itself that affords multiple perspectives. Ultimately, it seems to me, this film is about the possibilities of authentic relationships between men and women. The society in which we live is dominated by conventions and mores that people both resist and acknowledge. That wider scope is reflected in the multiple focalizations of the narrative. Initially the focalization is on Anna, but then it shifts to Claudia, Sandro, and occasionally even to Giulia, as each wanders across the border of authenticity and inauthenticity. It would be too easy to dismiss Sandro as a self-indulgent fool. There is a genuine innocence about him, and he often seems to be searching for the right thing to do. But he is also captive of the roles and stereotypes that modern society offers him to play.
It begins when Anna joins her girlfriend Claudia and then her boyfriend Sandro to set out on a pleasure cruise from Rome on a small private yacht headed for some islands off Sicily. Using the narrative process of slow disclosure, the film gradually reveals the identities and relationships of the other people on the yacht. There are four women: Anna, Claudia, Giulia, and Patrizia, who is the wife of the absent yacht owner, Ettore. The three men on board, Sandro, Raimondo, and Giulia’s husband, Corrado, all work for Ettore. All of the people seem to be wealthy and devoted to making cynical witticisms about life and each other. Anna is clearly frustrated with these superficialities and with the depth of her relationship with Sandro. When they reach the tiny volcanic island of Lisca Bianca, they swim briefly and then dock the boat and disembark. While the others continue their idle chitchat and wander about, Anna quarrels with Sandro, who then snoozes for awhile by the water’s edge. When Sandro awakes, Anna is not around.
2. The Search for Anna on the island (30 minutes)
The group comb the island everywhere, but Anna is nowhere to be found. The beautiful and tempestuous Anna, played by Lea Massari, is clearly the character of most interest to the viewer at this point. Unfortunately, she is not seen in the film again, and the effort to find out what happened to her now consumes the yachting party. She had earlier demonstrated a willful and provocative nature, and she may have left the island (perhaps on another boat that some of the party think they may have heard) in order to punish the careless Sandro. On the other hand, given the steep cliffs and treacherous waters, she may have fallen into the water and drowned.
The cinematic environment has moved from confinement and close quarters of movement #1 to the open, barren landscape of the volcanic island, as everyone searches for Anna. Anna’s two closest acquaintances, Claudia and Sandro, are the most concerned about her, and the worried Claudia blames Sandro for losing track of Anna. Together with Corrado, the three stay overnight on the island, while the others depart back to Sicily to fetch assistance. The police return and scour the island to no avail as frustrations increase.
But then, abruptly, Sandro catches Claudia alone in the boat and impetuously kisses her. Claudia runs to the shore and says she will remain on the island looking for Anna, while Sandro heads off to Sicily to investigate further leads there. There is now a new narrative turn: Sandro and Claudia.
3. Claudia and Sandro on the trail (38 minutes)
Sandro presses his romantic case with Claudia, but she demurs and insists they concentrate on finding Anna. Much of this section meanders among episodic content that variously displays the predatory attitudes Italian men and women seem to have towards love and sex. While searching for more clues about Anna, Sandro sees a statuesque “writer” (but actually a prostitute), named Gloria Perkins, whose sexy dress and manners attract a crowd of wolf whistles from men on the streets of Milazzo, Sicily. Meanwhile Claudia, back in Rome, sees the conjugally neglected Giulia foolishly dally with a 17-year-old painter who fancies himself to be a Lothario.
Eventually Claudia meets up with Sandro again, and they decide to travel together in their search for Anna. But suddenly, shockingly, we see the two of them kissing passionately on the grass. Claudia has succumbed to mad love.
4. Claudia and Sandro together (24 minutes)
The focus is now on Sandro and Claudia. They guiltily confess to each other that they should be looking for Anna, but they are now more concerned with the development of their own relationship. The search for Anna has passed into the background. While visiting an old church, Sandro admires the architecture and muses on his past ideals of being an architect. But he made his career compromises, and now he is just a very well-paid functionary for Ettore’s business interests – he has sacrificed whatever scruples and ideals that he once had. Impetuously, Sandro proposes marriage to Claudia, but she is too shocked to say, yes, pointing out to him that she had only met him for the first time just three days earlier.
Throughout this section the innocence and sincerity of Claudia is contrasted with narcissistic posturing of Sandro. Sandro is clearly obsessed with maintaining his masculine image, but his insecurities are evident, just below the surface.
5. Return (23 minutes)
Somewhat later Claudia and Sandro are now recognized by their friends as a romantic couple. Anna has been forgotten. They check into a fancy hotel where Ettore and Patrizia happen to be staying and go up to their own private room. Claudia, giddy with romantic passions and dreams, entreats Sandro to quit working for Ettore, but Sandro is reluctant to abandon the decadent lifestyle that such work affords. Claudia, sleepy from their travels, retires to her bed, while Sandro goes down to the hotel lobby to socialize with all the wealthy patrons.
In the early morning Claudia wakes up and noticing Sandro is still out, dresses and goes down to the lobby to find him. When she finds him on a couch making love to Gloria Perkins, she is shattered and runs out of the hotel. Sandro follows her out to a plaza, and slumps down on a park bench, sobbing at his own weakness. Claudia, still numb with grief, approaches him and tentatively caresses his head from behind as the film ends.
Men, of course, have more latitude than women in terms of the roles they can play and the behaviour in which they can engage. Anna, Claudia, and even Giulia, struggle to find the roles suitable for their own fulfillment. Whether it is due to their more limited social circumstances, or due to some deeper impulses, women often want to possess their men, totally. Anna wanted to possess Sandro, and yet she also confessed to Claudia that, at the same time, she wanted her own freedom, too. She vacillated between two conflicting urges. Claudia was more innocent. After hesitating to give her heart, she fell passionately for Sandro. She, too, wanted to possess him. The fact that she wanted him to abandon his semi-corrupt lifestyle working for Ettore and live purely according to his presumed artistic passions was a sign of her desire to engage him fully. But this was perhaps an unattainable ideal. And to be fair to Sandro, when they were in the Sicilian hotel and Sandro impulsively wanted to make love with Claudia, she wasn’t in the mood at that moment. Authentic human relationships are not easy.
The word “l’avventurra” means ‘adventure’ in Italian, but it can also mean ‘love affair’ or ‘fling’, and Sandro uses precisely that term when he teases Claudia in the Sicilian hotel room. This was a moment of inauthenticity for him, and he said it, because he was momentarily distancing himself from Claudia as a consequence of her momentarily rejecting his physical advances. This is what the film is about – the borderline between the authentic, sincere gestures of intimacy and the less-than-satisfactory social conventions that people flout and mock.
It is a mark of the elegance of Antonioni’s glorious mise-en-scène that L’Avventura can explore the subtlety of this aspect of human engagement with such grace. Every shot is carefully choreographed and composed to convey and sustain the mood of human feelings. In fact the cinematography is so good that one can even forgive the poor quality dubbing, which was a characteristic of Italian films of that time before synchronous sound techniques were used in the studios. Perhaps in connection with those dubbing limitations, Antonioni is often cited as primarily a pictorialist, obsessed with the abstract formalisms of the visual image. But in fact Antonioni’s expression encompassed more than just static compositions, and included movement, timing, and dramatic rhythms. The acting of Lea Massari (as Anna), Monica Vitti (as Claudia), and Gabriele Ferzetti (as Sandro) is not only superb individually, but also as an ensemble and harmonious with the social ambience in play. Ferzetti had already appeared effectively in Le Amiche, and Vitti would go on to be Antonioni’s partner and favourite dramatic lead.
In the final shot, Claudia makes the supreme gesture of forgiveness. She is crushed, heartbroken, but she makes her compromise: she chooses life, with all its imperfections.
- See also the essay, "Cinematic Expression in L'Avventura"