Cinematic Expression in "L’Avventura"

The mark of an outstanding creative work is its accessibility to multiple critical points of view. Such is the case of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which has been generally recognized as one of the most important films of the 60's, but has not generated a consensus of opinion as to its interpretation. This is not to say that the various critical interpretations contradict each other so much as that they seem to emphasize different ideas with regard to what is central and what is peripheral to the film’s meaning.

There is no question that the film seems to mean something, even if it is the meaninglessness of human existence. For though the film concerns primarily the relationship between Sandro and Claudia, the departure from conventional narrative style and the suggestiveness of the visual imagery convey a notion of larger significance. Generally critical opinion has fallen into several main categories concerning L’Avventura’s ultimate theme:
  1. that it is an attack on the depravity and uselessness of the upper middle class in Italy,
  2. that it is a condemnation of the obsolete moral values and ethical ideals of the bourgeoisie,
  3. that it is an examination of the impossibility of human communication or love in the present age, and
  4. that it is an investigation into the changing, and perhaps inverting, roles of men and women in modern society.
Obviously these categories are somewhat arbitrary and far from mutually independent, but they will serve for the present purpose. Thematic categories (1) and (2) focus on a social context and seem to draw on the knowledge that Antonioni had a Marxist background. (3) is concerned more with the individual, while (4) exists on the level of social psychology. My own feeling is that the third position comes closest to being the central issue, with the second and fourth being inferences to be drawn from it. However the first position is less closely connected with Antonioni’s expressed intent in view of the following passage quoted from Hollis Alpert:
"The film has been interpreted as a study of corruption among members of a certain group of upper-class Italians. I questioned Antonioni on this, and found that this was not his purpose. 'The people were members of the upper class,' he said, 'because I did not want to explain how they make their living, or why it is that have so much time to do the things they do.'” [1]
At any rate what is most in terest5ing about L’Avventura is the cinematic means with which Antonioni conveys his notions. He is able to convey in purely visual terms some rather abstract ideas about human relationship, and he does so with a succinctness and directness that goes beyond the powers of verbal expression. The principal psychological effect which Antonioni achieves cinematically and around which he is able to build his structure is alienation. I mean this not in the Marxist sense (a source of possible confusion) but in the existential sense. By the appropriate use of sound, pacing, and visual arrangements, Antonioni is able to get across to the viewer an idea which, though fundamental to human consciousness, was not conspicuously present in the film idiom – that a person’s consciousness is continually shifting back and forth between a state of direct involvement with one’s surroundings and a state of self-conscious reflection. The awareness of self and its concomitant reification of the external world has been felt by many to be one of the central problems of 20th century philosophy. For the objectification of external reality enables us to conceptualize and manipulate it, but at the same time the world is devitalized, and we are left alone, isolated, alienated. The state of alienation h as enabled Western man to build the modern world, but it has also left him with a feeling of not being at home in it – he has fallen from grace. Thus it is constant transitions between I-THOU and I-IT relationships, as it were, that figure fundamentally in Antonioni’s mode of expression.

Naturally, the state of alienation is inimical to that of love. Alienation brings along with it greater power of analysis and thus capacity for action. Opposed to this freedom wrought by alienation is the desire to free oneself of responsibility – the desire to merge one’s consciousness and being with that of another human being. This desire to lose one’s identity and merge with another person is not necessarily romantic love, which is a fairly complex and historical idea. For some people it may just be the erotic impulse. But whatever is the true nature of love, it is affected significantly and momentarily in an individual by his relative state of alienation.

Now the first and foremost question concerning a transition in or out of a psychological state of alienation is, what makes it happen? How does it happen who makes it happen? To answer that question necessitates revealing the extent to which one is a mechanical determinist, but there can scarcely be any question that the initial stimuli for such psychological states of mind occur as external events. Thus the surroundings in which one finds oneself can have, as we all have experienced, profound effects on one’s consciousness. Antonioni has take this idea as a starting point for the making of his films. He says that
“in general, I decide upon the outdoor locations before writing the script. . . . There are times too when an idea for a film comes to me from a particular place.” [2]
Thus the arrangement of the environment in an Antonioni films has a direct effect on the action and is not merely a metaphorical reflection of it. Throughout L’Avventura there are landscapes which seem to dominate the individual characters. First there is the barren volcanic island, Lisca Bianca, which sets the stage for Anna’s original disappearance, and by virtues of its harsh conditions, forces Claudia and Sandro to come closer together. Next Claudia and Sandro find themselves alone in a deserted village. The vicious environment of the island has given way to a state of environmental passivity and timelessness. At another point Sandro, wandering through the grand piazza of Noto, looks at the baroque architecture of the bell tower and is reminded of his betrayal of his youthful ideals about architecture. He deliberately knocks over a bottle of ink on a young man’s architectural drawing of the tower, causing a black swath to spread across the drawing. During the ensuing altercation, Sandro looks up to see black row of seminarians filing out of the bell tower. In the final scene, with Claudia’s illusion of love crushed by Sandro’s infidelity, the background to the two principles consists of a church ruins and Mount Aetna in the distance. While these environment can be viewed symbolically, it seems that the composition was intended to engender in the viewer an intuitive feeling for the psychological nuances taking placed within the characters.

Besides linear composition Antonioni effectively uses sound throughout L’Avventura to convey shifts in emotion. Two of the most striking examples are
  • after a difficult night in a hut on th e island, Claudia and Sandro strike up a conversation the becomes progressively more oriented around themselves, when the harsh sound of a motorboat jolts them back to the realization that Anna’s fate remains unresolved, and
  • after their initial encounter of love-making a train whistle is heard bringing them (us) out of their mutual absorption, back into a world of self-awareness.
The most common Antonioni effect is the most difficult to describe. This is the pacing of the length of various shots so that the camera continues to run, after the significant action of the shot has been completed. Our forced observations of the frame drains it of its emotional content and we “pull out” of the shot, so to speak. It should be mentioned that this self-awareness induced in the viewer at these moments introduces an element of boredom. This film would be ultimately boring if we were not subsequently reinvolved in the scenes. As it is, we are frequently forced during the film (as the director consciously intends), and yet the film itself it not boring. The most celebrated use of th is kind of technique occurs in the final sequence of L’Eclisse (Eclipse), wherein the lovers’ meeting place is shown from vari8ous angles and at a various times of the day for the last seven minutes of the film. L’Eclisse also contains perhaps Antonioni’s most explicit depiction of the psychological shift in and out of alienation with the stock market panic scenes.

All of the above effects are used with great subtlety by Antonioni and go into the making of a rich and fascinating motion picture. Especially effective is the continued presence, though progressively less forceful, of the consciousness of Anna long after she has disappeared from the screen. In the end on is left with the feeling that the inevitable transitory nature of love is bound up with the transitory nature of all our thoughts and feelings, that the feeling of loves comes and goes may times during that day, and that, however one may with otherwise, such is what we must accept.

  1. Hollis Alpert, The Dreams and the Dreamers, Macmillan, 1962, pp. 189-190.
  2. Michelangelo Antonioni, L’Avventura, Grove Press, 1969, p. 237.

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