A group of rich Italians head out on a yachting trip to a deserted volcanic island in the Mediterranean. When they are about to leave the island, they find Anna, the main character up to this point, has gone missing. Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, Anna’s friend, try without success to find her. While looking for the missing friend, Claudia and Sandro develop an attraction for each other. When they get back to land, they continue the search with no success. Sandro and Claudia proceed to become lovers, and all but forget about the missing Anna.
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User Reviews: At some point in the film Monica Vitti turns to her love partner and passionately proclaims "I want to see clearly!". They’re standing atop a convent, and saying this, accidentally she tugs on a rope. Bells go off around them. A moment later, from a church in the distance bells ring back an answer.
And so finally I arrive at the end of my Antonioni quest going backwards in time from The Passenger, back at the start. This will not be the last of his films that I see, but I feel I’ve reached a point that enables closure. I’m where it all began, in the craving mind, where all the formations of life and cinema are born. I will rest from my travel here, with the magnitude of this film.
But L’Avventura is famously a mystery of disappearance, so why do I speak in the title of this review of ‘appearances’?
Perhaps because, in the aftermath of that disappearance, Antonioni sketches for us the first appearance of desire. Romance in his later films was already stale or not allowed to blossom (it appears again in Zabriskie Point, under a different context), but here feelings are pursued, in an effort to reflect if love can be our saving grace.
That appearance, born in a barren rock in the middle of the sea, rests on a twofold interpretation.
On one level, perhaps in understanding by Anna’s inexplicable disappearance the precarious balance in which hangs our fleeting existence, the randomly cruel laws that govern it, the two partners turn to each other for solace. And perhaps more, seeing deep down in their own selves how quick life can be forgotten, how everything we hold to matter ultimately matters little and how this speck of life we value is merely transient and will come to pass, they turn to each other to desperately defy it, to prove to each other and the world that love cannot simply vanish.
Antonioni frames first this realization of transience against the elements of nature, the imperishable, secondly he frames, traps, blocks within the desperate relationship, mostly faces in silhouette, against old medieval buildings, man’s folly to mimic the imperishable. This is Antonioni’s spatial stroke of genius, the visual vocabulary which he consistently executed for the rest of his career.
But whereas in the subsequent films I was fascinated with the abstraction of human struggle, here I’m also fascinated with the struggle itself of human beings fumbling in the dark. The woman cautious of love at first, then allowing herself to be swept in it, believing if something can make her "see clearly" that it should be love. The man pushing obsessively for that love then, having consummated the need, conquered his prey, losing interest, aimlessly wandering the streets. The sated beast now becomes casually destructive, as we’re shown in the scene where for no reason he spills ink over a young man’s drawing.
Antonioni fills this with portents and divinations, like the woman’s premonition that Anna has returned.
More subtle sketch of the madness of desire is the surreal scene where a mob in the grip of sexual paroxysm gathers in the street to ogle at a beautiful woman. Monica Vitti’s character later experiences the same oppressiveness of the "male gaze", yet doesn’t feel threatened by it, until her man emerges from a building, at which point she runs and hides.
The finale in this sense is a poignant enigma like few in cinema, the smile of a Mona Lisa. The two lovers, now bitterly broken by how their desire has failed them, stand in a plaza with the view of a mountain in the horizon. The woman lays a hand on the man’s head, but is the gesture forgiveness or reproach and is she telling him to stay or absolving him to go?
Rushing back through his career, a chronicle emerges. Here the appearance of desire in the hope that it will liberate, later the failure of that desire to liberate, the willingness to not pursue it at all in L’Eclisse. Later yet, the liberation from desire, the realization in Deserto Rosso that we need to make ourselves whole from within, the chimera of the mind in Blowup and the liberation from it, the chimera of ideas in Zabriskie Point and the liberation from it, until the eventual, stunning to behold emergence of nirvana in The Passenger. A state of awareness where all bonds to clinging and desire are severed, the illusions of ego and identity dissolved, the characters now embracing their transience.
This is why Antonioni matters to me. Not because Kubricks, Polanskis, and Peter Weirs all took from him, planting seeds in the fertile ground of his cinema, and not because he did more for cinema as we know it than all of them together, but because his enduring legacy, mastery of medium, conceptual exploration of ideas, all of this cannot fully account for the experience of the spiritual journey they enable. Which is to say that something elusive exists embedded in the frame, a true perception, that makes his films mysteriously extend into the soul.
Antonioni saw further perhaps than any other director, before or after.