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Around the World in 80 Films: L’Avventura

How have I never seen L’Avventura? This was the question I found myself asking after finishing the 1960 classic film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. As a film student I was aware of L’Avventura, and it’s impact on cinema, but I just had placed it on my ”to watch” list and had moved on with things. Telling myself that I would eventually get around to watching it. I had dismissed the film as being another drama with stunning cinematography but little else, but I was so very, very wrong.

L’Aveventura is a masterpiece, in every way possible. From its avant-garde approach, to narrative storytelling, to its wonderful abstract framing of scenes and actors. From its impressive performances by Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti and Lea Massari, and it’ solid, capable direction from Antonioni. Who understands the makeup and impact of cinematic storytelling.

L’Avventura came at a time where the landscape of cinema was significantly changing. During the years of 1959 and 1960, films such as A Bout de Souffle, La Dolce Vita, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Virgin Spring and Psycho, were beginning to transform what was normally classed as a film text, and testing the boundaries.

L’Avventura came at a time where technology was changing, with the development of lenses, film stocks, and new and smaller cameras becoming more available and accessible to the masses. Thus making the opportunity of filmmaking an easier and realistic achievement.

It was at this time that the foundations of the Hollywood studio system were crumbling, with the aspects of formulaic genre tropes, the three-act narrative structure, and closed endings becoming tested and criticised for being too restricted for the auteur to flourish. L’Avventura is a prime example of being an ‘anti-Hollywood’ picture, and one that champions the director as being an artist with a unique vision and voice in cinema.

The film starts with the hip and stylish Anna (Lea Massari), who appears at first glance to be the film’s central character. She tells her wealthy father that she’s going away on a holiday to Sicily with girlfriend Claudia (Vitti), who seems to be the third wheel. Tagging along is Anna’s lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) for the sake of it. But after Anna inexplicably disappears during a boat trip to an uninhabited island, it is Claudia who moves to the centre of the narrative. And into the affections of Sandro, as attempts to find Anna begin to go a stray.

Claudia and Sandro spend their time trying to find Anna on the Island, but they fail to find any trace. They discover that smugglers were in the area at the time of Anna’s disappearance, and have now been arrested and are being held at Milazzo police station. Sandro travels there, but realizes the smugglers know nothing about Anna’s disappearance.

When Sandro discovers that Claudia has arrived from the islands, he meets her at the train station where their mutual attraction is evident. But Claudia urges him not to complicate matters and begs him to leave. She boards a train to Palermo, and as the train pulls away, Sandro runs after it and jumps aboard.

On the train, Claudia is annoyed, saying, “I don’t want you with me.” She says it would be easier if they sacrifice now and deny their attraction, but Sandro sees no sense in sacrificing anything. Still focused on her friend’s disappearance, Claudia is troubled by the thought that it “takes so little to change.” Sandro relents and gets off the train at Castroreale. It would seem that they would part ways, but their paths cross again.

Sandro goes to question a chemist, who claimed to have sold tranquilizers to Anna. When suddenly Claudia arrives, and they learn that the woman identified by the chemist left on a bus to Noto in southern Sicily. Sandro and Claudia resume their search together, and drive south. Outside Noto, they stop at a deserted village, and then find a hill overlooking the town where they make love while a train goes by.

Later, in town, they go to the Trinacria Hotel, where they believe Anna is staying. Claudia asks Sandro to go in alone. While Claudia waits outside, a crowd of men gather around her. This is a prime example of the power of the male gaze, and in some ways can be seen as a celebration of the power that a woman’s beauty can have over the weak-minded males.

When she thinks she sees Sandro and Anna coming down the stairs, she runs into a paint store, but Sandro follows and confirms that Anna is not there. Claudia remains torn between her feelings for Sandro, and her friendship with Anna. Will Claudia and Sandro be able to function as a couple? Or will Sandro’s appetite for women become the better of him?

Researching into the production of the film, I discovered some very interesting details, which only add to the importance of the picture. The producers bailed out mid-shoot as their company, Imeria, went bankrupt. Which left the crew literally high and dry on the desert island of Lisca Bianca, without sufficient food and water. Difficulties had already begun prior to Imeria collapsing, with the islands being infested with rats, mosquitoes and reptiles.

Also, the weather was unexpectedly cold, and the Navy ship hired to transport the cast and crew to the island every day, never appeared. In order to carry personal items and equipment to the island, the crew had to personally build small rafts out of empty gas canisters and wooden planks; these were towed by a launching tug every morning.

The film works because of Monica Vitti’s magnificent performance. The camera seems to gravitate towards her, with her domineering presence, without her appearing too forceful or attention seeking. Vitti’s Claudia remains for a long time on the outside looking in, marginalised, seemingly unimportant in the film, with the equally beautifully stunning Lea Massari being the centre of focus.

And yet there is something in Vittit’s nervous gaze, her subtle physical gestures, that makes her impossible not to notice. Especially in contrast to Anna’s inner tension and outward unhappiness – an unhappiness she can’t identify, even in private to Claudia. The relationship between these two women reminded me of Bergman’s Persona, with the women having a connection and bond, which transcends verbal communication.

L’avventura, is an open and very fluid film, which is always shifting from one narrative or theme to another, not quite beginning, and not quite ending. The film begins with one main character, Anna, who vanishes, with no visual or verbal clues to trace her by, except rumours of sightings. And the film ends with Claudia becoming our main focus. But her story has no conclusion, or at least it doesn’t have a closed ending, which makes this film so revolutionary in its depiction of character arch.

L’avventura is a film about consciousness, about being in the moment, and complexities of relationships, It is a film which is so iconic and beautiful, that it’s a shame to overlook it. Watching L’avventura sums up what a true adventure should be: mysterious, exotic, and unpredictable.

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