A new man is being born, fraught with all the fears and terrors and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation. —Michelangelo Antonioni
Red Desert came out in 1964, almost twenty years after the end of the war, by which time Italy had recovered from the devastation caused by that catastrophic event and was on the way toward modern prosperity; the years stretching from 1954 to 1964 were those of the “economic miracle.” Particularly vigorous in the recovery was the contribution of the country’s petrochemical industry: the companies SAROM and ANIC, which we hear mentioned in the film (their plants form the background of the opening scenes), began refining operations around Ravenna in the 1950s, in the process transforming the sleepy estuarine landscape south of the Po into the vast industrial waste ground that the movie so strikingly dramatizes.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s attitude toward the cultural and economic changes affecting his country appears to have been complex and ambivalent. As an ultramodernist, open to the innovations of science, he approved of these trends—as he approved, in general, of “progress.” A man of the left, like most of his generation, he was not, however, a Marxist or a class warrior. The incoming industries may have opened up new ways of exploiting workers—the film begins with a morose, misty strike scene—but the political arguments of the decade were not Antonioni’s primary interest: his concerns were metaphysical and philosophical. He seems to have believed that, in step with technology, morality, too, needed to evolve. Our inability to adapt to the new industrial rhythms of life had resulted, he maintained, in a dangerous imbalance in our psychological and spiritual nature. “Science has never been more humble and less dogmatic,” he said in an interview before filming began, “whereas our moral attitudes are governed by . . . an absolute sense of stultification.”
Coming after the trilogy of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962), which confirmed his reputation internationally as one of the world’s leading avant-garde directors, Red Desert is the most ambitious of all of Antonioni’s attempts to ground the condition of our modern existence in a theory of alienation. The alienation in question is very complex, and it is part of the film’s difficulty, but also its achievement and seriousness, that the feelings evinced in its dramatization are so fundamentally contradictory and intractable. For on the one hand, Antonioni would say, the world being created by the advance of technology is undoubtedly beautiful: we see it in the fantastic sculptural shapes thrown up by science and industry—the girders and pipings and pylons that are part of a vast new network of global communications, seemingly reaching to the stars (an early sequence in the movie takes us to a deserted rural building site where the University of Bologna is constructing a massive new radio telescope). On the other hand—and here the pounding soundtrack of the film’s opening ten minutes makes its own inescapable comment—this new world is very close to hell. A wasteland is a wasteland, after all, and if a “new beauty” has been born (how powerfully the film shows that it indeed has been), the phenomenon is shot through with poison.
The technical challenge facing Antonioni and his longtime scriptwriting partner Tonino Guerra was, therefore, to come up with a protagonist whose inner being could sufficiently register these complicated and contradictory states of feeling. In Antonioni’s thinking, it would have to be a woman. When “spiritual imbalance” was at issue, the director believed women were the subtlest barometers—and also, potentially, its most tragic victims. “The split between morality and science is also the split between man and woman,” he said enigmatically, “between snowy Mount Etna and the concrete wall on the housing estate.” These, in any event, may have been some of the thoughts that allowed Antonioni, in 1964, to pluck his elegant muse, Monica Vitti, away from her more usual bourgeois haunts and set her down in a landscape where, at first glance, one might not expect to find such a person. The actress plays Giuliana, the wife of a successful industrial manager, and while many industrialists’ wives tend to shun the physical spaces where their husbands’ money is made, Giuliana, on the contrary, belongs here: a visitor at first, as we see her, young son in hand, seeking out her husband along the lines of striking employees, yet also an inhabitant—she is planning to open a ceramics gallery in the neighborhood (though the viewer, if not she herself, may be slightly unsure who its customers will be).
In earlier films of Antonioni’s starring Vitti, including L’avventura and L’eclisse, the heroine’s alienation from the world is pictured as a kind of neurosis—although one uses the word rather loosely to describe something that might otherwise be characterized as mere loneliness; there is nothing hysterical about those films’ heroines, who are, in fact, singularly self-possessed. Giuliana, on the other hand, while sharing some of the coolness (one might almost call it the irony) of her two filmic predecessors, at moments moves over into madness. The history of her sickness is suggested rather than spelled out, just as the cure for it, throughout the film, remains a matter of tantalizing possibility. Married to a man who provides for her in all the conventional ways but not in the ones that matter, Giuliana encounters in his colleague Corrado (Richard Harris), perhaps for the first time in her life, a person who takes the trouble to look at her properly—as a fellow human being and an equal. “Properly” here includes sexually, of course, but not just, or not even predominantly, sexually. “Courteously” might be the better way to put it—that is, with a secret and reticent understanding. Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained (one British critic called his performance “doltish”), it seems to me that Harris, as the incoming admirer, is absolutely one of the best things in the movie, his characteristic soft Irish voice perfectly dubbed into an Italian that matches the mysterious gravity of his dignified, gentlemanly bearing.
Corrado is a man who understands—and yet he is unable to save Giuliana. One of the subtlest aspects of Harris’s characterization is the way he manages to convey (partly, of course, through the writing of his role, but equally, and indissolubly, through his performance) that, for all his seeming calmness, Corrado, too, just like the heroine, is a lost soul—this being, indeed, the premise of their affinity. We see it in many places but most strikingly, perhaps, in the sequence at the public meeting where we find him outlining the plan to set up a business partnership in Argentina, involving sending over a number of Italian workers to settle there. Lucidly enough explained to the men in question, Corrado’s venture seems, however, undermined by a curious sort of vagueness; at one point in the speech, he appears to drift off into a reverie, following with his gaze the outlines of a blue painted stripe that forms part of the decoration of the room where the meeting is taking place. It strikes the viewer at this point (if it hasn’t before) that this is a man at the end of his tether—weighed down by some secret sadness that prevents him from being what otherwise he so beautifully could be, the catalyst of Giuliana’s rescue and salvation.
The “incident” of the blue painted stripe is one of a number of places in the film where color is foregrounded. Red Desert, famously, is Antonioni’s first film to use the full chromatic palette, and was felt by his contemporaries to be an aesthetic breakthrough. Color had been available to filmmakers for many years, of course, but up until the early 1960s, serious drama, of the sort that European cinema excels at, was usually shot in black and white. To the film historian, there is something exciting, and I would even say moving, about seeing the first experiments of the old masters in the new medium. The “discovery” could be said to have taken place in two phases: the first, during the 1950s, associated with the films of such directors as Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Ophuls, Mizoguchi, and Hitchcock; and then the New Wave itself, when Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, Fellini, Rosi, Pasolini, and many other of Europe’s leading directors fell upon color more or less simultaneously. (Bergman is the interesting exception: he didn’t really move over to color seriously until the beginning of the seventies.) It appears that Godard and Resnais were particularly important here as inspirations for Antonioni, in the nonnaturalistic boldness of their color schemes and the “reckless” way they were prepared to intervene in the environment.
All of the directors just mentioned take a palpable delight in experimenting with color’s possibilities, but nowhere more than in Antonioni does one have the feeling that this innovation is linked directly to the grand traditions of painting—almost as if color cinema presents for him an opportunity for taking over the arena of the easel artist. Both media project themselves onto a canvas, but in Antonioni’s case, the viewer is made to feel, in a very literal way, the backward and forward rhythms of the painter’s brushstrokes. Of course, it is all done rather subtly. The publicity for the film made much play with the way Antonioni had instructed his art director, Piero Poletto, in certain sequences, to apply coverings of paint to the living landscape, and to certain objects (like the displayed fruit on the cart); yet the contemporary viewer, half a century later, is struck by how little the film’s total aesthetic effect seems to owe to such overt stylization. Even red—encoded in the film’s title, and translatable as the color of passion and dementia—is played down, held back from dramatic emphasis until the climax. Instead, we have a variety of tonal possibilities. Certainly, vibrant, bold colors are present—and admired, I would say—as part of modern industrial/consumerist society: the bright, undifferentiated yellows, oranges, and blues of children’s toys, of plastic containers, and of factory furnishings, similar in their way to the hues of contemporary American color-field artists like Frank Stella and Barnett Newman (maybe, too, there is a touch of Rothko in the rectangular splotches of unfinished paintwork that decorate the bare walls of Giuliana’s gallery). But there are also the much more muted palettes associated with the flaking doors and decayed woodwork of the quayside hut in which the party of Giuliana and her husband’s friends hole up during one of the film’s central sequences, and the misty browns and greens of the estuary itself: soft, gentle, and, at the same time, luxurious halftones that seem to capture, or project, the sophisticated melancholy of the film’s characters. And finally, in contrast to this again and in a superb, painterly touch, there are the serene blues, yellows, and whites of the interpolated child’s story on the desert island, where the viewer finds himself, momentarily, in the presence of some abstract idea of color itself—the color of heaven, as it were.
This latter sequence (a miniature film in itself) is one of the most beautiful things in Red Desert, in the interaction it displays between the written quality of the voice-over (so delicately delivered by Vitti) and the mysterious suggestiveness of the imagery. Simplicity itself, on one level (it is a child’s tale, after all, narrated to Giuliana’s little boy, Valerio, as he lies on his sickbed), the fable turns out to be as complex and ambivalent as everything else in this complex, ambivalent movie. It is a tale without a moral, though not without a meaning—even if that meaning is fugitive and difficult to summarize definitively. The first thing we notice about it is that the child through whose eyes the events unfold is a girl. Somehow we expected a boy, if only to make the protagonist of the tale easier for Valerio to identify with. The fact that it is a girl allows us to intuit, while the story is going on, that it is Giuliana herself who is the heroine—Giuliana on the brink of adolescence. (And yet not her in any reductive way: physically and in coloring, the child is quite different from the adult Vitti.) As in all classic fairy tales, notions about number hover close to the surface, structuring the story and also a part of the puzzle to be deciphered. The tale starts off with three creatures spotted on the shore: a cormorant, a seagull, and a little black rabbit that runs along the water’s edge before being temporarily doused by the waves. Three creatures and three episodes, or sections, of the tale. In the first, the child sees a splendid yacht on the horizon. As it comes toward her, she swims out to investigate. (The mysterious, white-sailed vessel is unmanned, turning around of its own accord and sailing off again into the blue.) In episode two, the girl hears a beautiful voice singing, she cannot tell whether from land or from sea. And finally, the girl takes to the water again and swims into a cove where the rocks (so the voice-over tells us, and it is absolutely true) are profoundly reminiscent of naked human forms. The fable ends with Valerio’s voice-over asking his mother, “Who was singing?” and Giuliana answering, with wistful, tender longing: “Everything was singing . . . everything.”
It is an astonishingly beautiful excursus from the main development of the narrative, while remaining, in retrospect, an integral part of it. Its mastery is discernible in its pace and overall spaciousness—the sense that, within its boundaries, everything is given the right amount of time to develop, and that we can think about what it means while it is unraveling. What does it signify, finally? Plainly, the sexual undertones of the sequence are important, however much it is right to insist on the tale’s complementary purity and simplicity. The episode gives us, perhaps, a poetic dramatization of the heroine’s childhood psychology—her curiosity combined with her fear of the world. Each of its three sections is utopian in some way—yet also sinister and frightening. It gestures toward Giuliana’s future loneliness and madness, identifying these things, paradoxically, with the last moment in her childhood of freedom and independence. None of this is said out loud to the viewer; rather, as is proper to art, it is invoked and painted and embodied.
Returning to painting for a moment, then, it is interesting to make one more distinction. For if, traditionally, the older art form relies for its effect on monumentality and stillness (and the very special spiritual thoughtfulness that is released by such a calm), movies have a different and even opposite phenomenology: the thought that is proper to them arises, of course, from their implication in movement. Antonioni is one of the great masters of moving figurative compositions: the way his characters interact and change places with one another in the course of spoken dialogues is full of significance and tenderness. We hear what they say, but as they move around, we see what they think. In a way, of course, this is what the mise-en-scène of cinema is always about; any director (together with his or her editor) needs to be accomplished in the basic grammatical rules: how actors sit and stand and change positions, how they walk in and out of frame, and so on. Antonioni excels at this skill using only two or three characters in a room or a landscape. But he displays an even greater virtuosity in the seamless choreography of groups—as in the sequence mentioned earlier showing the party of friends in the hut. Here there are essentially two spaces: the body of the cabin itself, with stove and primitive seating area, and an “inner sanctum,” a sort of extended cupboard or cubbyhole, painted red, whither, one by one, the party of six eventually drifts, to end up lying on top of one another, in a kind of familial coziness that is at once charged with sexuality (the brittle, lighthearted conversation has been about aphrodisiacs). The viewer can only marvel at the suavity with which Antonioni’s camera measures the movement of the individual characters here, allowing the gestures of the actors, or pairs of actors, to seem freshly minted in front of our eyes. The sadness of gaze behind the frivolity of banter is perfectly discriminated, with a documentary authenticity that goes back to Antonioni’s roots in postwar neorealism.
Red Desert, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (three years previously, Antonioni picked up Berlin’s Golden Bear for La notte), looks backward and forward: on the one hand, it is the culmination of the director’s investigation of the bourgeois Italian soul, going back to the early 1950s; on the other, it marks the beginning of a new and more international phase of his career, which in due course would take in such celebrated English-language movies as Blow-Up (1966, Cannes Palme d’Or winner), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975, also known as Professione: reporter). While the famous trio of films from the early 1960s that established his reputation abroad continue to be known by their Italian names—L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse—the title of this film seems to have migrated over the years from Italian into English: Red Desert to the general public outside Italy rather than Il deserto rosso. The outsider might consider this odd, for the film is, after all, Italian, in both subject matter and language. Even so, there are signs in it (and not just the theme of voyaging) that Antonioni was getting ready to step abroad. He was always a cosmopolitan artist, and later travels would take him to London, Spain, America, China, and remote parts of northern Africa—all of these locations observed with a distinctive precision that at the same time goes “beyond realism,” skirting the edges of science fiction. So here, in Red Desert: we are on earth but also on some remote planet, in the present time but also (perhaps) the future. Artists of ideas like Antonioni—unrepentantly highbrow and serious—engage in a permanent gamble with the public: will they be judged pretentious for their pains? In Red Desert, it seems to me, all the cylinders are firing. One cannot miss its passion—or its pessimism. The movie is a beautiful, haunting, and complex meditation on the spiritual cost of modernity.
Mark Le Fanu teaches at Aarhus University in Denmark. He publishes in Sight & Sound and Positif, and is the author of two studies of classic filmmakers: The Cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (1987) and Mizoguchi and Japan (2005).