Michelangelo Antonioni changed the landscape of art cinema with his breakout L’avventura. Achingly beautiful and mysterious as a deep, dark cave, this chronicle of a disappearance and the illicit affair that rises in its wake opened in New York on this day, April 4, in 1961, courtesy of Janus Films.
Though it had had a disastrous premiere at Cannes in May 1960 (catcalls reportedly erupted when it ended, causing Antonioni to flee the theater), it earned the festival’s Jury Prize and became a critical cause célèbre for its daring restraint and refusal to explain just what it is that happens in it. One critic, as it turned out, who did not share the international intelligentsia’s enthusiasm for the film, was the New York Times’s famously stodgy Bosley Crowther, who wrote disdainfully upon its New York unveiling, “Watching L’avventura . . . is like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost.” This was the first Antonioni film to show in the United States, and Crowther’s review took an emotional toll on the director and his star, both visiting from Italy. As Janus partner Cy Harvey recalls in the book accompanying the Criterion release Essential Art House: 50 Years of Janus Films, after reading the review, “Antonioni starts to sob, Monica Vitti starts to cry, and the tears are streaming down their faces, and they don’t quite understand what’s going on.”
Of course, Crowther’s response was an anomaly. With its visual economy and ability to make compelling drama from an abstract narrative, Antonioni’s film has proven to be mightily influential. It’s a film that leaves space for contemplation—the viewer’s and the characters’—as evidenced in the following clip, one of the film’s many precise and memorable moments.