A group of rich Italians is on a cruise off the coast of Sicily when one of their number—a moody, unhappy girl—disappears. Murder, kidnap, accident, suicide? Her boyfriend and her close woman friend search for her, but the search turns into a new love story, and the mystery is never resolved.
With this simple, elusive tale, director Michelangelo Antonioni launched himself into the forefront of the new emerging European art cinema. At the time of the film’s premiere he was 46 and had directed five previous features, all of them interesting but none of them able to massively capture the public’s attention. The premiere of L’Avventura, at Cannes in May 1960, was a disaster, with catcalls erupting throughout the auditorium. But the critics loved it and so—when it went on international release—did the public. With L’Avventura Antonioni’s career was made and the film is now an acknowledged classic.
Forty years ago, the film struck audiences mainly with its freshness; it can still have this effect today. It surprises with its insights: characters do unexpected things in unexpected places, but in a way that provokes recognition: yes, that does happen, though it doesn’t conform to clichés of how we think things ought to happen.
At the beginning of the film, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and his girlfriend Anna (Lea Massari) have an uneasy relationship. They have been apart for a while and getting together again they feel like strangers. When the cruise yacht stops at a deserted volcanic island Anna goes for a walk and doesn’t come back. The rest of the film hinges around the search for this girl who has mysteriously disappeared.
In fact, only two members of the cruise party pursue the search with any conviction: Sandro and Anna’s best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). The search is complicated because Sandro soon gets distracted from looking for Anna and turns his attentions to Claudia. His inconstancy is not explained. There is little psychologizing and certainly no moralizing. After much hesitation, Claudia returns his affection and the two fall in love.
From the moment that Sandro’s pursuit of Claudia is suddenly converted into mutual passion the film changes momentum. Anna recedes more into the background but her absence continues to haunt the narrative, right until the very end. This absence—which is also a presence—is a key to the film. It inevitably brings to mind a comparison to Hitchcock, who plays with a similar motif in Rebecca (1940) and Vertigo (1958), and also dispatches his heroine early in the film in a film exactly contemporary with L’Avventura —Psycho. (Antonioni would later develop another Hitchcock theme, that of the wrong man, in The Passenger in 1975.)
In other respects, however, Antonioni and Hitchcock can be seen as opposites. In L’Avventura, events just happen; nothing signals them as significant. Anna does not actively disappear, she just is no longer on screen and neither the audience nor the other characters are aware of her not being present. Tension is generally slack and, when it builds, it builds obscurely, brought to life more by a surrounding uncertainty than by careful preparation and accelerating rhythms. Above all, chance is chance and no inexorable train of events is ever generated.
What L’Avventura showed was that films do not have to be structured around major events, that very little drama can happen and a film can still be fascinating to its audience. It also showed—and this was harder for audiences to grasp—that events in films do not have to be, in an obvious way, meaningful. L’Avventura presents its characters behaving according to motivations unclear to themselves as much as to the audience; they are sensitive to mood, to landscape, to things that happen, but they also behave in routine and conformist ways. None of them, except Claudia (who had, in her words, “a sensible childhood…without any money”), seems to have much consciousness of the lack of direction that afflicts them. They are, to use a word very fashionable at the time the film came out, alienated. But to say, as many critics did, that the film is “about” alienation is to miss the point. The film shows, it doesn’t argue. It convinces by the sensitivity and accuracy of its observation, not by heavy signals to the audience to think this, that, or the other.
More than any other film L’Avventura seems to define the spirit of a time in cinema when anything seemed possible and there was no territory into which it could not venture. Above all what it seeks to capture is the world of fleeting emotion, feelings which are unstable and crystallize only momentarily in the camera’s gaze. After L’Avventura, Antonioni did not look back. He made three further films with Vitti—The Night (1961), Eclipse (1962), and Red Desert (1964)—each time pushing further back the frontiers of what cinema could explore. It is hard to say which of these films is the best. But L’Avventura is the one that started Antonioni on his quest, and remains the one that most clearly represents the unique nature of his art.
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is Professor of Cinema Cultures at the University of Luton, England. He is the editor of The Oxford History of World Cinema (1996) and author of a book on L'Avventura in the British Film Institute's "Film Classics" series (1997).