This is the first of four articles that will consider the movements and developments of Michelangelo Antonioni within the paradigm of Postreligion and early Marxism/Feminism within cinema. In this series, I will consider the trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962), in addition to the Deserto Rosso (1964). Tracing the developments of Antonioni and his view on modernity, I locate a primary inlet into this viewpoint through his strong female lead Monica Vitti. As Vitti infamously starred in five of Antonioni’s films throughout the 1960s until the 1980s, I regard Vitti’s early roles within a Feminist standpoint as the most complex and powerful component to Antonioni’s radical way of constructing and unfolding a cinematic narrative.
Modernity and its discontents: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) is a film that assures us that the types of relationships one experiences in our contemporary society can only leave us disillusioned and alienated. The location of value and meaning, and the production therein, throughout the modern period has been the cause of profound melancholy for the self-reflective individual of the 20th century. Beginning a story arch that extends into a trilogy of films, L’Avventura is a bleak, restless and extravagant study of the emotionally alienated aristocracy of Europe in the moments immediately following the Second War. The beginning of the film, which traces a group of aristocrats in their meaningless escapades throughout the Italian countryside, is decidedly Marxist – rejecting religion and material wealth as the basis of social morality. The film’s two main characters Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) are locate continually within a paradigm of utter contradiction: to explain the basic features of their lives, beginning with their emotional attachments to their friends and their ambitions, Claudia, Sandro, and Anna (Lea Massari) only seem to exist because of their location within a social structure. As their moral maxims are necessary for them to keep their world organized and accessible, when Claudia and Sandro are faced with the ultimate tragedy of losing their friend Anna they are forced into an adventure where their moral compasses cannot navigate. But are their moral maxims and predications not the highest and most complex existing within society?
Claudia and Sandro awkwardly attempt to articulate themselves by virtue of their values, and yet, they find themselves demanding certain types of social commitments without having any type of moral or ethical criterion to make those demands. More than anything else, L’Avventura is an exhaustive exploration of Modernity: the cosmopolitanist and her apathy, her utter lack of emotional connection, and moral justification in yearning for the life that she leads. At the center of the film is Antonioni’s vision of the post-industrial aristocracy living in Italy; enframing the film within a social landscape of utter success and playfulness, the wealthiest are made into beings that only desire carefree lives. But as the film unfolds, the aristocrat’s dated moral and ethical structure – that which presses them into desiring only the most innocent forms of bliss — are continually compromised by the complexities arising within the late modernist period. As the film is dominated by the narratives of Anna (Lea Massari) and her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), it begins with the presumed engagement of Anna to Sandro. The film opens with an exchange between Anna and her father, wherein her father quickly dispels the faint hope that Sandro will indeed marry her. Exclaiming with surprise “Why would he marry you?”
The cultured and elite women are the focus of this film as they lead lives of quite desperation. While L’Avventura is a sublime Marxist study of a woman’s inability to derive any kind of emotional value within a culture and society of materialism, the film is more concerned with creating an overwhelmingly bleak and boring atmosphere than creating a powerful rejection. These societal actors are pressed into conformity within the power structures of modernity, seeking erotic pleasure in the absence of romantic congregation. The theme of modernity is inaugurated by a sense of dishonesty: one is driven to desire things which are inherently unfulfilling; the dishonestly of engaging within superficial values of extravagance – the overly long and utterly pointless boating parties, the vastly overpopulated Saloons, and their promiscuous relationships offer no assurance of commitment nor social stability.
L’Avventura offers a haunting and chilling cinematic experience and slowly unwinds the confidence you once felt towards the place, posture and happiness of the ruling and owning class. The film’s exhaustive depiction of the life of a bored aristocrat serves an all to uncomfortable and realized truth: modernity’s progressive nature has undone more social structures than it has created. As Michelangelo Antonioni said in a statement regarding the film:
And today a new man is being born, fraught with all the fears, terrors and stammerings that are associated with a period of gestation. And what is even more serious, this new man immediately finds himself burdened with a heavy baggage of emotional traits, which cannot exactly be called old and outmoded, but rather unsuited and inadequate. They condition us without offering us any help; they create problems without suggesting any possible solutions. And yet it seems that man will not rid himself of this baggage. He reacts, he loves, he hates, he suffers under the sway of moral forces and myths which today, when we are at the threshold of reaching the moon, should not be the same as those that prevailed in Homeric times, but nevertheless are.