scratching my inscriptions on the dark dungeon walls

Backgrounds and Balconies

A Study of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura

Commentary © 2009 Daniel Clark

The summer of 1961 – I was on a year’s leave of absence from college, experimenting with places to live. After a few months in Boston, I decided my fantasy island of Puerto Rico was next. On arriving in New York some hours before the departure of the flight to San Juan, I noticed that a new Italian film, L’Avventura, had just opened at the Sutton Theater on the East Side.

I’d read about it – the showing time fit into my schedule perfectly.

The film stunned me and frustrated me. It haunted me and gave me a headache.

Then, off to Puerto Rico, which never got beyond the fantasy stage for me. So I returned to New York, where I stayed the rest of my year off, sitting in the Sutton Theater time after time, obsessed with Antonioni’s cinema poem on alienation – but was it really about alienation? If it was, why was it so beautiful? Why were the natural environments so evocative, so conscious? Why were the bored, purposeless characters so interesting to me? I wrote a review of it for the college newspaper. My first sentence was, “Going to see L’Avventura has replaced the act of going to church for me.”

In this study I hope to show why.

As the credits begin, after the studio and distributor logos, Antonioni gets top billing. He’s already had a moderately successful career in Italy, with some international acclaim for his previous film, Il Grido.

The title means “the adventure,” but the Italian also implies a “one night stand” or a “fling.” Immediately there’s a sense of something reckless or improper.

This is the film’s first image. Sorry, no “establishing shot.” In the best neorealist tradition, Antonioni plunges us right into the middle of the action. We are forced to put the movie together for ourselves as it progresses. A young woman, Anna, walks toward the camera. We concentrate on her, and on her annoyed expression. We have no idea that she’s walking out of her family’s villa – it could be any place – any expensive, well-kept, place with traditional architecture, that is. The tone of the film is set. The characters will be in transit within settings of opulence both architectural and natural.

In the film’s second shot, we see Anna’s father, a retired diplomat, standing just outside the villa’s wall. He’s talking with a worker. The class distinction couldn’t be more stark. The diplomat is taller, standing nobly. The worker is shorter, with a more humble posture. However, they’re of one mind regarding the new buildings going up nearby. Anna’s father remarks that the villa used to be surrounded by woods. Now the old order is passing. The modern world is invading. In the distance, in the “vanishing point” of the shot’s Renaissance perspective lines, is the dome of St. Peter’s basilica, designed by that other Michelangelo. The old order, the old morality, is vanishing. Yet it still stands in the background, as if commenting on the foreground. In L’Avventura, the environment is one of the actors – or perhaps the environment is all there is, and the human actors are simply aspects of it. Marx’s economic determinism takes on a cosmic aspect. (Did Antonioni go to a lot of trouble to find this location? Or did it just fall into his lap?)

Scowling, Anna meets her father. She tells him she’s going on a cruise from Rome down to Sicily with some friends, including her fiance, Sandro. Her father voices his displeasure with Sandro, questioning the man’s ability to commit himself to the relationship. Anna doesn’t want him to speak his mind, but he counters that after spending years as a diplomat telling lies, he wants to tell the truth as he sees it. He also complains to Anna that she doesn’t spend enough time with him, leaving him alone. We assume her mother has died, or her parents are divorced. As the title implies, the story line’s major theme is impermanence in human relationships – a lack of commitment in friendship, in love, and in family life.

The next five frame captures are from a single shot, and last just a few seconds. Anna and her father are uncomfortably saying goodbye. The camera position reveals another new building going up, even closer than the ones seen before. A woman is walking by, almost unnoticeably, in the near background.

Anna leans over to kiss her father on his cheek, obscuring our view of the woman behind them. A chauffeur is seen, but the frame capture makes him more prominent than the moving image does.

The woman we can’t see is Claudia, a close friend of Anna’s. She’ll be going with Anna on the cruise.

This oblique introduction of Claudia, who will become the film’s main character, happens so quickly that it’s easy to miss her if we’re concentrating on the father and daughter’s drama. For Antonioni, she starts off in the background and never really inhabits the foreground, the jaded world of her companions. Later in the story, Claudia explains that she grew up “sensible – without money.” She retains much of the simple certitude and yet playfulness of her youth. But it would be a mistake to think that L’Avventura is a condemnation of a certain class. The middle class and the poor don’t get off any easier, though they take up less screen time.

As if to underline Claudia’s position as a figure in the background, Antonioni has another woman, also carrying something, emerge in the somewhat more distant background, occupying the same place in the shot that Claudia formerly occupied. Claudia’s identity is already tentative, and will become even more so later.

Bright, playful Claudia and dark, gloomy Anna are driven through “the glory that was Rome” in this film set amidst the magnificent but crumbling architecture and ethics of the past. Claudia’s hand will appear throughout as a lietmotif with varying significations.

They arrive at Sandro’s place, an apartment in an old building whose first floor is an art gallery. Sculptured saints and busy nuns dominate the plaza. The location is steeped in tradition. Dimly perceived, two people look out of two windows. For Antonioni, this placement of extras serves two purposes. First, it casts an air of loneliness over the scene. Second, it makes the windows into eyes, as if the building from the past is watching, and passing judgment, on the present. Sandro, an  architect, is conflicted about himself as an artist who loves the exuberant architecture of the past and as a businessman making construction cost estimates in the here and now. Although wealthy, he keeps this romantic bohemian flat as a second home. As with all of Antonioni’s best shots, we are here peering beyond the physical world into a psychological whirlpool.

Before entering Sandro’s apartment, Anna confided to Claudia her uncertainty about her feelings toward Sandro. She was about to give up going on the cruise when Sandro greeted her through his window. He said he’d be right down. Anna then goes up the stairs to his flat, walks in and goes straight to the balcony overlooking the plaza. This is the first of many times the characters take refuge on a balcony – a place neither indoors not outdoors, an equivocal place where one may rest without having to make a final decision.

Sandro’s decor – a contrast of minimalist walls and flamboyant ironwork – reflect his inner duality. Antonioni adopts this contrast of the stark and the ornate as the “look” of his film. (All-white walls were all the rage in Europe during the late 1950s and early 1960s, if the evidence of other films of the period is any indication.)

One good balcony shot deserves another. This one’s on the back of the art gallery. Claudia waits patiently and good-naturedly for Anna and Sandro.

“Perche, perche, perche, perche, eh?” Indeed, that is the question, and Sandro’s inquiry about Anna’s foul mood gets no further reply. Sandro has been trying to lighten her up, which only irritates her all the more. Sandro’s superficial nonchalance about life will carry him through the next couple of days, but will finally give way to a deeper self-disgust.

One floor below the betrothed couple, Claudia muses on their delay.

Cut to this head shot of Anna, also looking upward, but in an almost catatonic boredom, her head listlessly rolling around. Unquestionably one of the cinema’s most loveless love-making scenes.

The perspective lines converge on Claudia, still waiting. She shuts the door. End of the introductory scenes. Two transitional shots follow, as Sandro drives uncomfortably fast to the boat. Combined, the three shots are typical neorealism. Nobody says, “OK guys, let’s drive to the dock where the yacht is waiting for us.” Antonioni cares less about the plotline and more about the poetry – the visual (and aural) dynamics within each shot, and the dialectic between the shots, to use Eisenstein’s term.

The loud car engine is replaced by the distant purring of the boat. We’re off the north coast of Sicily, among the Aeolian islands. In the background is Stromboli, locale of Rossellini’s film of that name, a film distinguished as much for its artistic values as for the controversial extra-marital affair between the director and his star, Ingrid Bergman. Antonioni wrote a script for the neorealist Rossellini in 1942. Stromboli (1950) anticipated L’Avventura‘s theme of alienation and infidelity played out on a stark Aeolian landscape.

The boat wanders around through the Aeolians. In the background is Lisca Bianca, where the film’s story will take a sudden turn. In the foreground is Patrizia, or Lady Patrizia. The yacht is hers. Though   her husband is Ettore, a businessman, she’s accompanied on the cruise by Raimundo, her lover. Patrizia’s commment about the loneliness and separation of the islands serves as a transparent reference to the empty spaces separating the film’s characters. Most commentators criticize the characters – other than Claudia – as lacking depth, but they are in fact occasionally capable of sensitivity.

Sandro lets newspaper pages loose into the boat’s wake. Their aimless, disconnected fluttering upsets Claudia.

Stopping for a swim.

Aimless, disconnected fluttering…

Anna has brought the swimming to an abrupt halt by pretending to see a shark. She confesses to Claudia. Antonioni’s female characters have deep connections, and wisdom, not shared by his men. Most of his earlier feature films – Cronaca di un amore, La signora senza camelie, Le amiche – were considered to be “women’s films.”

The party disembarks for an interlude on the island. Anna and Sandro quarrel. Here we see a dissolve from the last shot we’ll see of Anna to a shot of the rocks and the sea. She’s dissolving into the background, never to be seen again. We are only 26 minutes into a 143 minute movie, and the woman who has been the main character vanishes.

Meanwhile, Claudia enjoys the simple pleasures.

A storm is coming up. They must return to the boat and continue down to port in Sicily. But where’s Anna?

As they search for Anna, the grand, ancient power of the island asserts itself, sometimes ominous, sometimes beautiful.

The island’s rugged, timeless dignity, with its insistent presence, supports the absence that occupies the thoughts of the wandering searchers, and the absence of any meaningful connections between them.

With her hand, Claudia tries to right a broken stem, but it can’t be fixed.

Claudia pushes herself up after lying down on the rocks searching a crevasse below.

“Anna!” Even the rocks cry out her name. The entire creation calls out in despair, feeling the absence. This is not a “pathetic fallacy,” where an artist makes the outer world express human feelings. It’s the other way around. What we have here is closer to what Sartre called the “nausea,” the vertiginous descent into a cosmic meaninglessness, wherein Claudia and the others would be particular expressions of a general, universal miasma. Or it may be that Antonioni, no matter how darkly, is beginning to reach out to an ecological consciousness that understands the interdependence of all entities. He certainly never makes the jump from existentialism to more recent movements such as eco-ethics, neopaganism, or multicultural Goddess worship. A few hints (unintended, no doubt) find their way in, however.

Claudia, Sandro and Corraldo stay the night, sheltering from the rain in a little stone hut. Claudia wakes at sunrise.

The shirt she’d been wearing is wet. She looks in her bag for another, and finds a shirt of Anna’s that Anna had put there the day before. It’s dry. She puts it on, thus beginning her gradual transition into the place, into the identity, once occupied by Anna…and beyond.

The Goddess worshipped at dawn by Sandro.

She slips. He grabs her hand. Their eyes meet. Anna has been gone for less than a day. Or is she here now, in the shifting persona of Claudia? Sandro is drifting, as usual, attaching no importance to anything but what the world puts in front of him at any moment. But is not Claudia also affected by a similar aimlessness?

The boating party prepares to leave Lisca Bianca. Sandro will continue the search on Lipari, the main Aeolian island, and on the Sicilian mainland. Claudia will conduct her own search. The others will go on to the Sicilian villa where the Montaldos, friends of Patrizia and Ettore, reside. Sandro confronts Claudia on the yacht. She nervously submits to his embrace. Her hand clutches his, then pusheshis hand away. They both are plunged into confusion.

A police contingent has arrived by boat and helicopter. As they get ready to leave, the officer in charge turns to see the old fisherman who lives in the stone hut on the island, sitting as if he’s part of the cliffs. The officer looks at him with curiosity, then turns away nervously. Another judgment passed on by the ancient background.

A carefully posed group shot of the yachting party, minus Claudia, looking gloomy after their junket has been ruined by the strange disappearance of Anna. From the left, Sandro, Raimundo, Patrizia, Giulia and Corrado. The Lisca Bianca section of the film has lasted 37 minutes, during which “nothing happens” except a transition of emotional states, and a smooth flow of images of primeval beauty. This is an abstract, almost purely pictorial cinema (and aural cinema, where the music, the natural sounds, the voices combine to create an added layer of depth).

In Lipari, Sandro leaves the police station, once an aristocrat’s villa.

Claudia and Sandro meet at the train station in Milazzo, on the mainland. She implores him to stop trying to forge a relationship with her.

Yet she admits to Sandro she does have strong feelings of affection for him – lamenting the ease with which she can betray her friendship with Anna, who after all has only been gone for a day, and could turn up any time soon. Antonioni’s vivid pictorial style makes the viewer also lose a sense of time and place, creating images that stand on their own in a present-time of their own. Somehow it seems that time doesn’t matter. We’re in an art gallery, away from the real world of mores and social responsibilty. The shifting locations, from Rome to Lisca Bianca, to Lipari, to Milazzo, and now on to several places in Sicily, slide smoothly one to another without any map provided. We’re content to simply observe each image in its own right, to enjoy the artful compositions and transitions, with no more concern about plot than we would have while listening to a symphony. Perhaps for this apparently amoral aestheticism, when the film premiered at Cannes on May 15, 1960, many in the audience violently reacted to it.

The waves also despair. The world despairs. “Existence is suffering,” said the Buddha.

On the other hand, here is the woman who calls herself Gloria Perkins. Sandro watches with amusement as she dishes out a plate of tripe to the reporters in Messina, where she’s caused a street riot of sex-mad Sicilians who’ve been crowding around her roaring their lust. Her giddy eroticism (a rip in her sheath exposes her undergarments) punctuates the film’s somber passages.

At the Montaldo’s villa – the woman on the right is “The Princess” – Claudia is furious at herself for loving Sandro, and furious at Sandro for possibly being the cause of Anna’s disappearance.

When the conversation turns to light-hearted cynicism about Anna and Sandro, Giulia invokes the Deity with prayerful palms. But immediately afterward, she hits on the Princess’ grandson and they grapple frenetically upstairs in his art studio, much to the displeasure of Claudia. That’s Ettore, to the right of Patrizia. Raimundo is off making inquiries about Anna. Most critics refer to these people as the “idle rich,” but Ettore and Corrado are busily involved in a commercial venture that also involves Sandro. So it seems that the cruise is not at all an aimless time-waster, but in fact a means to an end, if rather an elegant way of going about it. The actual situation is that the men are interested in money, and the women are interested in people. Antonioni prefers the feminine approach to life.

Moods do change – anger fades away as contentment and simple pleasures take center stage – those lovely hands. Then Claudia hears a car arriving.

She runs out onto a large balcony. In the shadows, a monk and some peasants are frozen in a scene from the past. Below, there is no news of Anna. This shot is a masterful use of deep focus and balanced lighting. An observant critic has noted that Claudia looks like a figurine herself.

Back inside, Claudia tries on a wig. “You look like someone else,” says Patrizia. Claudia’s transformation into Anna continues. Though the new concept of the impermanence of personal identity is troubling to us, we must attempt to find within it the source of a new ethics.

She goes downstairs. The others are going to Taormina. The building witnesses the wanderings of the wealthy through the eyes of a maid on a balcony. The maid’s elevated position reverses the standard hierarchy of the classes.

Claudia and Sandro drive around Sicily, following leads that lead nowhere. Love overtakes them. Claudia is rapturous. Suddenly, it’s Hollywood!

For the moment, Anna is forgotten.

But again, remembered. Claudia is ashamed of what she’s doing. “E assurdo,” she days. “It’s absurd.” Sandro responds, “It’s good that it’s absurd. It means we can’t do anything about it.” Typically, he settles into his lack of direction, his accomodation with insignificance. The word “absurd” – a signpost of postwar existentialism – is used here by Antonioni in full recognition of its import. The world is fundamentally irrational, disordered, and meaningless. There are two responses. Kierkegaard offers hope, in a leap of transcendence to the spiritual. Camus offers no hope, finding meaning in a purely individual ethic within a cosmic absurdity. Claudia’s remorse will take her to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith, at least a faith in goodness if not quite God. Sandro’s resignation is a corruption of the Camusian hero’s stance. His acceptance of the absurd fails to engender a personal ethic, and he is ruined.

Are the men going to break out in an operatic chorus of condemnation? In Noto, that explosion of baroque architecture, the plaza of the Church of Saints Salvatore and Monastero becomes a stage for amorality play. Claudia’s sin attracts them, like the smell of a bitch in heat. No realism here!

The men silently accuse her. But is this a Catholic allegory, or a Communist one? Do the men represent the proletariat, and Claudia the owner class? Look at the background. To the left of Claudia, a sign for a socialist political party. To the right, a capitalist advertisement. She’s at the center of the conflict. Or maybe Antonioni is reprising the scenes in Stromboli where the interloper Ingrid Bergman is surrounded by glaring islanders. As with so many of the film’s images, we are observing here not a physical event, but a psychological state. Sandro arrives and the men disperse.

Against a backdrop of the Cathedral of Noto (the Duomo), Sandro, the very picture of the modern urban man, waxes nostalgic about his early enthusiasm for the extravagance of architecture gone by. But now, his youthful idealism shunned, he’s grown rich off giving estimates for others’ projects. What is the use of trying to build the way they used to, for hundreds of years, he says. Today, things don’t last.

On the Cathedral’s bell tower, Sandro tells Claudia she’s different from any woman he’s ever known, because she wants to see everything clearly. Impulsively, he asks her to marry him. She reacts confusedly, and implores the divine powers to give her insight. She tugs on the rope – the bell rings out.

They delight in the ringing, and in hearing answering rings from another campanile. Claudia is positioned so that a television antenna – a contemporary communication device – springs up out of her head. That is her world, not the world of the church bells of the past. Antonioni is struggling to find a language appropriate for the fast-moving era of electronics – a language, an aesthetics, an ethics.

Atop the cathedral, a moment of worship. The divine feminine gives her blessing.

In their hotel room in Noto, Claudia is rapturously in love. She sings along with a popular song heard from outside, trying to convince Sandro not to leave for a walk around town.

But he leaves.

On the Cathedral steps, looking at a drawing started by a young artist, Sandro swings his key chain closer and closer to the ink bottle, finally knocking it over and ruining the artwork. Envy, often considered the worst of the seven deadly sins, drags him down. Sandro has reached rock bottom.

Angry and frustrated, he returns to the hotel room, proceeding immediately to the balcony, where he can hover in his dark mood.

He attempts to force himself on Claudia, who resists his aggressive manipulation. Denying his anger, he pretends it’s all OK, making the mistake of calling their relationship “una avventura nuova” (thus supplying the movie with a title). Claudia is unnerved by his flippancy.

They drive to Taormina and check into the San Domenico Palace Hotel. Patrizia and Ettore have arrived before them. Giulia and Corrado are absent without explanation. The hotel is a converted monastery – yet another evocation of Catholicism, this time with Saint Dominic in the background, invisibly observing. As Claudia talks with Patrizia, Sandro strolls around. The woman who calls herself Gloria Perkins is there. Their eyes meet. They look at each other for too long a time.

Claudia and Sandro get settled in their hotel room. She wants to rest. He wants to walk around. For hours through the night, she waits for him to return. She makes faces in a mirror. She reads a magazine. The article is about a woman, pictured in multiple mirror images of herself, who is playing the role of the actress Jean Harlow. Claudia is playing the role of Anna in Sandro’s life, and it disturbs her.

In the grey light of dawn, Claudia takes refuge on a balcony, in the pose of a supplicant.

Nowhere to go but the room’s other balcony. But she gets dressed and searches for Sandro through the hotel.

To her horror, she discovers him sunk into an even deeper chaos of absurdity among the disordered chairs.

She runs out of the hotel, through the streets, to a tilted balcony-like terrace before a ruined church.

The wind rustles the weeping branches and blows her hair.

The building and Claudia weep in despair at the impermanence.

Sandro follows her. He slowly walks by her and slumps down on a bench, utterly defeated, also weeping. Is there any hope for him?

She doesn’t leave him. She moves toward him. But what is her intention? Will she shake him – hit him – choke him?

Her hand makes its ultimate gesture. She pities him – she forgives him. She gently caresses him. She sees herself in him. She also has been unfaithful, to her friend. We are all the same. None of us is perfect. Our hope lies in forgiveness, when there is no reason to hope. This is the image of the saint, of the Madonna, who sees only the sacred within. But it is a Madonna without a church, without a tradition, a tentative step toward a new ethic.

In the film’s last shot, she looks out across the landscape to Mount Etna, the Sicilian volcano that always gives birth to new fire and echoes the shape of Lisca Bianca. She and Sandro are in the clear, beyond the blank dead wall, even beyond the balconies, though still on their own raised railinged terrace. We are left suspended with them in this moment of shared grief.

There is no question that no one, no matter how jaded, would be able to stop asking, “Where’s Anna?” right up through to the end, and I would expect Claudia and Sandro to keep asking it. The enigma of absence hangs over the film. It, more than the “lives of the idle rich” that some viewers cluck at, is responsible for L’Avventura‘s emptiness. Yes, it is empty. There is a hole, and it never gets filled.

But the hole is simply there, and cannot be explained. It’s mechanical, impartially built into the construction of the script. It stands on its own, not as a function of any character’s psychology. It’s part of the world. The world is not perfect. It’s flawed. It has holes, and people sometimes fall through them and are never seen again. We try to blame each other, but no one of us caused it or can fix it. Our only intelligent course of action is to forgive each other and learn to live well in the presence of the holes, the voids, the emptiness, the absurd. For Kierkegaard, Camus, and Antonioni, it is the absurd which gives life its meaning. The absurd, the chaos, what I call the Infinite Potentiality, is the ultimate background against which we live out our lives, here on the balcony between birth and death.

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