' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashoned: L'avventura (1960)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday's Old Fashoned: L'avventura (1960)

Aboard a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean Sea, the enchanting if twitchy Anna (Lea Massari) explains that the previous night she had actually looked forward to going to bed. Not dozing off, mind you, but the physical act of laying her head on the pillow, allowing her to ponder and perhaps even ultimately work out the many problems at the forefront of her mind. Instead, she fell asleep.


I nodded, wistfully. When I was ten-plus years younger I often enjoyed the physical act of laying my head on the pillow, suspended in that strange pre-sleep state, pondering and perhaps even working out the many problems at the forefront of my mind. Then, I got older, and that welcoming sensation waned. These days I lay my head on the pillow, think about all the things I’m going to think about and fall asleep.

This is all to say, I am a different person then the first time I encountered Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’avenntura” (1960) in my early twenties when I was finally taking the plunge on classic and/or avant garde cinema by employing the late great Roger Ebert’s bi-weekly Great Movies columns as a kind of manual. Was I ready for it at that age? No. I was not. (I saw on Twitter recently that someone first watched “L’avenntura” at 17! My, how times have changed. Even if I’d heard of Antonioni at 17 I doubt I would have had access to his oeuvre at Waukee Video.)

It was not its ponderous pace nor the idea that “nothing happens”, which is the kind of criticism a film like this is libel to receive. I watched Peter Weir’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock” around the same time, which bears a certain resemblance to “L’avenntura”, and was enthralled. But “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, I think, was much more explicitly about creating an atmosphere and experience. “L’avenntura”, on the other hand, his more embedded in that surface of apparent nothingness, and I required more life and cinematic experience to grab hold of it.

Two things finally brought me back to it. One, I noticed The (Contrarian) King of New York, Armond White, mention it as a summer movie to see – “Summer won’t get any hotter – or cooler.” Two, I saw the new Sofia Coppola movie, which I adored, and in which, as is often the case with her exemplary work, “nothing happens”, and that sent me galloping to the Netflix queue.

We sense Anna falling out of tune with the world around her right from the get-go - in conversations with her father, the curious indifference to her impending nuptials with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzeti). The prospective newlyweds and their friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) then take a pleasure cruise in the Tyrrhenian Sea with a few hoity-toity friends. They stop the yacht near a foreboding outcropping of rocks, to swim and explore, and Anna and Sandro quarrel.

Then Anna vanishes.


Well, at first it appears likely that she is acting out toward her fiancé, stalking off and hiding out just to peeve him. He and Claudia and the rest of their party hike up and down the rocks, from one side to the other. No Anna. The authorities are summoned. The search continues. Perhaps she was not acting out. Did she fall? Did she jump? Did she hitch a ride? Was she taken? A fishing boat in the area is detained and the men are questioned. Nothing comes of it. The search seems fruitless. Sandro seems mystified. Claudia seems angry, at herself, at her friend, at the gods above.

Then, in a moment that comes across purposely not built to, as if the camera suddenly was switched on by accident and caught something not meant to be seen, back aboard the yacht, Sandro takes hold of Claudia and kisses her. Say what? Make no mistake, this is not a moment of passion. It is a moment of impulse, perhaps an erotic one, but perhaps even that is giving it too much credit. Claudia immediately tears away and Sandro does not even appear to comprehend his own actions. Yet, something has been set in motion.

The movie moves back to dry land as Sandro and Claudia sort of become mod P.I.’s, swooping up and down the scenic Italian coast on the hunt for their lost friend, following supposed leads and pseudo credible sightings. But they never really get any closer to locating Anna, they merely get further and further away. And as they do, the more Claudia seems tempted to fall into the arms of Sandro, and the more insistent he becomes that she does so. Until he falls into the arms of another.

Anna, their supposedly beloved Anna, is a missing person and here are her fiancĂ© and best friend cavorting as if it’s a haunted honeymoon. Anna’s other friends on the yacht seem to have moved on completely. They make jokes at Anna’s expense, then correct themselves, but not too harshly.

"We are all on our own, aren't we?"
The eeriest passage in the film finds Claudia - and here we should note that Vitti, evocative of a Roman Ari Graynor, flummoxing, faultless beauty nearly overwhelms - far from the tourist-ridden Piazza, and a few local men unapologetically sizing her up. And then a few more local men wander into the frame and look her up and down and then a few more and then a few more, etc. It's troubling, but what is even more troubling is Claudia's reaction - that is, no reaction. None. It's as if the men are not even there. Whether disgust or arousal, should not some sort of reaction be elicited?

But Claudia and Sandro seem hollowed out, going through the pretense of some illicit affair. Sandro goes so far as to suggest marriage but this proposal (if you want to call it that) is born less of romance than a question on top of the question - as in, "What else do we do?"

The film, I dare say, goes on too long. But I kind of mean this as a compliment. Early, it's riveting. Eventually, it's dull and distant, and that goes back to the search for Anna. They only get further and further away from her and, as they do, they only get further and further away from themselves.

By the film's close we start to think Anna had the right idea.

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