At last. Michelangelo Antonioni is an Italian director who has just made his seventh film and who is so highly esteemed abroad that there has already been an Antonioni Festival in London. For the eleven years of his career no Antonioni film has been released here. Now at last comes L’Avventura, which is the sixth of his works.
The first ten minutes make it clear that this is the work of a discerning, troubled, uniquely gifted artist who speaks to us through the refined center of his art. We may even "like" this film, but those first ten minutes indicate that liking it is not the primary point. We "like" Maurice Chevalier, but do we "like" Wozzeck or No Exit? If so, all the better, but we know from the start that it is irrelevant to their effective being.
This is not to say that L’Avventura is an unpleasant or uninteresting experience: simply that it does not come out of the wings like a chorus girl with a grin on her face to make a hit fast.
The setting is contemporary Italy. Anna, a wealthy Roman girl, is having an affair with Sandro, a fortyish architect. They go off on a yachting weekend--together with Claudia, a close friend of Anna's--as guests of a dissolute princess. The party lands on a small island north of Sicily to bathe, and Anna, who has been moody and depressed, disappears. The island is searched without success; Claudia and Sandro stay overnight with a shepherd while the others go for the police.
And now the focus shifts. As in Madame Bovary (for example), we see that the prominent figure of the opening has been used merely to take us to the heart of the situation and, having delivered us, recedes. We never see Anna again. Sandro has increasingly to force himself to look distraught and to search; Claudia is increasingly disturbed because her genuine anxiety for her friend is being elbowed by her latent desire for Sandro and her subconscious realization that now she can have him. Before they have left the island--less than twenty-four hours later--Sandro has kissed her and has made her realize that she is glad of Anna's disappearance.
However, motions must still be gone through. They all go to Sicily following a sketchy clue that Anna may have fled with some fishermen, and Sandro, accompanied by Claudia, spends some days in more and more desultory search. During the search Sandro and Claudia become lovers, and crisscross the path of the pleasure-seeking princess and her party as they make their way to the south of Sicily. The film ends in a palatial hotel in Taormina; Sandro has already been unfaithful to Claudia and she has already forgiven him. Or rather she accepts what they must accept in order not to spend all of life in tears, fights, futile beating against the facts of their natures and the moral temper of their time. They settle for what they are.
Over this slow, divagating search for the lost girl, which is really Claudia's discovery of herself, Antonioni hovers with his camera: peering, following, lingering to savor a place after the people have left it. He is more interested in personality, mood, and the physical world than in drama; and it is this--if we apply conventional standards--that at times makes his picture seem to have lost its way. But Antonioni is trying to exploit the unique powers of the film as distinct from the theater. Many superb film directors (like De Sica) are oriented theatrically; Antonioni is not. He attempts to get from film the same utility of the medium itself as a novelist whose point is not story but mood and character and for whom the texture of the prose works as much as what he says in the prose.
By purely theatrical standards, this film could easily be condensed by any skilled cutter--the search on the island, the visit to the deserted town, the kisses of Sandro and Claudia in the field. But when it is all over, you see that this condensation would sharpen the pace at the expense of the purpose. Antonioni wants the discoveries of this pair to occur in something more like real time than theatrical time. Obviously it is not real time or we would all have to bring along sandwiches and blankets; but a difference of ten seconds in a scene is a tremendous step towards veristic reproduction rather than theatrical abstraction.
The story is Antonioni's. The theme is upper-middle-class morality--not low enough to be corseted by suburban respectability, not high enough to be subject to noblesse oblige. These are Chekhov's people, in Italy today; and, like Chekhov's people, we see them over-ripening before they drop. It is no accident that much of this film takes its indolent way across Sicily (Danilo Dolci's Sicily!--with disease and rooted poverty screaming just off-stage). It is an important part of the design that Sandro is disgusted with his professional success, which has betrayed his youthful plans. In profligate harmony with Sandro's resolve to get as much mundane compensation as he can there are the princess and her ami, who wearily puts his hand in her bodice to flatter himself and her; and the frantic wife of a jaded husband hungrily devouring a 19-year-old admirer.
It is part of this design that makes Sandro spill ink on a young artist's sketch, deliberately hurting this reminder of his own youth in order to provoke a fight, then hurrying back to the hotel to make love with Claudia in order to substitute a little of the present for the lost past.
I wish that a few loose threads had been omitted (the mysterious boat we never see, the hint that the smugglers know where Anna is). And I wish there were room to expand on fine touches like the blaring sound-truck whose popular song carries us and the immanence of contemporary vulgarity into Claudia's bedroom; and to do more than note the beautiful melancholy of Lea Massari (Anna), the sense of life in a sexual ambience conveyed by Monica Vitti (Claudia), the credible but slightly shallow resignation of Gabriele Ferzetti (Sandro).
In this film Antonioni stands quite apart from the Italian neo-realists. He does not try to show life "as it is" but as he sees it. In the sense that his films are intensely personal in viewpoint and style and poetic rather than naturalistic, he is more comparable to Bergman than to his fellow-Italians. But there is a great difference. The fountainhead of Bergman's films is mysticism: is the God-man relation still viable? Antonioni seems to have answered that question in the negative; thinks men have to learn self-reliance or crumble; is hoping for the possibility of hope.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann