Today one cannot watch Antonioni’s Red Desert, with its ever-present smokestacks and overwhelming industrial milieu, without thinking of that underwater camera, constantly bringing us seemingly ceaseless images of oil billowing into the sea. All the themes of our current crisis—the casual indifference with which we wreak destruction, our assuredness in the durability of our superiority over nature—come to the forefront in this film, made over 45 years ago.
This should come as no surprise: Antonioni’s films hold up. Wikipedia describes him as a “modernist” filmmaker, and it’s true in each sense of the term: both “current” and “of the modernist era.” Antonioni’s trademarks—solitary figures against vast desolate landscapes, slightly decadent haute bourgeois gatherings that quickly turn gross and nasty—still speak to contemporary concerns in a powerful way.
But Antonioni offers more. Certainly, Antonioni has a reputation as a poet of alienation, and an expectation of bleakness—oppressive bleakness—comes along with that. I had to grow into Antonioni; in my younger years I found him to be a little willfully obtuse and blank. But something changed when I saw the re-release of The Passenger. I realized that the empty space that before I read as aggressive nothingness is actually potential space that Antonioni fills. In The Passenger, he fills it with an incredible sense of possibility, in Red Desert with a palpable aura of eeriness and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.
Antonioni’s aesthetic mastery emphasizes the seduction of industrial society and its comforts; he represents the ambiguity surrounding the environmental issue in a way no more politicized filmmaker would dare to. It has become something of a cliché to call Antonioni’s style “painterly.” (Antonioni was, of course, a painter, although he once said, “While painting, I don’t feel like a painter.”) I confess to using it myself, although now I doubt its veracity and wonder what it even means. True, the sheer visual beauty of Red Desert, the elegance of the compositions, the richness of the palette (this was Antonioni’s first color film; he’d already mastered it), ravishes and you could certainly take stills of many of the shots and proudly hang them on your wall. But to call Antonioni “painterly” diminishes him; it implies he cannot move beyond the realm of the static. Red Desert amply illustrates that Antonioni has a keen awareness of how shots follow one another; he deploys both camera movement and montage to great emotional effect.
In some book or movie or TV show—I’ve racked my brains and I can’t remember where—two friends, a gay man and a straight woman, concoct a plan to watch Red Desert and wallow in Monica Vitti’s exquisite misery. I do not pretend to be above such pleasures—why else does one go to the opera?—and looked forward to experiencing something of the kind when I popped this into the DVD player. I found something quite different. Of course, a surprise should be no surprise when it comes to Vitti and Antonioni. We expect frequent collaborations between actor and performer to breed similar performances, but Vitti brings something unexpected in each of her films with Antonioni. Her face is a marvel; it bears the iconic, aloof quality of an Egyptian statue while being far too sensual to ever be made of stone.
Ever since I saw Greenberg (naturally, a lesser film), I’ve been thinking about movies featuring characters just sprung from the loony bin; what they should look like, what I want from them. Here Vitti challenged and confounded all my previous expectations. As Giuliana, the wounded, mentally fragile wife of a factory owner, she has something of the anxious, wild animal about her. In an extraordinary moment in the film’s first scene, she frenziedly, compulsively buys a half-eaten sandwich off a striking laborer and retreats behind piles of rocks to wolf it down. The moment strikes an intriguing, discordant note somewhere between the bizarre and the utterly relatable that makes it one of the most striking things I’ve ever seen in a film.
Going along I found that I could not delight in Giuliana’s suffering in that melodramatic sense because I never got close enough to it; together Antonioni and Vitti perform a delicate oscillation between familiarity and distance. I felt for Giuliana because she so evidently suffers, but I could not exactly relate to that suffering; it remained a freakish, uncanny thing. The hot crazy chick is a trope probably as old as time, but I couldn’t remember the last time in the movies I’d seen a woman this beautiful act this cracked-out.
Even at this late date one cannot watch Red Desert without feeling the pang of what we have lost in the passing of Richard Harris. Not as beautiful to look at as his old friend Peter O’Toole, he nonetheless has plenty of that actor’s sense of delicacy and refinement that plays up nicely against a kind of square, reliable masculinity. As Giuliana’s quasi-suitor, he’s as tentative and cautious as he needs to be, and it is to his credit as well as Antonioni’s that, up to the very end, we are left anxiously wondering if that will be enough.
In addition to the restored HD digital transfer (and improved subtitles), Criterion’s new disc features a commentary by scholar David Forgacs and the theatrical trailer. There’s a completely charming interview with Monica Vitti, circa 1990, and one with Antonioni that reveals insights about the film’s environmental message and Vitti’s character. Dailies, in black and white and color, shed light on Antonioni’s eye for framing. Two early documentaries, Gente del Po, about the Po valley, and N.U., about Roman street cleaners, show early signs of Antonioni’s polished style, if you can stand their somewhat cloying attitude toward the noble poor.