Film Reviews

Red Desert Michelangelo Antonioni

Rating - 9/10

Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) brilliantly documents the maladjusted social consciousness prompted by industrial modernization.  Its focal character Giuliana (Monica Vitti) experiences a form of neurosis as a product of her environment, but at once the film remains less individualistic; she comes to symbolize the collective human condition or malaise of the evolving era.  Beyond these implications, Red Desert is often transformed into a literal work of art by the cinematography of Carlo Di Palma and Antonioni's unique vision for his first color film.  Starkly juxtaposing naturalistic and mechanistic properties, the two exploit fog and stream to disorient and further manipulate environments with paint, lens filters, discontinuous editing and telephoto lenses (to blur or level depth of field), which all complement the narrative's ambiguity and eeriness.  Of course, the obscurity doesn't conclude with the tone induced by those images; Antonioni's complex attitude toward the nature of progress is well-documented in Mark Le Fanu's essay, "In This World."  Amidst the rapid industrialization of Italy that is highlighted by the predominance of ANIC manufacturing plants (a leading producer of rubber and chemical fertilizer), polluted wasteland and natural gas fields, the director believed morality and technology required a simultaneously maturation; without this culmination, people are prone to indefinable alienation and gradual falling apart, evidenced throughout the film by the erratic behavior of Giuliana, wife of prominent industrialist Ugo.  However, it is another man who attempts to reach and assuage her, a lost soul amongst the mechanically bleak landscape -- a wandering colleague of her husband, Corrado Zeller.

If the painted exposure of the muted gray of the ground and debris in the opening sequence isn't the most forward suggestion, Antonioni irrefutably expresses a fondness for implementation of color in Red Desert to correlate mood and atmosphere.  Le Fanu's essay and David Forgacs' feature-length Criterion commentary evoke at least half a dozen painters, several of whom belong to the color field or abstract expressionist movements of the 1940s and 50s.  Most notable are Antonioni's favorites, the well-known Jackson Pollack and Francis Bacon; also of interest are modernist Mario Sironi, American minimalist Frank Stella, and Giorgio Morandi's still life work.  However, Barnett Newmann is a name the two scholars adjoin with a penchant for both abstract expressionism and flat, solid color planes most akin to the visual movement and style of Red Desert itself.  Particularly, the unmistakable color field theories are in employed in the matte green of the walls outside of Giuliana's potential ceramics shop or the charcoal color of a lone rural house (directly preceding the scene involving the radio telescope).  These manipulations produce structures strangely uniform with a lack of pronounced identity.  Even the rustic red walls of the interior of Max's shack contain the elements of color field theory with the complicated emotional complements of its cast of characters in the scene.  As a notable document bearing Antonioni's first experimentation with color, the incorporation of paint and the literal act of painting objects extend the possibilities of the cinema format (to perhaps merge it with art to form 'cinema art').  For instance, a gray produce cart in a barren street would obviously not resonate as well in a black and white feature, so this purposeful articulation is the attempt of the director and cinematographer to achieve a grand uniformity through artificiality, a certain complementary attribute of the surrounding industrial landscape.  While Red Desert is also a portrait of naturalization (or more relevantly denaturalization), it wholly concerns artificiality as well and the perception of the world as a result of a technologically evolving society.  Giuliana speaks little of her dissatisfaction with modernization, but she continually grasps at past familiarity to maintain stasis, a quality the artificially color-coded, alien objects do not radiate.  Perhaps most exemplary is her speech toward the conclusion of the film in which she reveals, "There's something terrible about reality, but I don't know what it is.  No one will tell me."  Inhabiting Antonioni's malleable concept of reality, the world appears as an unknown, and in her failed search of solace, Giuliana remains dependent on those around her to comfort and properly define her own stability.

A surprising and divisive moment in the film narrative occurs two-thirds of the way through when Giuliana recites a story of the lone girl on an island (to her son, Valerio), a vivid escapist fantasy on behalf of its narrator.  Contrary to the modernized reality that Giuliana inhabits, the scene on the island is untainted with use of natural daylight and colors as well as the replacement of intermittent electronic sounds with clean water washing onto the pink beach.  The unnamed solitary girl spots a spectacular sailing ship in the distance without anyone aboard; it promptly vanishes, and as it does, an unidentifiable operatic female voice appears.  In the girl's fruitless quest for answers, Giuliana merely explains that "everything was singing."  Mark Le Fanu stresses that the girl is actually a young Giuliana on the brink of adolescence.  Her story is almost purposely inconclusive, abandoned in a hazy ambiguity like the remaining 110 minutes of Red Desert.  The critic calls the sequence a "poetic dramatization of the heroine's childhood psychology – her curiosity combined with the fear of the world" that eternally remains.  Although it is arguable this island paradise is an alternate reality that Giuliana wishes to occupy, her isolated sentiments remain as gripping whether she envisions a tropical paradise or roams an industrial wasteland.  In this sense, it certainly gestures towards her future loneliness and instability.  Early in Forgacs' commentary, he offers a quote of Antonioni who declares the "successful adaptation to an industrial environment (as) a matter of natural selection."  In Giuliana's case, it would be more than appropriate to extend the maladjustment to all environments, particularly if she is driven to recount a fable for her son that only offers false comfort and the same compatible ambiguity within her own modern life.  Additionally, an inadvertent suggestion surfaces concerning an environment's corrosive consequences to render a person immobile and maladaptive.

Although social maladies remain prominent throughout the film, a political influence gradually emerges that dramatically launches the contemplative possibilities within its genre and beyond.  As Giuliana and Corrado flirtatiously bond while her husband Ugo is away, the two ask one another inane and probing questions alike.  At one point, Giuliana takes a more outspoken approach to ask, "Are you a leftist or rightist?"  Her question seems to consider a frightening future of post-apocalyptic totalitarian rule, especially under the environmental conditions in which she stands.  Corrado hesitates, avoiding a direct answer only with vague and fragmented premonitions.  In the passive voice he muses, "One believes in humanity in a certain sense.  A little less in justice.  A little more in progress.  One believes in socialism… perhaps."  Obvious allusions to Antonioni's own beliefs aside, Corrado creates a kind of heroic identity for himself in the scene that wouldn't be out of place in a futuristic film of an altered, deteriorative society.  Le Fanu's "In This World" essay concludes with notions of Red Desert emerging as a work simultaneously grounded in modernity yet "beyond realism" itself, skirting the edges of science fiction.  The opening images in Red Desert and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) actually share a strong affinity in visual makeup; the oil rig birthing plumes of flame in Red Desert is a congruous image to the massive towers unearthing fire in the night sky of Los Angeles in 2019.  Was Red Desert intended to foreshadow these types of meditative works on the nature of humanity?  It is difficult to pinpoint the stunning and weird weight of the film.  Viewers, like Antonioni himself, will leave with sundry feelings about societal and moral evolution, and perhaps that is part of the postmodern glory of this landmark film.