‘L’Avventura’ or — if I use the cliché “chiaroscuro” just once during this you can fucking shoot me!

So last night’s viewing was Antonioni’s ‘L’Avventura’, a film I was expecting to be filled with ennui but ended up coming away with the over-riding feeling of heart-breaking tenderness and beauty. Am I going to pretentiously pontificate about it? You bet your ass.

‘L’Avventura’ starts with close friends Anna and Claudia joining Anna’s lover Sandro and his wealthy friends on a yacht where they sail the smooth as glass waters of the Aeolian Islands. But Anna has been talking of wanting to ‘disappear’ and the theme of absence is set up early in the film. Meanwhile this wealthy, yet shallow, lot idly waste their time, sometimes engaging in activities they aren’t even that interested in. This is a decadently blasé troupe.

They decide to land at one of the islands and explore although as they approach this existential Skull Island the feeling is one of entering a realm of elemental forces. Once landed on this frozen explosion of shards and rock Anna confronts Sandro about their pending marriage. She needs more time to think but Sandro, selfishly, dismisses her and her emotions.

Then Anna, literally, disappears and the rest of the movie is about her absence, an absence so absent that even her absence becomes absent by the end.

I was pretty floored by this one. About thirty minutes in I was thinking it was panning out to be sort of like Pasolini meets ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ — people go missing in a natural location of overwhelming power, except where nature in ‘Picnic’ is bristling with latent, possibly supernatural energy, the island here feels like the landscape of the void at the end of ‘Theorem’.

However, about an hour or so in we cut away from the island and are thrust back into the heaving mass of humanity. Claudia and Sandro, still searching for Anna, are falling in love. But should Claudia be worried? Sandro might not have killed Anna but did his neglect, his self-centeredness, cause her to disappear as though he was some sort of solipsistic Bluebeard? Like a smashed vase on an Italian island Anna’s form had been broken. She had become nothing more to him than an object and objects can be lost.

One of the (many) themes of ‘L’Avventrua’ is is communication possible between humans, these fragile islands of flesh in a sea of time and space? Although there are lots of scenes of bleak isolation suggesting not, there is a wonderful, and uplifting, sequence where bells are rung out and reply to each other. These buildings, separate and distinct from each other and never able physically meet, acknowledge and reply to one another. “You are not alone” they peal to each other, “I recognise you exist”. It is touching and beautiful.

And beautiful is the over-riding word regarding ‘L’Avventura’ as it contains some of the most gorgeous black and white cinematography I’ve seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ocean look as dreamlike and powerful as here and the fact it is shot in black and white emphasises the dazzling light effects. We know the sea is blue, the Sun is a fiery orange and clouds pulse whitely but I found my mind filling in these colours. It was like my brain was attempting to colourise the movie. The resulting effect was of perceiving colours that were not only not there but don’t actually exist. By not seeing the blue of the sea we can imagine it as intensely and spectacularly azure as we like. Are those flashes of gold and red dancing on blue surfaces behind the monochromatic layer? It is a striking effect. If only there was an expression for the interplay of light and shade that didn’t make me sound like a wank.

There is a remarkable shot where we follow Claudio in a small dark room only for her to open the shutters and expose us to the Sun blasting its way over the horizon. Likewise with a phenomenal shot of a tornado causing a waterspout. The human emotions here are large but nature is even larger.

Once they return to the mainland there is a shift. Male sexuality starts to exert itself and nature is replaced by buildings, stone and design. Sandro is all Ayn Randian ego, an architect, his psyche as architecturally constructed and inhuman as a building. Claudia attempts genuine communication with him but will he hear her tintinnabulations? Can he respond?

Oddly enough, although this is a film where the central woman is strong and men are selfish and only thinking of their own sexual desire , it still felt a little like a male fantasy movie, a sort of inverted Fellini where rather than celebrating women it is men asking for forgiveness. I’m still struggling to get to grips with the sexual dynamics here and even though I love how Antonioni portrays women and that it is Claudia who “grows”, I still couldn’t shake the feeling it was still about Italian male sexuality. It certainly feels like a critique against it and it is refreshing to see the emotional violence men are capable of towards women shown so honestly and the fact that without life and connection the most imposing edifice will descend into ruin and isolation.

And that is how Sandro is left: as devastated as a ruin whilst out there, the disappeared Anna has escaped and maybe returned to nature to live on as a volcano; made of stone and rock too but with the capacity for future eruption and life.

Claudio meanwhile has emotionally escaped and suggesting what we are looking for is outside of “love”. With this freedom she has a choice to act but what act will she make regarding the broken Sandro? It is amazing how much can be said in a single touch. It is not a touch of forgiveness but pity and the recognition of the need for contact, no matter how corrupted. An acknowledgement of the other but with the strength, and courage, to withstand our own independence, an independence Claudia has found allowing her to make her final, tender yet devastating, act.

The emotions aren’t black and white but varying degrees in between resulting in a chiaroscuro of the soul… DAMN IT!!

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