Were it not for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960’s output, he would probably make my all-time top 5 most overrated directors. As it is, he is saved from such a fate through a string of 4 films that all examine the same thing: spiritual, emotional, and relational alienation. His “alienation” trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962) introduced his major themes of concern and his major muse, Monica Vitti. We tend not to include
Desert is unabashedly a pretentious film at heart, but this is not unlike many great works of art. Monica Vitti stars as Giuliana, mother of a young boy and wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) who runs a huge, industrial plant, of which I’m not sure what it produces or refines, but it’s a network of steam release valves, rusted silos, and produces all kinds of waste that, along with the rest of the nearby industrial jungle, pollutes the water and air in abundance. Antonioni shot the film in northern in and amongst real industrial power plants. These are real places, but they don't feel like it. They feel otherworldly. Adding to this odd dimension is the soundtrack that reminds me of the kind of blips and drones that might as well have come from the sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet (1956). But, Antonioni clearly wants us to recognize the tortured and pained reality of this world, even though green grass looks out of place in the polluted landscape. Italy
Giuliana, we are told, had a car accident one month prior, and her husband feels that she is still in some state of shock, as he confides to fellow plant supervisor Corrado (Richard Harris). In fact, she is. We are introduced to her as she walks with her son across the wasteland around the factory. She strangely pays a man for a half-eaten sandwich, and we immediately realize that she is not right. While visiting her husband’s plant, she meets Corrado, and they soon develop a strange affair. It doesn’t involve sex at first. Rather the extent of their relationship involves confiding to each other what is eating at their souls. She opens up to Corrado and admits that in the hospital she became lost, losing touch with herself and has been unable to retrieve her soul from the proverbial abyss. Corrado is less estranged from humanity, but is fearful of the world and cannot remain still, prodded to transience.
examines their soulless existence with urgency and remorse. She cannot fathom loving anyone, nor anyone loving her. She wants to connect, but lacks the spiritual and emotional center she needs to do so. When later in the film Giuliana goes over the edge due to her son’s faking a major illness, she and Corrado are thrown together in the most dispassionate of ways in a feigned attempt at comfort. Red Desert
This was Antonioni’s first film in color.
is filled with a near continual barrage of striking images, often with primary colors contrasting with bleak grays and browns. It's one of the most visually expressive films ever made. Nearly any shot could make a striking photograph or painting, something which has been noted by many. Additionally, notice the way that fog insists on being both part of the imagery and part of the enveloping malaise and disconnectedness of the characters. In fact, this is a film where the imagery and thematic/psychological elements parallel each other directly. Much like Anthony Mann’s westerns, like The Naked Spur (1953), or Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), Red Desert uses the environment to deeply reflect and ultimately enhance the psychosis of the characters within that environment. Red Desert ’s industrial and toxic wasteland is Antonioni's fully realized metaphor for the polluted and alienated modern soul. This for me is what elevates Red Desert above all of Antonioni’s films. Although L’Avventura and others cover the same ground (poetically in fact), it appears to me that Antonioni reached his zenith of expression in Red Desert and laid down his manifesto. Red Desert