Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece stands as one of cinema’s great films.
In Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) wanders around Ravenna, Italy, trying to reintegrate into her life following a nervous collapse that necessitated an extended hospital stay.
The triggering incident for her breakdown may have been a car accident, but one look at the lost woman wandering around the film’s forebodingly beautiful industrial landscapes and stunning interiors, oppressive in their geometrical precision, and it’s easy enough to ascribe the real cause of her ongoing alienation and sense of existential dread. It’s something best described as ‘modernity’.
None of this represents new territory for Antonioni. He had mined similar ground in his previous three films, all starring Vitti. But here, shooting in colour for the first time and working with an eerie electronic score, the filmmaker takes up where the closing sequence of his previous effort, L’Eclisse, left off, presenting the environment as a menacing, science-fiction landscape. Smokestacks spew yellow vapour, an apocalyptic haze obscures faces, the unsettlingly repetitious sound of ship horns drift in from the neighbouring sea.
At times, Red Desert feels like nothing so much as a horror film, one whose perfectly realised visual and aural design exactly mirror the crisis and confusion of its lead character. If Antonioni puts Vitti through her paces, he also allows her to craft her most fully realised and sympathetic portrait of an alienated moderne.
Incapable of feeling and yet desperate for human connection, Giuliana keeps company with her industrialist husband’s visiting colleague, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, whose voice, poorly dubbed into Italian, adds another layer of disconnect to the proceedings), which skirts romantic involvement.
Giuliana only temporarily seems to come alive, such as the scene depicting a sexually charged hangout in a seaside cabin in which she tells her husband she wants to make love only to be immediately rebuked. But mostly she attempts to describe her feelings of alienation and the circumstances of her hospitalisation to Corrado. Hers is a state of being brought on both by her isolated position as the wife of a captain of industry and the consuming totality of the surrounding landscape – literally and metaphorically poisonous.
Only a late fantasy sequence provides any aesthetic respite. As Giuliana narrates a tale of a girl living by herself in a river paradise, Antonioni illustrates the story, scrapping industrial haze for crystal clear lagoons. The sudden warmth of the cinematography is a startling contrast.
But such images can only ever be transitory, and as Giuliana walks away one last time through the factory grounds, seemingly reintegrated into her surroundings, we know that her life, at best, is a compromise of continual adjustment. As Giuliana puts it, and as the film makes palpably clear, "There’s something terrible in reality".
It’s a certain frightening quality that remains incapable of articulation in our heroine’s head, but finds perfect visual expression in Antonioni’s unforgettable, perpetually terrifying imagery.
A chance to see Antonioni’s masterpiece on the big screen is not to be missed.
Mileage may vary with this challenging but highly rewarding film.
Red Desert is Antonioni’s clearest, most striking statement of purpose – and one of cinema’s great films.