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Douglas Messerli



Outside the Frame


Michelangelo Antonioni, Elio Bartolini, and Tonino Guerra (w.), Michelangelo Antonioni, (d.),

      L’Avventura / 1960


When L’Avventura was first shown at the 1960 Cannes film festival, the audience expressed their hostility to the film with whistles, foot-stamping, and derisive shouts. Although the movie was more enthusiastically received by the critics, and won that year’s Special Jury Prize, its American premier resulted in a near-complete puzzlement on the part of noted critics such as Bosley Crowther, writing in The New York Times. “Watching L’Avventura (“The Adventure”), which came to the Beekman yesterday, is like trying to follow a showing of a picture at which several reels have got lost. Just when it seems to be beginning to make a dramatic point or to develop a line of continuity that will crystallize into some sense, it will jump into a random situation that appears as if it might be due perhaps three reels later and never explain what has been omitted.” “’Tis strange,” Crowther concluded.

     If over the years Antonioni’s film has grown in reputation, even its admirers have continued to stress the film’s seemingly disjunctive and unconventional narrative. My beloved guide to World Film Directors (published by H. W. Wilson) describes the work as eschewing conventional narrative, as a film “without story.” Film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, in a lovely essay on L’Avventura, reprinted in the New Criterion DVD of the film, describes it as a groundbreaking work that revealed:


                        …films to not have to be structured around major

                        events, that very little drama can happen and a film

                        can still be fascinating to its audience. It also showed—

                        and this was harder for audiences to grasp—that events

                        in films do not have to be, in an obvious way, meaning-

                        ful. L’Avventura presents it characters behaving accord-

                        ing to motivations unclear to themselves as much as to

                        the audience. …They are, to use a word very fashionable

                        at the time the film came out, alienated. But to say, as

                        many critics did, that the film is “about” alienation is to

                        miss the point. The film shows, it doesn’t argue.


In short, while still admitting to the difficulty of Antonioni’s cinema masterwork, admirers argued—concurring with the director’s own comments published in his Cannes Statement—that the narrative was a non-psychological one, that although the characters might be aware of their erotic impulses, being conscious of them does not diminish their force: “The fact that matters is that such an examination is not enough. It is only is only a preliminary step. Every day, every emotional encounter gives rise to a new adventure. For even though we know that the ancient codes of morality are decrepit and no longer tenable, we persist, with a sense of perversity that I would only ironically define as pathetic, in remaining loyal to them.” Nowell-Smith argues that this non-pyschological approach, in fact, changed the face of cinema in representing its characters as doing unexpected things in unexpected places, as acting in ways which are recognizable perhaps but which do not conform to the previous cinematic “clichés of how we think things ought to happen.”

     Although I had previously missed viewing this important film, I knew of its reputation and had read just such comments. Upon finally getting the opportunity to view it, accordingly, I was surprised at how differently from both its detractors and admirers I perceived it forty-six years later.

    Perhaps it is simply because I prefer non-pyscholgical narratives that I saw the movie so differently. Or perhaps over these many years our perceptions of films and cinematic images have so radically changed that it difficult to understand the reactions of film-goers and commentators in 1960, the year when I had just become a teenager.

    Perhaps one should begin with the dominating feature of the movie, its images shot primarily in shades of gray: the blasted landscape of the island where the action begins and the several small Sicilian villages and town—with their sometimes menacing and often liberating architectural structures—the central couple explore in the second half of the film, today still seem fresh. As we know through his other films (it is the theme, indeed, of his Blow-Up) Antonioni primarily is a filmmaker whose art is centered on how the camera reveals and creates meaning as opposed to using images to structure a narrative presentation of the real.

     The narrative of L’Avventura, accordingly, is a loosely strung series of events. A group of affluent vacationers are gathered on a yacht off the coast of Sicily. Among the passengers are Anna (Lea Massari), her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), along with the yacht’s owner, Patrizia, Raimondo, Giulia, and Corrado. Anna and Sandro have evidently been having some difficulties with their relationship, particularly concerning Sandro’s recurring absences, and—as the group decides to swim and, later, explore a nearby deserted volcanic island, Brasilazzo—she confesses to Sandro that she needs some further time away from him in order to reassess their affair. 

      The visitors settle down for a pleasant sun-bathe, but when they begin to plan their departure, realize that Anna is nowhere in sight. At first, they presume she’s simply gone for a short walk, and Sandro and Claudia, in particular, irritatedly search for her. When their efforts fail, the others join in, scouring the small mountainous island, ultimately peering into the waters about in fear of an accident or (is it possible?) suicide. Anna cannot be found, and most the group return to the yacht to seek out help from the nearest police station. Sandro, Claudia, and Corrado remain on the island, a rainstorm driving them into a small cabin they have discovered in their searches. Writing of the movie, nearly all previous commentators have been mystified or, at least, bothered by the fact that Antonioni’s story never reveals what becomes of Anna.

      It is during the search for Anna that we first begin to perceive that Claudia and Sandro are attracted to one another; by the end of their search, they desperately attempt to keep a distance between themselves. Sandro leaves the island to check other nearby islands—compelled by the possibility that Anna escaped on a passing boat they may have heard—while Claudia agrees to join the party at the Montaldo’s grand house.

      At their palazzo, however, Claudia becomes more and more distracted as she obviously feels increasing guilt for ceasing to search for her missing friend and simultaneously is drawn to reconnoiter with Sandro. Gloria’s vengeful flirtation (her husband has verbally abused her throughout the early part of this film) with the young Prince Goffredo adds to Claudia’s sense of displacement and frustration. Hearing that Sandro is traveling to a small town where a pharmacist has claimed to have encountered Anna, she leaves her sanctuary, meeting Sandro as he is inquires into the facts. After meeting with the pharmacist and his unhappy wife, the couple follows his suggestion that Anna may have taken the bus to Noto. As they travel in that direction their passion for each other boils over, and stopping briefly at a seemingly deserted village whose ugly architecture repels them, they consummate their love in a field nearby.

     The rest of the story primarily concerns their vacillating passion set against the landscape of Noto. When they finally check into a hotel on the outskirts of town, having nearly abandoned their attempts to find Anna, they encounter Patrizia and others in the midst of a grand party which they are suddenly expected to attend. Claudia claims to be too tired; Sandro, attending to the party without her, is drawn to a girl who, from a distance, looks remarkably similar to the dark-haired Anna.

      Claudia is unable to sleep, and when Sandro fails to return, goes in search of him, discovering her new lover and the woman in the midst of sex on a banquet-room couch. As Claudia runs from the building in tears, Sandro joins her, himself breaking down in remorse. The film ends with her stroking his head in apparent forgiveness for his sexual digression.

     There is no doubt that the plot I have just recounted is minimal and that character motivations—some of which I have interpolated in my above description—are often left vague. The immensely slow pace of the film’s “story,” moreover—the director’s almost indolent presentation of events (it is not incidental that both female characters spend much of the movie in bed and that near the end of the film, as I have recounted, the major actor is simply too tired to participate in events)—draws the viewer’s attention away from the film’s narrative conventions. Nonetheless, I would argue that the tale of this missing woman and its effects on the characters are quite comprehensible to even a novice of psychological motivation.

     This is not the story, after all, of two woman who fall in love with the same man, but of the love of three individuals for each other. An early scene on the yacht soon after Anna has pretended to spot a shark (a clear cry for help), in which she and Claudia remove their swimsuits and play a game of “dressing up,” ending in Anna’s offering of her costumes to Claudia (perhaps hinting to her friend that she “take over” her life) reveals the closeness of these two women. I am not implying that the two have a lesbian relationship (although, given the film’s narrative openness, this scene suggests there may be sublimated sexual desires, a possibility reiterated by an earlier scene in which Claudia impatiently and, perhaps, frustratedly, waits outside the apartment where her friend and Sandro have sex), but proffer these incidents up as evidence that they are more than casual friends. 

     If the reader will permit me, let me play the role, for a moment, of an amateur psychologist. As anyone who has lost a close friend knows, there is often a mutual attraction—if for no other reason than to share in the inevitable guilt of surviving and the need to heal one’s sense of loss—between friends of that individual. If the relationship has also been a sexual one, as with Anna and Sandro, that attraction can further extend to a sexual desire between the remaining friends. As in many such instances, these two figures attempt to deny that attraction, which only ends in further frustration and greater unassuaged guilt. Each can only feel that they are, in part, responsible for whatever has happened, and in this case, they have some reason to suspect they are personally culpable. The pent up emotions can gradually grow to enormous proportions until—as Antonioni has suggested—the codes of morality are broken. Claudia and Sandro are emotionally compelled to release their shared love for Anna in the arms of one another, and everything in their own pasts comes tumbling upon them in that act. As Claudia says, life has become complicated. The gentle strokes that Claudia shares with Sandro at film’s end, accordingly, do not emanate perhaps as much from her acceptance of his personal betrayal as from her recognition that in his sexual encounter with the stranger he has sought to assuage his guilt, to be reunited with the missing Anna. Finally, one must not overlook the obvious, that each of them is an unmarried, attractive young person to whom the other quite simply is sexually drawn.

     The reason these characters seem so fresh to us and so removed from the standard cinematic (and dramatic) stereotypes is not because the characters act without motivation—any of the thousands of cartoonishly drawn film figures of the last forty years might be representative of such unmotivated behavior—but because they are so deeply psychologically drawn. These actors behave like real people facing the intense personal dilemmas with which human beings are often faced. In opposition to Gloria and Goffredo’s childlike sexual flirtations, Sandro and Claudia are flawed adults who act out the natural whims—the “adventures”—of mind and heart. The only alienation they must face relates to the empty-headed friends of the fiction in which they are imprisoned, for they are recognizably close to those of us who wait outside the camera’s frame.  


Los Angeles, July 12, 2006


Copyright ©2006 by Douglas Messerli.