08 September 2014

Love in the Red Desert

"In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.”  

“It is God without mankind.”
   - excerpts from A Passion in the Desert by Honore de Balzac, 1830, translated from the French by Ernest Dowson.

How ironic that Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman, both  idiosyncratic film makers without whom post-WWII  cinema would be the poorer, died on the same day - 30 July 2007.  In his autobiography The Magic Lantern,  Bergman dismissed the Italian director as an amateur and a man immobilized by boredom.   Bergman was only slightly more gallant in his assessment of Antonioni's partner in his films of the early 1960s, Monica Vitti. Bergman  only cared for questions about God.   While Antonioni told the London Telegraph that Bergman’s only interest was finding answers from God, whereas he was content to explore metaphysical questions without offering answers.  “You wonder what to look at.  I wonder how to live.  It’s the same thing,” Antonioni has a character say in Red Desert.  Bergman the moralist admitted to his past as a Nazi only in 1999; possibly it had slipped his mind for half a century, as he searched for certainty.  As for the timing of their deaths, Bergman went first.

“I always had sympathy for young women of working-class families, even later when I attended university: they were more authentic and spontaneous.“  Antonioni told  critic Aldo Tassone.

In 1964, Antonioni and his partner Monica Vitti had just completed the ‘Alienation Trilogy’ (L’aventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962).  Their next project, and Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert, would be awarded the  coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival The see for the new film was planted in their minds on a drive from Rome, where the couple lived,  a drive that took them through Ravenna, What they saw was a new landscape, the characteristic pin tail pines cut down or obscured by smog, the  rivers and the fish that that came out of them smelling of petroleum.

The son of a prosperous family from  Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy, Antonioni was familiar with its poverty during and after World War II  and the seemingly miraculous prosperity, that resulted from the booming petrochemical industry.  The scale and dazzling variety of the structures erected, from factories to the row of red radio towers raised like so many giant beaks toward the heavens, inspired admiration and wonder, at the same time that they altered the landscape almost beyond recognition. All this went into the mise-en-scene that became Red Desert. When Antonioni tried to recall in a 1964 interview how many times he had been to Ravenna during his life, he could only guess  “at least one hundred times.”


The film begins in soft focus, factories obscured by the mist from the Po River we assume, but Antonioni gradually reveals that the steam clouds are belching from  smokestacks. Nearby, workers are on strike as a man shouts through a megaphone that conditions are so bad that the owner’s wife would be so ashamed of her husband that she would not  show her face there. Then Giuliana, wife of the factory manager, appears walking with her little boy through this hellish-looking industrial wasteland. Throughout Red Desert, characters discuss the difficulty of hiring skilled workers, regardless of price.   The strike that begins the film suggests that prosperity does not, of itself, end exploitation. 

Giuliana is gradually revealed to be a damaged soul.  Hospitalized for a month following a  near-miss deadly accident in her car, she has trouble reconnecting with everyday life.  For a time, it seems that Corrado Zeller, a more sensitive colleague of her husband, may be able to help her but, in a manner all too familiar to novel readers (the character of Ralph Touchett in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady or Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth) his offer of rescue is a mirage. 

Antonioni's characters have a way of becoming opaque, like the landscape in Red Desert.  A woman vanishes from an island in L'Aventura, never to be located by her erstwhile friends,  in  Blow-up (1967) another woman vanishes into a crowd whose intentions dominate the film's characters and the audience watching it  and,  in the penultimate shot in The Passenger (1975), a man simply vanishes as the camera makes a slow turn. We are all alone.   Red Desert  ends with the merest wisp of hope as Giuliana and Valerio stand again before the plant.  When Valerio asks his mother if the birds know to avoid the poison pluming out of the smokestacks, she assures him they must know by now:  this from Antonioni, a man enthralled by all modern technology.  Antonioni addressed his contemporaries with Red Desert but, from a distance of fifty years, it is easier to question the tradeoffs between middle class prosperity and a healthy environment that we have benefited from. In thrall to our devices, we walk around with our eyes on them, barely noticing nature much less other people

When asked why he turned to filming in color, Antonioni pointed out that black and white photography is not pure; it too alters reality. For the character of Giuliana, who is subject to unspecified neuroses, the perception of color changes with her emotions, further separating her from other poeple.  Although Antonioni denied being influenced by particular painters, in Red Desert,  he used painterly images and techniques throughout.  To get the effects he was after, Antonioni had buildings, grass, and even trees painted.  The crew spent one long night spraying trees with white paint to get the gray color the director wanted for a particular scene.  When a bright blue stripe appears on screen  we are alerted that the scene is shifting, so pay attention.  Even the  red of the title is a color muted by mist and dust.  Giuliana, who plans to open a gallery where she will sell ceramics, paints the interior walls in blocks of soft  and luminous color as though the room was a benign  version of a painting by Mark Rothko.
Did Antonioni read Balzac's story?  Had he seen Giuseppe Vannucci-Zauli's architecturally plotted photographs?  Possibly, given the photographer's reputation.  In any case, Antonioni blocked out the movements of his characters with precision of an architect.  In  recent interviews Monica Vitti has described how the only directions he ever gave were  “Look over here, turn your head, take three  steps and then stop.“  This method enabled the director to make extended takes, another way of shaping a scene with the actors.

Antonioni himself  once defined the relationship between morality and science as being like that between modern men and women, meaning modern love.  A good end point is Geogre Meredith's riveting sonnet sequence Modern Love, published in 1862.  From it, comes this:  "Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul when hot for certainties in this our life."

1. Giuseppe Vannucci-Zauli (1917-1988) - Solitude, 1941, Alinari Archives, Florence. 
2. Giuliana and Zeller walk by the radio towers, frame from Red Desert.
3.Giuliana and her son Valerio watch the strikers, frame from Red Desert.
4. The trees through the mist and pollution, from Red Desert.
5. Giuliana in her gallery,  from Red Desert.

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