20 June 2019

At Sea In A Red Desert

"In the desert you see, there is everything and nothing."
 - Honore de Balzac, from A Passion In The Desert, (1830) translated from the French by Ernest Dowson.

What is it that makes Red Desert seem so of-this-moment when many of the finest films of the 1960s are time capsules, you could say, impressive historically, but delimited by time.  We can see now that a general level of self-awareness, reflected in mass entertainment, was a byproduct of postwar prosperity.  For Italy, a country that had known poverty for long, the boom when it came in the 1960s was  like leaping an entire century in one bound. The present was disorienting and the future unknowable. "There is something terrible about reality, but I don't know what it is. No one will tell me,"  a character named Giuliana  admits plaintively near the film's end. Sound familiar?

In 1964 when Michelangelo Antonioni filmed Red Desert he may have made the first feature film starring the environment.   In the U.S. Rachel Carson had published Silent Spring in September 1962 and the controversy sparked by its claims of chemical poisoning of the natural world were something new in the giddy world of post-war expansion.  An unspoken character in the film is the Po River, the longest river in Italy that rises in the Alps and windes its way across several provinces to empty in the Adriatic Sea.  One of the most complex rivers in Europe,  its sprawling delta makes the Po a barometer of the increasing sedimentation and rising waters that pollution has brought.

And why call it Red Desert?  For the chemical-swollen air that collapsed all distinctions between there and nowhere and, specifically, for the red sulfur particles that fell like rain, coating everything.

Antonioni, the son of a prosperous northern  family was nevertheless keenly aware of the region's poverty and the seemingly miracle of prosperity brought by the booming petrochemical industry in the decades following World War II.   The scale and futuristic look of the structures erected, conical furnaces and rows of red radio towers raised like the beaks of giant birds to the sky, inspired awe and uneasiness in those who watched the Po landscape altered almost beyond recognition.  All this would be included in the mis-en-scene for Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso).

By 1964, Antonioni and his partner the actor Monica Vitti had  completed a trio of much admired films titled retroactively "Alienation Trilogy." L'aventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L'eclisse (1962) had been filmed in black and white.  Red Desert, their first color film would be awarded the coveted Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1964. When asked why he had turned to color film after such great successes with black and white, Antonioni pointed out that black and white photography is not pure; it too alters reality. 

What he realized was that he needed color to show the deadening effect of pollution on this historic landscape, one that had survived millennia of human settlement yet now seemed imperiled with mere years of industrialization.  Although Antonioni denied being influenced by particular painters, he employed painterly images and techniques throughout Red Desert.  To get the effects he had in mind, Antonioni had buildings, trees, and even grass painted.  The crew spent a long night spraying trees with gray paint to mimic the effects of air pollution.  Even the clouds of sulfur that give the film its title are muted by the thick air. Whenever a bright blue stripe appears on the screen, viewers are alerted that the scene will shift and to pay close attention.  The character Giuliana (played by Vitti) plans to opena gallery where she will sell ceramics, paints the  interior walls with blocks of soft, luminous color that looks like the work of a cheerful Mark Rothko.

In the opening shot factories are obscured by mist rising from the Po River or, so we assume, until the camera pulls back to reveal the steam clouds are belching from smokestacks.  Nearby, striking workers listen to a man shouting through a megaphone that conditions at the factory are so bad that the owner's wife would be ashamed to show her face.  Again the camera pulls back and we see the owner's wife Giuliana walking through this hellish landscape with her little boy Valerio. Prosperity has not brought an end to exploitation.

Giuliana is damaged like her surroundings, recovering from a near miss automobile accident but unable to connect with her old life, she wanders aimlessly.  For a time it seems that Zeller, a sensitive colleague of her husband may be able to help her but, in a manner reminiscent of Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's novel  The House of Mirth his offer of rescue is a mirage.

Red Desert ends with a mere whisper of hope when Valerio asks his mother if the birds know the poison spewing from the factory, she assures him that they must know by now.  An admission of puzzlement tinged with dread from Antonioni, a man enthralled by modern technologies.

1. Osvaldo Babieri Bot (1895-1958)  -  Construction, no date given, Galeria d'Arte Moderna Ricci Oddi, Plaisance, Italy.
2. Red Desert film still - trees seen through a fog of pollution.
3. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Zoller walk near radio towers.
4. Red Desert film still - Giuliana and Valerio watch the strikers.

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