Around the world in 50 films
Number two in my series. That means I’m actually committing to doing this: not letting it get lost in the sea of other projects and responsibilities that come with being an Honours student. I’m here to stay.
Why I chose this: Antonioni’s films have been sitting like a gaping hole in my generally broad film-watching spectrum. I hadn’t seen a single one until around a month ago when I watched Blowup and was left unimpressed. I decided last week, however, to persevere and watch some others on his impressively large list of supposed “masterpieces”. This lead me to taking out his whole 60s trilogy on alienation (L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse) alongside his first colour film, Red Desert, from the library.
I appreciated L’Avventura for its cinematography and mysterious tone, but didn’t feel any connection to it. I loved both La Notte and L’Eclisse for a myriad of reasons which would require another few articles, so I will spare you that. A few days later I sat down to watch Red Desert and was absolutely blown away. It now sits as the only Italian film which I have rated 10/10, which I think is reason enough to include it here.
Andrei Tarkovsky once said in an interview that colour film is no more than a commercial gimmick and that he did not know of a single film which used it well. This statement seems more and more true as cinema ages. The magical years of Technicolour, hand painted sets and true experimentation with colour are gone. Directors tend to see colour as being simply “there” (e.g. almost every film which will show at your standard multiplex), use it for some heavy-handed symbolism (e.g. Schindler’s List, A Single Man) or use it as a bland wash to give a film a certain ‘look’ (e.g. The Matrix, A Very Long Engagement). In this writer’s mind, colour should not be a simple tool for getting across some arbitrary point, it should live and breathe in the world of the film. When used correctly, it can strengthen tone, develop themes and reflect the state of characters. Sharp readers may protest that A Single Man – which I listed among films which use colour ‘wrongly’ – does use it for the latter. The difference is that the utilisation goes against what is happening in the film. When a film is trying to explore the subtlety of human affection and loss, whilst going against this subtlety with its techniques (desaturated colours = sad, saturated colours = happy-ish), the impact of the content is lessened.
There are, of course, modern exceptions to the ‘rule’ of mediocrity. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique comes to mind, alongside the films of artists like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai. These exceptions included, I feel that nothing can match the surreal beauty of Technicolour experimentation. I find myself captivated by the colours in films such as Black Narcissus, The Holy Mountain and Suspiria. Red Desert now stands at the top of my list, which is sadly ironic, as Tarkovsky pointed to the film as one he thought used colour badly further into the interview I mentioned earlier.
Slightly tangential exposition aside, this brings me to what Red Desert does which sets it apart from its peers. Here the colours meld, clash and overlap in a variety of ways to effectively mirror the feelings of the protagonist, Guiliana (Monica Vitti) in the landscape itself. Similar to the way in which Antonioni uses cityscapes and buildings in his alienation trilogy to show how small and lost we seem in our creations, the colours mimic Guiliana’s distance from reality and emotional confusion.
In true Antonioni fashion, the plot isn’t so much a story as a series of events driven by the characters and their environment. Guiliana is the psychologically disturbed wife of a factory manager. She begins to question everything about her life when she meets a restless engineer named Zeller (Richard Harris) who seems drawn to her.
Vittorio Gelmetti’s atmospheric electronic score, coupled with distorted industrial sounds create an uneasy soundtrack to the film. Passionate scenes are punctuated by fog horns and brief escapes to nature bring with them the sounds of fire from factories. These make the cold, industrial modern world inescapable – a theme visited many a time in the film.
One of the most unforgettable scenes in film history occurs when Guilliana escapes to a dream world in her head. The sea and sand of a beach glisten with natural beauty. This land is hers alone. Whereas in the real world, the machines make their monotonous pounding, here, the rocks are alive and sing with a serene and strange voice. Then suddenly we are drawn back into reality, forced to confront sickness, an ugly, derelict Earth and the ever present alienation of a modern world.
Red Desert is one of the most original pictures I have had the pleasure of seeing. It is at once beautiful in its composition and ugly in its nature, pessimistic for the state of a place which birds won’t even come near, yet optimistic for our chances with learning to adapt. A film for anyone who has ever struggled to find connections in our world.
Also recommended from Italy:
Antonioni’s alienation trilogy
Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita, La Strata, Nights of Cabiria)
Vittorio Di Sica (Umberto D, Bicycle Thieves)
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy
Sergio Leone (Once Upon a Time in the West, Man With no Name trilogy)
Pier Paolo Pasolini (Salo, Arabian Nights, Mamma Roma, Canterbury Tales)
Dario Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red)
Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust)
Image credit – FoXmMuLD3R