Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which chronicles its star’s literal growth from grade-schooler to college student, has us thinking back on other ambitious narrative experiments.
Voted the 21st greatest film of all time in the latest Sight & Sound poll, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura is a mystery without a resolution. The film begins with Anna (Lea Massari) trying to find her way through a garden. She’s a bit lost emotionally, too. She’s about to reunite with her boyfriend, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), after a month apart, joining him for a yachting trip around the Aeolian Islands with friends. But Anna’s anxious. While swimming she cries shark, and Sandro dramatically swims to her side. She confesses to her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), that she made up the shark. But why? They all wander an island for a bit. Anna tells Sandro she wants to separate permanently. And then, not a half hour in, a dissolve passes the time and erases Anna from the plot. What happened to her? Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the movie searching for her, but there’s never any answer.
Another Italian’s ennui epic, La Dolce Vita, won the Palme D’Or in 1960, but L’Avventura was awarded a jury prize at Cannes “for a new movie language and the beauty of its images.” Indeed, Antonioni may take Roberto Rossellini’s lead—right down to the Stromboli setting—but where Rossellini overwhelms his characters, the people of L’Avventura are way past overwhelmed. Antonioni contemplates disconnection with isolation and imbalance: new cities over old empires, foreground giants and background ants. In one pan Antonioni contrasts Americans admiring a painting for its originality with Italians seeing something missing in the art. They’re talking about different pieces from different points of view in different frames. Even without the wall between, the meaning would be clear.
Anna in particular routinely falls out of frame, but as much as the movie is about her absence, it’s also about Claudia’s presence. Vitti, with her placid face and narrow eyes, gives the character a far-off stare. She seems to see through everything—not to the other side, not to any solid ground, but at least past the surface. She doesn’t just anchor the film. She embodies it, right through to her final act, a gesture so graceful and cathartic it recalls Ozu. Manny Farber, among others, criticized Antonioni’s aloofness, but L’Avventura is no statue. The narrative remains defiant, but the humanity is overwhelming.
Availability: L’Avventura is available on Criterion DVD (which can be obtained from Netflix), to rent or purchase through the major digital services, and to stream on Hulu Plus.