Monica Vitti makes her first appearance in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film Red Desert looking adrift as she wanders, child in tow, through the blighted industrial landscape surrounding an Italian factory. She ends the film having never found, or even learned, what she was looking for. Vitti plays the wife of the captain of industry responsible for the factory, a looming, toxic presence that belches massive clouds of smoke at the command of men in vast steel rooms filled with blinking lights. She hasn’t been the same since a car accident led to a stay at a mental hospital, though the accident alone doesn’t seem to have sent her there. Diagnosed properly, she would probably be found to suffer from a particularly acute case of the free-floating ennui found in each of Antonioni’s movies, a moral vertigo coupled with a weary anxiousness about the general state of things.
That condition finds one of its finest, most troubling expressions here. Vitti forms a relationship with reluctant industrialist Richard Harris that’s part flirtation, part confession, part therapy session. They travel first through corners of a largely deserted city where grey men sell grey fruit against a grey wall. Vitti hopes to open a shop there, but has yet to determine what her goods will be. Instead of reaching a decision, she and Harris float through ruined landscapes and meet her husband and others in a shack, where they indulge in a halfhearted erotic languor amid seaside industrial waste. The world is changing and unsettled. “What do people expect me to do with my eyes?” Vitti exclaims at one point. She can no longer find the answers to even the simplest questions, the ones concerning moment-to-moment existence.
In his accompanying essay to the new DVD, critic Mark Le Fanu notes that Antonioni shot Red Desert at the end of a long period of industrial and economic growth in Italy. The director’s first film in color captures a land utterly transformed. But it never passes explicit judgment, finding an eerie beauty in the new world of metal and smoke. At one point, Harris wanders into a yard of glass bulbs that looks like a Roger Dean drawing, and even the shots of sludgy, fog-drenched backwaters have a hypnotic beauty. The change exacts a cost, however, one measured in every twitch of Vitti’s striking, troubled face. In an early scene, she wanders into her son’s room, where a crude toy robot with a friendly face keeps a lonely, whirring vigil after being left on overnight. She stares at it in fear as if looking at her replacement. Later, she tells her son a story—depicted by cinematographer Carlo Di Palma in lush colors at odds with the muted look that dominates the rest of the film—of a girl wandering a beach in search of strange music. Outside the story, Vitti wonders if the music has stopped, or if she just can’t hear it anymore.
Key features: A fact-filled commentary from David Forgacs and two interesting short Antonioni documentaries from the 1940s.