Rewatching L’avventura in 2013

Janus Film’s newly restored print brings Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece of Italian cinema, L’avventura, to selected theaters in black-and-white 35mm.

We came into a screening of L’avventura from a summer Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, our skin emanating July heat as we walked down Fairfax Avenue. It was a relief, then, to be plunged into the dark cool the Cinefamily’s Silent Movie Theater, made cooler by the film we had come to see: one of the most dispassionately, devastatingly elegant films of all time.

The room was already crowded by the time we took our seats. Created from a restoration negative in storage at Cinecittà in Rome, this is the first time a new print of L’avventura has been available domestically in more than a decade. Previously, if an American theater wanted to play it, they had to import a print from Europe – an undeserved lack of availability for such a monolithic film.

I was amongst the younger members of the audience that evening, but it wasn’t my first encounter with L’avventura. The first time I’d seen it I had been a teenager, and alternately perplexed and distressed by its bending of what I’d thought, at the time, were the rules of narrative. The phrase “new film language” is oft cited with the film, originating from the Cannes jury who awarded it the Special Jury Prize of 1960 (comprising of, amongst others, Henry Miller). Little did they know that its language would still feel new over 50 years later – unfamiliar not just in its vocabulary but in its very syntax and grammar; oblique as hieroglyphics.

The premise famously and cleverly dissolves mid-film: what starts out as a somewhat morbid mystery of a girl, Anna (Lea Massari), going missing on a boating trip to an island off the Sicilian coast, becomes a broken love story between her fiancé Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). A series of plausible explanations for Anna’s disappearance emerge (a phantom shark is mentioned; a group of smugglers are arrested and interrogated; Anna is spotted in a chemist in a nearby town), only to slip away into irrelevance. What seems like logic reveals itself to be so much sleight of hand. The sheer originality of Antonioni’s new cinematic structure met with boos at its Cannes premiere, yet by the next screening it was receiving ovations. As Claudia observes wistfully in the film, finding herself increasingly unconcerned about Anna’s whereabouts: “It takes so little to change.”

Copy of New Picture (1)

L’avventura seeks out the unsettled middle ground of things, hovering in the tension between solidity and air, between presence and absence, something and nothing. In an early scene, Anna expresses to Claudia a thought that might sum up, ironically, her own role in L’avventura: that to not have something is always better than having it. Very soon Anna is whisked away into oblivion, as if leaving us to test out her hypothesis. She haunts the film, though, in mirrors and in trains, so much so that Claudia eventually wishes out loud for her friend’s death, amazed at her own capacity for such feeling. She wonders that her attraction to Sandro is inextricable from this buried malice.

As is his attraction to her. One of the most poignant exchanges comes near the end of the film, before the final betrayal in a long line of them. “I don’t love you,” Sandro says semi-seriously as he tucks Claudia into bed, walking gravely out the room. “I deserve that,” is her wry reply. Then he returns – we see him pushing the door open with playful, almost cruel deliberation. “It’s not true. I love you,” he says, tenderly, before leaving again. The moment is offhand but loaded with sadness.

Janus Film’s new restoration is a haze of grays – a woman’s gleaming hair, the shimmering waves of the Aeolian sea – and as beautiful as you’d want it to be. The film breathes in this format, Antonioni’s scenes finding the dreamlike in the realistic: Claudia and Sandro up on the roof of a church, tethered loosely to each other by the ropes of bells; Claudia walking through a street of silent, staring men in the town of Noto. Vitti plays her protagonist with a languid eloquence of step, the self-possessed girl who betrays herself into falling in love. The actress is so coolly sublime it is hard to watch anything else onscreen but the planes of her face coinciding in luminous harmony.

L'avventura

As the best classics do, L’avventura unites a feeling of the very old (the island rises from the sea as a prehistoric reverie) and the very modern. As an existential romance (is there a better kind?), L’avventura holds its own amongst the best of its century as well as this one. For a film ostensibly about idle mid-century Italians drifting through their bourgeois spiritual malaise, its impact is deeply expansive. One is hard-pressed not to feel its ache today. We know more and less about other people than ever. We know more and less about ourselves than ever, and only when events twist themselves strangely out from under us can we begin to feel the edges of our hearts and minds.

After the screening, the poster, created specially for this theatrical run, was waiting for us outside the theater in the then-brisk night air. Awash with pale blue, Vitti’s face is itself like the island it hovers restlessly over – timeless, impenetrable, unmapped, fading into nothing.

This restoration of L’avventura is distributed by Janus Films and will run in various cities on the following dates:

July 12 – July 25: Film Forum (New York, NY)

July 12 – July 18: Cinefamily (Los Angeles, CA)

August 2 – August 8: The Belcourt Theatre (Nashville, TN)

August 10 – August 15: The Charles Theater (Baltimore, MD)

August 16 & 17: The Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, OH)

August 21 – August 27: Cinestudio (Hartford, CT)

October 3: The Oklahoma City Museum of Art

October 4 – October 10: Northwest Film Forum (Seattle, WA)

 

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