Red Desert came out in the year 1964, which was almost twenty years since the end of the war, by which that time Italy had recovered from the devastation that was caused by that catastrophic event, and was on its way towards a modern prosperity; the years stretching from 1954 to 1964 were those of the ‘economic miracle.’ Particularly vigorous in this recovery was the countries petrochemical industry which began refining several operations around Ravenna in the 1950’s greatly transforming the sleepy landscape south of the Po into the vast industrial waste ground that the film so strikingly dramatizes. Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s attitude toward the cultural and economic changes that were affecting the country appeared to be complex and ambivalent, and these expressions are greatly shown in his film Red Desert. As an ultramodernist, Antonioni was open to the innovations of science and technology and so approved of several of these progresses. The incoming industries may have opened up new ways of exploiting workers, but it was less the political aspect that Antonioni felt he wanted to explore, as his concerns were more metaphysical and philosophical. He seemed to believe that in our step with technology, morality, too, needed to evolve, and that our inability to adapt to these new industrial surroundings was a dangerous imbalance in our psychological and spiritual nature. “Science has never been more humble and less dogmatic,” he said in an interview before filming Red Desert, “whereas our moral attitudes are governed by….and absolute of stultification.” [fsbProduct product_id='811' size='200' align='right']Red Desert came directly after his brilliant trilogy L’ Avventura, La' Notte, and L’ Eclisse (many consider Red Desert to be a fourth link in the trilogy in which they all-star his leading lady Monica Vitti) and his reputation has been confirmed as one of the world’s leading international directors. Red Desert was Antonioni's most ambitious and complex works exploring a woman's existence in a vivid world of cultural neurosis, existential doubt and technical modernization. Antonioni presents to us an alienated world in which our world’s advancement in technology is undoubtedly stunning and beautiful, as he hypnotically portrays the fantastic sculptural colors and shapes thrown up by science and industry which involve the girders, pipings and pylons that are part of a vast new network of global communications that seemingly reach high up into the stars. And yet he also presents a bleak unstable new world we have created for ourselves, a desolate, poisonous wasteland, a man-made hell of our own creation which ultimately would lead an individual in a psychological state of hysteria and madness.
The opening credits show an out of focus shot of a petrochemical plant as you hear cold electronic sound effects. In Ravenna, Italy, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is walking with her young son, Valerio, towards the petrochemical plant managed by her husband, Ugo. Passing workers who are on strike, as one man is getting escorted by police. Giuliana nervously a worker who is eating a sandwich, "Where'd you get that? Can I buy it?" The worker says to her that he already had some but Giuliana says that it doesn't matter. She buys the sandwich and offers some of it to her son Valerio but he turns it down. Giuliana walks away leaving her son to privately eat the sandwich in isolation. Her son ultimately meets up with his mother as the two are surrounded by strange industrial structures and debris that create inhuman images and sounds.
Inside the plant, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is talking with a visiting business associate, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), who is looking to recruit workers for an industrial operation in Patagonia, Argentina. Ugo and Corrado converse comfortably in the noisy factory. Giuliana is roaming the factory looking for her husband(It's unsure where her son Valerio is at this moment). When she finds him talking with Zeller she tells Ugo she will patently wait for him in his office.
Ugo walks with Zeller and tells him of his wife's accident which is the reason for his wife's nervous behavior. Ugo tells him, "It was raining. The road was wet. She must have braked, but she hasn't been driving long, and she's so absentminded when she drives. Luckly, the truck stopped short. Zeller asked if Giuliana was badly hurt and Ugo says, "Not really. Just a few bruises. It was a tremendous shock more than anything. She spent over a month in the hospital and the gears still don't quite mesh. Now she wants to open a shop. I have no idea for."
That night in their apartment, Giuliana becomes highly agitated and fearful over a dream she just had and starts to roam around the home. She enters her son's room, where a robotic educational toy seems to emerge from the shadows. Ugo finds Giuliana curled up in the stairway and extremely shaken from her nightmare. Ugo finds her and tells Giuliana that her temperature is just above normal and Giuliana describes her dream to her husband: "I dreamed I was in bed, and the bed was moving. I looked down and I was on quicksand. It was sinking, deeper and deeper." Ugo is unable to calm his mentally disturbed wife or understand what she's experiencing, and he seems to only relate to Giuliana sexually, but that is not what she needs or wants at that moment.
Attracted to Giuliana, Corrado visits her at an empty shop she's planning to open, and when she finds Zeller he tells her, "I was passing by and I saw you go in. No., that's not true. I don't want to start with a lie." He follows Giuliana inside her empty shot and Giuliana says,"Maybe light blues better. The walls. And green for the cieling. Cool colors. They wasn't clash." Giuliana tells Zeller that she wants to open a store and sell ceramics. Zeller starts to open up about the restless nature of his existence and talk about his childhood. He explains that he was born in Trieste and how his parents moved to Bologna and Milan, and moved back to Bologna a few years ago, but had to leave again. He tells her, "The truth is...I'm not happy in one place or the other and so I decided to go."
Giuliana decides to accompany Zeller to Ferrara on one of his worker recruitment drives, and she indirectly reveals details about her mental state and accident, (knowing her husband already informed him of it earlier) while Giuliana steps on a newspaper blowing in the breeze and rocking on loose floorboards. Giuliana explains how she is afraid of transparient fish, and Zeller teases her if she has to love an animal to eat it. Zeller asks if she could eat him and she smiles and says, "If I loved you."
They travel to a radar installation facility in Medicina, where Corrado hopes to recruit a top worker for a job position. When visiting the home they find only the wife there, as she happily offers the two something to drink and leaves Giuliana and Zeller alone once again to talk. Giuliama brings up her car accident again revealing to Zeller about the time she was in the hospital after the car accident saying: "I met a girl. She wanted it all. The doctor kept telling her, 'You must learn to love, someone or something. Your husband, your son, a job, even a dog. But not husband, son, job, dog, tree, river...Like there was no ground beneath her...like she was sliding down a slope...sinking...always on the verge of drowning...with nothing around her. By the time she left the hospital, she was wondering, 'Who am I?' She asked me to explain it to her. But she's all better now." Zeller says, "Sometimes I feel like I have no right to be where I am. Perhaps that's why I keep moving." When the wife returns to the room she mentions that Zeller would have to speak to her husband about this job position but she personally would prefer if things would stay as they are.
When leaving the apartment Zeller has an idea to head to the radio observatory in Medicina to speak to the husband about the job position and wants Giuliana to tag alone. When arriving in Medicina the two are surrounded by cold and yet beautiful industrial architecture, and Giuliana seems to get lost in her loneliness and isolation within the scenery of the Northern Cross radio telescope. When meeting the husband it surprises Zeller that Giuliana knows of him, earlier when she was admitted in the hospital, as the husband turns down Zeller's job offer.
The following weekend, Giuliana, Ugo, and Corrado all spend time together as they walk beside a polluted estuary. Zeller starts to pry in Ugo and Giuliana's marriage when asking Ugo where he was the day of Giuliana's accident. Ugo says he was in London and was told there was no need to fly back and be by his wives side, irritated by Zeller's personal questions. Giuliana puts Zeller on the spot by asking him if he is leftist or rightist politically. Zeller says: "It's like asking, 'What do you believe in?' Those are big words that call for precise answers. Deep down...one doesn't really know what one believes in. One believes in humanity...in a certain sense. A little less in justice...a little more in progress. One believes in socialism...perhaps. What matters is to act as one thinks right, right for oneself and for others. In other words, with a clean conscience. Mine is at peace. Does that answer your question?"
The three of them are meeting up with another couple, named Max and Linda, and together they drive to a small riverside shack at Porto Corsini where they meet Emilia. They spend time in the shack engaged in trivial small talk filled with jokes, role-playing, and sexual innuendo. While the men talk about fertilized chicken eggs the women stretch out in the other room which is dominated by a bold color of red. Giuliana seems to find temporary solace in these mindless distractions and she playfully says after eating a chicken egg, "I may be wrong, but I may think...I want to make love." (She reassures to her husband a moment later that here words were serious and directed towards him) The shack that they are all in belongs to one of the other man's employees, and this group uses it for what they will without permission.
Ultimately over the course of the evening they end up tearing down the interior walls to use as fuel as a way to keep themselves warm. Suddenly a mysterious ship docks directly outside their shack, and Giuliana looks out to the open sea, and frightenely confides to Zeller, "I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land." During their conversations, Zellerand Giuliana have grown closer, and he shows an interest and slight sympathy for her. Like Giuliana, Corrado also feels alienated, but he is better adapted to and accepting of his environment. Giuliana says to him, "I feel like my eyes are all wet. What do people expect me to do with my eyes? What am I supposed to look at?" Zeller says, "You wonder what to look at. I wonder how to live. Same thing."
When a doctor arrives to board the ship, Giuliana, seeing that the ship is now quarantined due to an infectious disease, and swears she earlier heard a cry. (The audience hears it as well) and Giuliana rushes off in a state of panic. Her unwillingness to stay, or to return to the shack to retrieve the purse she left behind, underscores her state of alienation from the others. There is a brilliant shot that shows the separation between her and the rest of the group, as the fog obscures the shot. The staring and judging faces heighten Guiliana's paranoia and anxiety, as she knows that the rest of the group are judging her as a person who is unwell or unstable.
Sometime later, Ugo has to leave on a business trip, but is reluctant to leave Giuliana and their son alone, knowing Giuliana stability. Giuliana reassures her husband that everything will be fine and during the time that her husband is gone, Giuliana spends more time with Corrado, revealing more about her anxieties. One day on a oil rig Giuliana discusses how Zeller could easily just pack up and leave things saying, "How can you predict what you'll need? And the things and people you leave behind...will they be there when you go back? And will they be the same? If I were to leave never to return, I'd take you with me. You're part of me now. If Ugo had looked at me the way you have these few days, he'd have understood lots of things." Zeller asks Giuliana about her earlier accident, and her friend at the hospital. "Was that girl you?" he asks. Giuliana nods telling Zeller that she was the one that tried attempting suicide and is something that even her husband doesn't know about.
One day she discovers that her son has apparently become suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Fearing he has contracted polio, Giuliana tries to comfort her son with a story about a young girl who lives on an island and swims off a beach at an isolated cove:
"There was a girl who lived on an island. Grown-ups bored her and frightened her too. She didn't like her age. They all pretended to be grown up. So she was always alone...with the cormorants, the seagulls, and wild rabbits...She'd disvovered a small beach around town with crystal-clear water and pink sand. She loved that spot. The colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise. She'd leave only when the sun would too. One morning, a sailing ship appeared. It wasn't like the usual boats that passed by. This was a real sailing ship...the kind that braved stormy seas all over the world...and who knows...maybe even beyond.Seen from afar it was a splendid slight...But up close...it took on a mysterious air. There was no one on board. it paused for a few minutes and then turned and sailed off...as silently as it had come. She was used to people's strange ways, so she wasn't surprised. But no sooner was she back on shore when...One mystery is all right, but two is too many. Who was singing? The beach was deserted like always, but there was that voice, sometimes near, sometimes far. At one point it seemed to come from the sea itself...or from an inlet amont the rocks...the numerous rocks that she had never realized were like flesh. And the voice in that spot, sounded so sweet. Everything was singing. Everything..."
Soon after, Giuliana discovers to her shock that Valerio was only faking to be paralyzed. Unable to imagine why her son would do such a cruel thing, Guiliana's sense of loneliness and isolation returns.
Desperate to end her inner turmoil, Giuliana suddenly goes to Corrado's apartment. Zeller asks if Giuliana is alright, and she tells him, "I wonder if there is someplace in the world where people go to get better" Zeller tells Giuliana not to brood on her illnesses and ultimately tries to force his affections on Giuliana and she initially resists Zeller's advances, but eventually accepts them, and the two make love in his bed. The intimacy, however, does little to relieve Giuliana's sense of isolation.
The next day, a distraught Giuliana decides to leave and when he tries to comfort her Giuliana says, "he says she's scared of "Streets, factories, colors, people...everything!" "It's no use worrying about me. That's all anyone's done for months. I see the doctors, who tell me all about myself, but it's when I'm alone that I feel sick! I can't take it anymore! I've done everything to readjust to reality, as they say at the hospital. I seems I have succeeded and even managed to be unfaithful to my husband. There's something terrible about reality, and I don't know what it is. No one will tell me. Even you didn't help me Corrado."
Zeller leaves and Giuliana finds herself alone and wandering to a dockside ship and gangplank where she meets a foreign sailor and tries to communicate her feelings to him, but he cannot understand her words. Acknowledging the reality of her isolation, she says, "I can't decide because I'm not a single woman. Though sometimes...I feel sort of separated. Not from my husband. Our bodies are all separate. We are all separate. What was I saying?" At that point, Giuliana seems to be completely alone and at her lowest state.
Sometime later, Giuliana is again walking with her son near her husband's plant. Valerio notices a nearby smokestack emitting poisonous yellow smoke and asks his mother, "Why is that smoke yellow?" Giuliana tells her son that it is poisonous and Valerio asks if the birds are being killed by the toxic emissions. Giuliana tells him that the birds have learned not to fly near the poisonous yellow smoke, as the film closes with a haunting cold and electronic like sound effects.
Red Desert came out in 1964, almost twenty years after the end of the war, by which time Italy had recovered from the devastation caused by that catastrophic event and was on the way toward modern prosperity; the years stretching from 1954 to 1964 were those of the “economic miracle.” Particularly vigorous in the recovery was the contribution of the country’s petrochemical industry: the companies SAROM and ANIC, which we hear mentioned in the film (their plants form the background of the opening scenes), began refining operations around Ravenna in the 1950s, in the process transforming the sleepy estuarine landscape south of the Po into the vast industrial waste ground that the movie so strikingly dramatizes.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s attitude toward the cultural and economic changes affecting his country appears to have been complex and ambivalent. As an ultramodernist, open to the innovations of science, he approved of these trends—as he approved, in general, of “progress.” A man of the left, like most of his generation, he was not, however, a Marxist or a class warrior. The incoming industries may have opened up new ways of exploiting workers—the film begins with a morose, misty strike scene—but the political arguments of the decade were not Antonioni’s primary interest: his concerns were metaphysical and philosophical. He seems to have believed that, in step with technology, morality, too, needed to evolve. Our inability to adapt to the new industrial rhythms of life had resulted, he maintained, in a dangerous imbalance in our psychological and spiritual nature. “Science has never been more humble and less dogmatic,” he said in an interview before filming began, “whereas our moral attitudes are governed by . . . an absolute sense of stultification.”
Coming after the trilogy of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962), which confirmed his reputation internationally as one of the world’s leading avant-garde directors, Red Desert is the most ambitious of all of Antonioni’s attempts to ground the condition of our modern existence in a theory of alienation. The alienation in question is very complex, and it is part of the film’s difficulty, but also its achievement and seriousness, that the feelings evinced in its dramatization are so fundamentally contradictory and intractable. For on the one hand, Antonioni would say, the world being created by the advance of technology is undoubtedly beautiful: we see it in the fantastic sculptural shapes thrown up by science and industry—the girders and pipings and pylons that are part of a vast new network of global communications, seemingly reaching to the stars (an early sequence in the movie takes us to a deserted rural building site where the University of Bologna is constructing a massive new radio telescope). On the other hand—and here the pounding soundtrack of the film’s opening ten minutes makes its own inescapable comment—this new world is very close to hell. A wasteland is a wasteland, after all, and if a “new beauty” has been born (how powerfully the film shows that it indeed has been), the phenomenon is shot through with poison.
The technical challenge facing Antonioni and his longtime scriptwriting partner Tonino Guerra was, therefore, to come up with a protagonist whose inner being could sufficiently register these complicated and contradictory states of feeling. In Antonioni’s thinking, it would have to be a woman. When “spiritual imbalance” was at issue, the director believed women were the subtlest barometers—and also, potentially, its most tragic victims. “The split between morality and science is also the split between man and woman,” he said enigmatically, “between snowy Mount Etna and the concrete wall on the housing estate.” These, in any event, may have been some of the thoughts that allowed Antonioni, in 1964, to pluck his elegant muse, Monica Vitti, away from her more usual bourgeois haunts and set her down in a landscape where, at first glance, one might not expect to find such a person. The actress plays Giuliana, the wife of a successful industrial manager, and while many industrialists’ wives tend to shun the physical spaces where their husbands’ money is made, Giuliana, on the contrary, belongs here: a visitor at first, as we see her, young son in hand, seeking out her husband along the lines of striking employees, yet also an inhabitant—she is planning to open a ceramics gallery in the neighborhood (though the viewer, if not she herself, may be slightly unsure who its customers will be).
In earlier films of Antonioni’s starring Vitti, including L’avventura and L’eclisse, the heroine’s alienation from the world is pictured as a kind of neurosis—although one uses the word rather loosely to describe something that might otherwise be characterized as mere loneliness; there is nothing hysterical about those films’ heroines, who are, in fact, singularly self-possessed. Giuliana, on the other hand, while sharing some of the coolness (one might almost call it the irony) of her two filmic predecessors, at moments moves over into madness. The history of her sickness is suggested rather than spelled out, just as the cure for it, throughout the film, remains a matter of tantalizing possibility. Married to a man who provides for her in all the conventional ways but not in the ones that matter, Giuliana encounters in his colleague Corrado (Richard Harris), perhaps for the first time in her life, a person who takes the trouble to look at her properly—as a fellow human being and an equal. “Properly” here includes sexually, of course, but not just, or not even predominantly, sexually. “Courteously” might be the better way to put it—that is, with a secret and reticent understanding. Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained (one British critic called his performance “doltish”), it seems to me that Harris, as the incoming admirer, is absolutely one of the best things in the movie, his characteristic soft Irish voice perfectly dubbed into an Italian that matches the mysterious gravity of his dignified, gentlemanly bearing.
Corrado is a man who understands—and yet he is unable to save Giuliana. One of the subtlest aspects of Harris’s characterization is the way he manages to convey (partly, of course, through the writing of his role, but equally, and indissolubly, through his performance) that, for all his seeming calmness, Corrado, too, just like the heroine, is a lost soul—this being, indeed, the premise of their affinity. We see it in many places but most strikingly, perhaps, in the sequence at the public meeting where we find him outlining the plan to set up a business partnership in Argentina, involving sending over a number of Italian workers to settle there. Lucidly enough explained to the men in question, Corrado’s venture seems, however, undermined by a curious sort of vagueness; at one point in the speech, he appears to drift off into a reverie, following with his gaze the outlines of a blue painted stripe that forms part of the decoration of the room where the meeting is taking place. It strikes the viewer at this point (if it hasn’t before) that this is a man at the end of his tether—weighed down by some secret sadness that prevents him from being what otherwise he so beautifully could be, the catalyst of Giuliana’s rescue and salvation.
The “incident” of the blue painted stripe is one of a number of places in the film where color is foregrounded. Red Desert, famously, is Antonioni’s first film to use the full chromatic palette, and was felt by his contemporaries to be an aesthetic breakthrough. Color had been available to filmmakers for many years, of course, but up until the early 1960s, serious drama, of the sort that European cinema excels at, was usually shot in black and white. To the film historian, there is something exciting, and I would even say moving, about seeing the first experiments of the old masters in the new medium. The “discovery” could be said to have taken place in two phases: the first, during the 1950s, associated with the films of such directors as Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Ophuls, Mizoguchi, and Hitchcock; and then the New Wave itself, when Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, Fellini, Rosi, Pasolini, and many other of Europe’s leading directors fell upon color more or less simultaneously. (Bergman is the interesting exception: he didn’t really move over to color seriously until the beginning of the seventies.) It appears that Godard and Resnais were particularly important here as inspirations for Antonioni, in the nonnaturalistic boldness of their color schemes and the “reckless” way they were prepared to intervene in the environment.
All of the directors just mentioned take a palpable delight in experimenting with color’s possibilities, but nowhere more than in Antonioni does one have the feeling that this innovation is linked directly to the grand traditions of painting—almost as if color cinema presents for him an opportunity for taking over the arena of the easel artist. Both media project themselves onto a canvas, but in Antonioni’s case, the viewer is made to feel, in a very literal way, the backward and forward rhythms of the painter’s brushstrokes. Of course, it is all done rather subtly. The publicity for the film made much play with the way Antonioni had instructed his art director, Piero Poletto, in certain sequences, to apply coverings of paint to the living landscape, and to certain objects (like the displayed fruit on the cart); yet the contemporary viewer, half a century later, is struck by how little the film’s total aesthetic effect seems to owe to such overt stylization. Even red—encoded in the film’s title, and translatable as the color of passion and dementia—is played down, held back from dramatic emphasis until the climax. Instead, we have a variety of tonal possibilities. Certainly, vibrant, bold colors are present—and admired, I would say—as part of modern industrial/consumerist society: the bright, undifferentiated yellows, oranges, and blues of children’s toys, of plastic containers, and of factory furnishings, similar in their way to the hues of contemporary American color-field artists like Frank Stella and Barnett Newman (maybe, too, there is a touch of Rothko in the rectangular splotches of unfinished paintwork that decorate the bare walls of Giuliana’s gallery). But there are also the much more muted palettes associated with the flaking doors and decayed woodwork of the quayside hut in which the party of Giuliana and her husband’s friends hole up during one of the film’s central sequences, and the misty browns and greens of the estuary itself: soft, gentle, and, at the same time, luxurious halftones that seem to capture, or project, the sophisticated melancholy of the film’s characters. And finally, in contrast to this again and in a superb, painterly touch, there are the serene blues, yellows, and whites of the interpolated child’s story on the desert island, where the viewer finds himself, momentarily, in the presence of some abstract idea of color itself—the color of heaven, as it were.
This latter sequence (a miniature film in itself) is one of the most beautiful things in Red Desert, in the interaction it displays between the written quality of the voice-over (so delicately delivered by Vitti) and the mysterious suggestiveness of the imagery. Simplicity itself, on one level (it is a child’s tale, after all, narrated to Giuliana’s little boy, Valerio, as he lies on his sickbed), the fable turns out to be as complex and ambivalent as everything else in this complex, ambivalent movie. It is a tale without a moral, though not without a meaning—even if that meaning is fugitive and difficult to summarize definitively. The first thing we notice about it is that the child through whose eyes the events unfold is a girl. Somehow we expected a boy, if only to make the protagonist of the tale easier for Valerio to identify with. The fact that it is a girl allows us to intuit, while the story is going on, that it is Giuliana herself who is the heroine—Giuliana on the brink of adolescence. (And yet not her in any reductive way: physically and in coloring, the child is quite different from the adult Vitti.) As in all classic fairy tales, notions about number hover close to the surface, structuring the story and also a part of the puzzle to be deciphered. The tale starts off with three creatures spotted on the shore: a cormorant, a seagull, and a little black rabbit that runs along the water’s edge before being temporarily doused by the waves. Three creatures and three episodes, or sections, of the tale. In the first, the child sees a splendid yacht on the horizon. As it comes toward her, she swims out to investigate. (The mysterious, white-sailed vessel is unmanned, turning around of its own accord and sailing off again into the blue.) In episode two, the girl hears a beautiful voice singing, she cannot tell whether from land or from sea. And finally, the girl takes to the water again and swims into a cove where the rocks (so the voice-over tells us, and it is absolutely true) are profoundly reminiscent of naked human forms. The fable ends with Valerio’s voice-over asking his mother, “Who was singing?” and Giuliana answering, with wistful, tender longing: “Everything was singing . . . everything.”
It is an astonishingly beautiful excursus from the main development of the narrative, while remaining, in retrospect, an integral part of it. Its mastery is discernible in its pace and overall spaciousness—the sense that, within its boundaries, everything is given the right amount of time to develop, and that we can think about what it means while it is unraveling. What does it signify, finally? Plainly, the sexual undertones of the sequence are important, however much it is right to insist on the tale’s complementary purity and simplicity. The episode gives us, perhaps, a poetic dramatization of the heroine’s childhood psychology—her curiosity combined with her fear of the world. Each of its three sections is utopian in some way—yet also sinister and frightening. It gestures toward Giuliana’s future loneliness and madness, identifying these things, paradoxically, with the last moment in her childhood of freedom and independence. None of this is said out loud to the viewer; rather, as is proper to art, it is invoked and painted and embodied.
Returning to painting for a moment, then, it is interesting to make one more distinction. For if, traditionally, the older art form relies for its effect on monumentality and stillness (and the very special spiritual thoughtfulness that is released by such a calm), movies have a different and even opposite phenomenology: the thought that is proper to them arises, of course, from their implication in movement. Antonioni is one of the great masters of moving figurative compositions: the way his characters interact and change places with one another in the course of spoken dialogues is full of significance and tenderness. We hear what they say, but as they move around, we see what they think. In a way, of course, this is what the mise-en-scène of cinema is always about; any director (together with his or her editor) needs to be accomplished in the basic grammatical rules: how actors sit and stand and change positions, how they walk in and out of frame, and so on. Antonioni excels at this skill using only two or three characters in a room or a landscape. But he displays an even greater virtuosity in the seamless choreography of groups—as in the sequence mentioned earlier showing the party of friends in the hut. Here there are essentially two spaces: the body of the cabin itself, with stove and primitive seating area, and an “inner sanctum,” a sort of extended cupboard or cubbyhole, painted red, whither, one by one, the party of six eventually drifts, to end up lying on top of one another, in a kind of familial coziness that is at once charged with sexuality (the brittle, lighthearted conversation has been about aphrodisiacs). The viewer can only marvel at the suavity with which Antonioni’s camera measures the movement of the individual characters here, allowing the gestures of the actors, or pairs of actors, to seem freshly minted in front of our eyes. The sadness of gaze behind the frivolity of banter is perfectly discriminated, with a documentary authenticity that goes back to Antonioni’s roots in postwar neorealism.
Red Desert, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (three years previously, Antonioni picked up Berlin’s Golden Bear for La notte), looks backward and forward: on the one hand, it is the culmination of the director’s investigation of the bourgeois Italian soul, going back to the early 1950s; on the other, it marks the beginning of a new and more international phase of his career, which in due course would take in such celebrated English-language movies as Blow-Up (1966, Cannes Palme d’Or winner), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975, also known as Professione: reporter). While the famous trio of films from the early 1960s that established his reputation abroad continue to be known by their Italian names—L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse—the title of this film seems to have migrated over the years from Italian into English: Red Desert to the general public outside Italy rather than Il deserto rosso. The outsider might consider this odd, for the film is, after all, Italian, in both subject matter and language. Even so, there are signs in it (and not just the theme of voyaging) that Antonioni was getting ready to step abroad. He was always a cosmopolitan artist, and later travels would take him to London, Spain, America, China, and remote parts of northern Africa—all of these locations observed with a distinctive precision that at the same time goes “beyond realism,” skirting the edges of science fiction. So here, in Red Desert: we are on earth but also on some remote planet, in the present time but also (perhaps) the future. Artists of ideas like Antonioni—unrepentantly highbrow and serious—engage in a permanent gamble with the public: will they be judged pretentious for their pains? In Red Desert, it seems to me, all the cylinders are firing. One cannot miss its passion—or its pessimism. The movie is a beautiful, haunting, and complex meditation on the spiritual cost of modernity.
-Mark Le Fanu
Red Desert is famously Antonioni’s first film in color and with his distinct and creative use of the chromatic palette; it was felt to have been an aesthetic breakthrough. To a film historian there is something incredibly moving when seeing the first experiments of the old masters in the new medium of color. Color had been available to filmmakers for many years but for European cinema, many of its director’s were hesitant in moving from black and white to color, believing black and white was much more effective in expressing the images they wanted to present on the screen. The ‘discovery’ of color is said to have taken place in two phases: the first during the 1950’s associated with such directors as Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Ophuls, Mizoguchi and Hitchcock; and then the New Wave itself, when Godard, Resnais, Truffaut, Chabrol, Fellini, Rosi, Pasolini, and many other of Europe’s leading directors fell upon color more or less simultaneously. (Bergman is the interesting exception, as he didn’t really move over to color until the beginning of the seventies with Cries and Whispers.)
Red Desert is set in the industrial area of 1960s Ravenna with sprawling new post World War Two factories, industrial machinery and a much polluted river valley. The cinematography is highlighted by pastel colors with flowing white smoke and fog. The sound design blends a foley of industrial and urban sounds with ghostly ship horns and an electronic music score. Since this was Antonioni's first color film, the director said he wanted to shoot like a painting on a canvas: "I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the colour relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colors." As he would do in later film productions, Antonioni went to great lengths in reaching this goal, such as having trees and grass painted white or grey to fit his take on an urban landscape. Critic Andrew Sarris called the red hued pipes and railings "the architecture of anxiety: the reds and blues exclaim as much as they explain".
It appears that Godard and Resnais were large inspirations for Antonioni, in the non-naturalistic boldness of their color schemes and the reckless way they intervened the environment. All of the directors took a delight in experimenting in the world of color, but nowhere near as much as Antonioni, as he directly linked this innovation to the grand tradition of paintings, almost as if color cinema presented to him a way to take over the arena of the easel artist. Certainly they’re several bold and vibrant colors used particularly throughout the film: the bright, undifferentiated yellows, oranges, and blues, which involved several of Velerio's toys, plastic containers, factory furnishings and of the modern industrial consumerist society. In one of the best scenes of the film Giuliana and her husband’s friends hole up in a decayed like hut, and the beautiful palette of colors are used to its fullest. There are much muted palettes of misty brown associating with the flaking doors and decayed woodwork where its characters are initially sprawled one top one another in a sort of familial coziness which is also charged with a high amount of sexual tension between male and female. Many of the characters seem stilted and awkward, until they begin breaking down the interior walls of their hut, to use as fuel as a way to keep themselves warm. This destruction of the hut's interior seems to be a slight metaphor for sexual liberation, especially for Zeller who in the beginning looked the most sexually uncomfortable within the group, and later is the one who seems to get the most aggressive when tearing apart its environment. (This sequence in the hut slightly reminded me of the scene in Jacques Tati's Playtime, which involved the opening night of a new restaurant. In the beginning the customers seem reserved and slightly uncomfortable, and after the collapse of the whole restaurant foundation the more the customers started to relax, and let loose.)
And yet it is the sequence in which Guiliana tells her sick son Velerio a bedtime story, in which Antonioni presents color most vibrantly. It is a tale without a moral, though not without meaning, the story is through the eyes of a young girl, which I believe is a slight acknowledgment in a younger Giuliana on the brink of adolescence and before the loss of innocence. The tale starts out with three creatures on the shore, a cormorant, a seagull and a black rabbit. These three creatures involve three sections of the tale. In the first, the young girl sees a splendid yacht on the horizon and she swims to investigate. In episode two, the girl hears a beautiful voice singing, and she can’t tell if the singing is coming from the land or sea. And third, the girl takes to the water again and swims into a cove where the rocks are profoundly reminiscent of naked human forms. The fable ends with Valerio’s voice-over asking his mother, “Who was singing?” Giuliana simply answers “Everything was singing…everything.” This tale that Giuliana tells Velerio is as ambiguous and mysterious as Giuliana herself and is another part of the puzzle which involves the mental state of the protagonist, that clearly doesn't have a direct answer and is more based on interpretation.
Antonioni wanted to portray a bleak and desolate futuristic world, in which technology was creating a vast cultural and economic change within people and society. The interior shots of the petrochemical plant that Ugo runs, portrays a capitalist cold and sterile environment that seems to oppress the working man, similar to the look and feel of Fritz Lang's science-fiction epic Metropolis. Many of these technological advances that Antonioni portrays in the film are also shown through the educational toys that Valerio seems to use, most shockingly the robotic toy that emerges from the shadows in the middle of the night. In one of the most beautiful shots of the film Antonioni takes us to a deserted rural building site where the University of Bologna is constructing a massive new radio, that seems to tower high up into the skies.
Although on one level Red Desert might be taken as a story about a harsh modern industrial culture to which only the neurotic Giuliana has awakened, Antonioni later said he wanted to show that industrial technology has a beauty of its own and that he had filmed a story about human adaptability, in that Giuliana must "confront her social environment: It's too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention ... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable ... The neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can't manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date."
And yet the technical challenge Antonioni and his longtime scriptwriter Tonino Guerra were facing was creating a particular protagonist whose inner being could sufficiently and effectively register these complicated and tormented states of feeling that Antonioni was feeling on his themes of science and technology. Antonioni came to the conclusion that it would have to be a woman, because when ‘spiritual imbalance’ was at issue, the director believed women were the subtlest in being its most tragic and venerable victims. “The split between morality and science is also the split between man and woman," he once said. Actress Monica Vitti was perfectly cast in the role, as she plays the wife of a successful industrial manager, roaming the physical spaces where her husband works like a little lost puppy with her young son in hand. She is planning to open a ceramics gallery in the neighborhood, and even though I’m curious on who her customers would exactly be in the area, it seems that at least there, it would be the one environment that Giuliana could control, design, and create however she so wishes. Unlike her husband’s industrialized factory which not only is something that is completely out of her control, it is also something that completely intimidates her in size, danger, and its technical complexity, as it is a force and power that is completely beyond her comprehension.
In Antonioni’s earlier films like L’avventura and L’eclisse, Monica Vitti's character's ranged from isolation and alienation from the world, which was looked at as more a sense of loneliness or selfishness. In Red Desert Vitti’s character Giuliana is more hysterical and mad, a tragic character who is clearly mentally and psychologically unstable. The history of Giuliana's illness is only suggested through words and a story, and it is only later discovered that Giuliana's patient and friend while in the hospital who attempted suicide, was really her. Her husband does seem to generally care for Giuliana, but he never seems to truly listen to his wife, and during Giuliana's restless nights when she tries to explain to Ugo about her nightmares of her sinking in quicksand, he seems to quickly dismiss them, and instead tries to sexually come on to her. It's never quite clear what drove Giuliana's character into her present state of psychosis, and even though the car accident is looked at as the major catalyst for her hysterical and suicidal behavior, I believe the accident was merely the trigger that sent her completely off the deep end, and that the root of her psychosis goes back farther into her marriage, maybe leading back into her childhood. There is a brilliant shot that shows Giuliana's complete mental state, and how she views the rest of the world. It's when Giuliana has a nervous anxiety attack when seeing a quarantined ship arrive in the port and she swears she hears a cry. (The audience hears it as well, as the cry is heard on the audio track) and Giuliana rushes off in a state of panic. Her alienation from the others is perfectly portrayed as Antonioni shows the separation between her and the rest of the group, as the fog obscures the lens of the shot. The staring and judging faces heighten Guiliana's paranoia and anxiety, intensifying her frantic state.
When Giuliana finally encounters Zeller, he is perhaps the first person in her life who is able to look at her properly as a fellow human being and as an equal. The reason why the character of Zeller seems to connect and understand Giuliana is probably because he himself is a tortured lost soul as well, drifting from one location to another, not comfortable in settling down and staying in one place for far too long. Zeller is acted by the great British actor Richard Harris, fresh from his recent British Kitchen sink drama This Sporting Life, and even though his voice is dubbed by another actor, he is the heart of the picture. Zeller like Giuliana, is an ambiguous mystery of a character, a person who embodies a feeling of sadness, and if he didn't have to worry about trying to save himself, he could have been the hero in the story, and of been the salvation that Guiliana needed. Red Desert when released won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and it is looked at as the culmination of the director’s investigation in the lost wealthy soul's of characters who seem that they can't love other's because they can't even love themselves. After Red Desert, Antonioni would expand such themes as identity with such English language movies as Blow-up and The Passenger, and less on the alienation between human beings and the modernization of technology within society. Antonioni is mostly known for his trilogy of L’avventura, La notte, and L’eclisse, with the Red Desert being the odd outsider. Some look at it as being the fourth of the trilogy, probably because it was the last and final film that Vitti and Antonioni collaborated together for several decades. Antonioni was a cosmopolitan artist and liked to go beyond realism to explore the themes of human’s contribution to science fiction and the future. Red Desert is a pessimistic and frightening portrayal of that future, a wasteland that is only a hypnotic and haunting mediation on such subjects, but a metaphysical and philosophical exploration on the spiritual cost of a human beings soul.