Although he made five films before this, L’Avventura was Michelangelo Antonioni’s breakout film, a modernist masterpeice of filmmaking that progresses the language of film from then on (in much the same way that Citizen Kane progressed the language of film in the 1940s, and The Birth of a Nation in the silent era). A group of friends vacation to a tiny rocky island off the coast of Sicily — they are wealthy, bored, and unhappy. When Lea Massari disappears, a search ensues, which after two days peters out to include only her boyfriend Gabriele Ferzetti and her friend Monica Vitti. Ferzetti’s romantic attentions quickly turn to Vitti; as their seach proves fruitless, they fall in love and completely forget about Massari. But this is not a romantic love story in any real sense: it becomes clear that Ferzetti’s affections only serve as a futile attempt to fill a void in his soul, and Vitti’s feelings are only part of her journey to understand who she is and what she is doing with the hollow men and women around her. Antonioni’s brilliance is in using the surroundings of the characters (barren landscapes, empty villages, overpowering architecture) as direct illustrations of their interior lives and their relationships with each other. Cinematography by Aldo Scavarda is unsettling in its beauty and composition. Like many, when I first saw the film I thought it was gorgeous but a somewhat empty exercise in style, but upon repeated viewings it becomes more and more powerful and compelling. Once we get past what seems a cold and clinical style, we can see how Vitti’s character learns to understand the emptiness of herself, of Ferzetti and of the world they live in — but as the final shot demonstrates, only she can put selfishness aside and impart a true honesty and tenderness. Film was booed off the screen by the audience at Cannes, but the film received widespread critical praise and became an arthouse boxoffice hit.
The DVD features an insightful but dry academic commentary track by film historian Gene Youngblood; some weird readings of letters, and personal recollections, by Jack Nicholson (who starred in Antonioni’s The Passenger); and a very entertaining NFB documentary about Antonioni that is wild, wooly and very off-the-cuff.