A group of wealthy friends leaves Rome for a yachting trip to an island off the coast of Sicily. They loiter on the island coast while the boat is docked, and then they realise that their friend Anna has disappeared at some point during the day. After an unfocused search for her, they summon her father and local law enforcement. Most of Anna’s friends quickly lose interest in the search, but Sandro (her boyfriend) and Claudia (her closest friend) continue to look for her throughout the neighbouring islands. They pursue a series of vague leads, but their attention soon shifts to the romance developing between them. The search for Anna gradually recedes into the background of the film as the characters resume their involvements in various romantic liaisons, social events and (minimal) professional concerns. At the end of the film, the mystery of Anna’s disappearance remains unresolved.
At the notorious premiere of L’Avventura at the Cannes International Film Festival in May 1960, the audience booed. Frustrated by the film’s listless pacing and ambiguous ending, the crowd erupted in catcalls that reportedly rattled the film’s director, Michelangelo Antonioni. In response, a group of influential filmmakers and film critics circulated an open letter expressing their support of the film: ‘Aware of the exceptional importance of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film, L’Avventura, and appalled by the displays of hostility it has aroused, the undersigned critics and members of the profession are anxious to express their admiration for the maker of this film’. 1 L’Avventura was ultimately recognised with a special jury prize at the festival in recognition of its introduction of a ‘new cinematic language’. After its rocky debut, L’Avventura quickly secured both enduring critical acclaim and modest box office success in the international art cinema exhibition circuit. On the occasion of the 2012 Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’ poll, Robert Koehler described L’Avventura as ‘the film that – more than any other at that moment – redefined the landscape of the artform, and mapped a new path that still influences today’s most venturesome and radical young filmmakers’.2
Antonioni’s painterly landscapes in L’Avventura, and later films such as Il deserto rosso/Red Desert (1964) and Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (1975), are one hallmark of Antonioni’s new cinematic language and the challenge his films posed to audiences. L’Avventura features a series of open landscapes, including the deserted volcanic island where Anna disappears. The long scene that follows the discovery of her disappearance unfolds as if in slow motion. Sandro, Claudia, and her other friends explore the craggy shore with no apparent urgency. Alone and in pairs, they wander for a minute or two before stopping to contemplate a nearby object or a distant view that arrests their attention not because it offers a clue to Anna’s location but because it interests them. The characters and the camera frequently shift from concentration to distraction. Favouring long shots and long takes, the camera moves from character to character without establishing any narrative connection between their individual investigations and without establishing their relation to one another in space. As a consequence of this open style, when the party aborts their search, the viewer is left without a clear understanding of how much terrain they covered or how much time has elapsed. Instead, Antonioni and his cinematographer, Aldo Scavarda, offer an immersive (yet fragmented) experience of the landscape, at once beautiful and inhospitable. The camera isn’t anchored to a character’s point of view nor does it omnisciently reveal information to the viewer that the characters can’t access. Instead it concentrates on unfamiliar framing strategies: positioning the characters at the edges of the frame, tracking a character intently before abruptly shifting direction and focus, and framing empty space without assigning perspective or meaning to each shot.
L’Avventura was released at a turning point in film history when a series of innovative films were charting new aesthetic and narrative paths. Like À bout de souffle/Breathless (1959) and Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), both released the year before, L’Avventura marked an emphatic turn away from the standards of Hollywood studio production and the international cinemas that imitated Hollywood and toward an emerging cinematic modernism. The narrative premise of Anna’s disappearance could have generated a conventional Hollywood mystery (or even an action film), but Antonioni transforms the mystery at the (presumed) centre of the film into a spectral narrative event. Anna haunts the film (and psychically haunts Claudia who is the only character who suffers from Anna’s disappearance – first because of concern for her and then because of her guilt for not wanting her to return), but her narrative presence is suggestive rather than suspenseful, intellectual rather than emotional. Her absence structures the narrative development in the film in much the same way that open space structures the framing of individual shots. Antonioni’s formal innovations and narrative innovations resonate with each other, but they don’t invite symbolic readings or conclusions.
The common assertion that there is no action in L’Avventura misses one of the film’s most important cinematic interventions. There is a lot of ‘action’ in the film, but it doesn’t advance the plot in a cause and-effect chain. L’Avventura includes a series of dramatically engaging events: Anna and Sandro reunite after a long separation, and Anna immediately shares her ambivalence about their relationship. They embark on an ‘adventure’ with their friends during which Anna is at the centre of two key dramas – first the minor drama of her false reporting of a shark sighting while she is swimming, and then the major drama of her disappearance (an event that she may or may not have engineered). The ensuing investigation, while slack and half-hearted by the standards of a conventional genre film, involves a series of intriguing encounters with various locals on the nearby islands who share rumours and speculations about what may have happened to Anna. Sandro and Claudia begin an intense affair, and Sandro immediately betrays Claudia who catches him with a prostitute before tacitly forgiving him with a tender yet ambivalent gesture of affection in the final scene of the film. These events generate a degree of ambiguous suspense, but Antonioni’s direction doesn’t signpost the importance of each event for the audience through the use of close-ups or swelling musical cues or explicit bits of dialogue. Furthermore, these events don’t build toward an inexorable (or even an unpredictable) conclusion.
The lack of narrative closure forced audiences (and critics) to find new terms for describing the film as a whole. ‘Antoniennui’ was used by contemporary critics to describe the prevalence of the themes of alienation and indolence in L’Avventura and the three films that completed Antonioni’s loosely connected ‘tetralogy’ – La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il deserto rosso/Red Desert (1964). While these films pursue a very different set of aesthetic and narrative preoccupations than the Italian neorealist films that still exerted stylistic influence in this late postwar period, Antonioni’s tetralogy is less apolitical and indulgent than his harshest critics suggest. The later films in the tetralogy offer more direct engagements with Italy’s economic and industrial modernisation and its consequences for the physical, cultural and social environments his characters inhabit. L’Avventura, however, already reveals Antonioni’s interest in a philosophical investigation of contemporary life and the jarring juxtapositions it produces. For example, an early scene in the film presents Anna verbally sparring with her father before she leaves for her trip. The meticulously composed mise en scène positions Anna and her father in the foreground on a dirt road that appears to lead straight to Saint Peter’s Basilica which looms in the right background of the shot while a collection of newly constructed apartment buildings hovers in the left background of the shot. The featured characters in the film may be wealthy and may enjoy a decadent lifestyle that contrasts starkly with the representations of poverty and labour that dominate neorealist films, but Antonioni positions these characters not only in open landscapes but also in crowded settings that capture the uneasy coexistence of modernity and tradition, secularism and religion, and glamour and abjection.