Skip to main content

Review: Red Desert (1964)






As a leading figure of Italian Modernist cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni made films that defy facile understanding. With their sharp deviations from conventional approach to storytelling, and a freewheeling style of filmmaking as constituted by a propensity of interspersing main events with disparate incidents, many of Antonioni’s famous works, including L’AvventuraLa Notte, andL’Eclisse, are bold statements of a revolutionary redefinition of cinematic art.

It was with an incredible sense of audacity and surprisingly little resistance that, straight after the making of L’Eclisse, the reception of which was, much like the other two that preceded it, a mixture of raves and rants, Antonioni undertook his first venture to the realm of polychromatic film. The result was Red Desert (1964), a stunning classic that looks hardly like the director’s inaugural attempt at an unexplored medium, in which the colours, though appear bizarrely gaudy and unnatural, assume primacy of reflecting the changing moods of the narrative and the emotional arcs of the characters.

Monica Vitti, the enduring muse of Antonioni’s major works and one of Italy’s great thespians, again commands attention in Red Desert as Giuliana, the victim of a recent car accident, which leaves her physically unharmed but psychologically disturbed. She is wife to an apathetic husband, who makes little effort in assuaging her excitable whims and caprices, and mother to a largely negligible son, whose devious means of playing truant unwittingly adds to the weight of her crushing nerves. Richard Harris takes on the dubbed role of Corrado, a mining recruiter that seems the only one able to penetrate into Giuliana’s troubled psyche, before his lust and virility induces him to overstep that fine line of a budding platonic friendship.

Contrary to Vitti’s prior personae as the assured, listless, laconic bachelorette in Antonioni’s black-and-white features, that cool façade in Red Desert is utterly effaced, for we have now instead a fidgety, high-strung, neurotic textbook case of PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). There are moments when she can be seen bunching her hands and flitting her eyes about nervously whilst jovial conversations and activities are conducted at the foreground. Other times she is simply the misplaced heroine of a Bergman’s drama, unburdening her pent-up woes to a stranger who does not understand her language.

Italy in the 1960s witnessed a widespread economic boom. Factories and industrial structures mushroomed; many major cities were underway of a mass scale modernisation. The major concern of Red Desert, according to the director himself, is men’s inability of functioning around and adapting to the new way of life, and the feeling of alienation that engenders through this fraught relationship with an altered society. And yet Antonioni still manages to confer novel beauty on a tarnished landscape- the colourful chemical potions that issue from a factory’s smokestack brightens an invariably livid sky, underneath which men are dwarfed by the colossal industrial buildings just as they are dwarfed by the rocks (L’Avventura) and the sculptures (La Notte and L’Eclisse).

One of the remarkable moments of the film occurs in a bedtime story about a young girl on a desert island. She encounters an unpeopled ship that idles near the island and then sails away; a mysterious singing voice that later is said to have no definitive source but come from “everywhere and everything.” This elusive allegory illustrates vividly Giuliana’s frustrations with not only her failing grasp with the changing world, but her growing distrust of mankind that results from it. In the ending sequence, in answer to her son’s query of why the birds are avoiding the yellow poison that puffs out of the factory, Giuliana says that the birds have learned not to fly near the danger. In dealing with her mental illness and the society at large, she submissively decides on shutting herself in.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Honore Daumier

“If you shut up truth and bury it under ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way.”- Émile Zola
Exited Honoré Victorin Daumier, 10 February 1879, in an impoverishment that many of his contemporaries, especially his foes, would have thought was his long overdue retribution- the painter was blind, heavily in debt, and later relegated to a pauper’s grave. His friends, upon visiting his resting place, would, I imagine, see it a chance to admonish their children: “Now that’s a lesson for you cheeky devils whose tongues rattle off things that should better stay unspoken.” But Daumier devoted his life in revealing those “unspoken things.” His lithography ink proved sharper than most writers’ pens. He vented his rage and stigmatised others’ infamy in his satirical and, oftentimes, side-splitting cartoons. The tone was relentlessly acerbic but only because Daumier was exposing truths that, in the time…

Review: Late Spring (1949)

As a storyteller, Yasujiro Ozu insists on an implausibly objective stance that refrains from direct commentary or criticism; his camera customarily assumes the role of a detached observer, to whom the characters in the film, staring or talking straight to the camera, occasionally address, with an intimacy akin to that between a host and his guest, a closeness that is underpinned by a mutual recognition of the psychological distance that separates the two. The audience, whose perspective, in this case, conflates the camera’s (the director’s), an invisible character’s in the film (to whom the other characters address) and their own, is thus situated amidst this spatial complexity which, as a rule, every work of art necessarily creates.
In Late Spring (1948), the camera serves in part as an underlying comment to the story, which is noted by its economy of details. A prolonged shot of a departing train, on which the father and daughter travel to the city for a one-day excursion, prefigures…

Review: Breathless (1960)

Jean Luc Godard’s first feature feels oddly like a swansong: in many respects the film seems a self-mockery of what it ostensibly celebrates – the new, the bold, the reckless; the 60s zeitgeist that resurrects the anguished ghosts of the 1920s, who, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, grow up to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faith in man shaken.” For the children of the ‘60s, their wars are of a kind in which the opponents constantly change roles: sometimes they are the unmerciful authorities bent on making miserable lives out of their inferiors; in other times they are the society at large, weeding out in its insidious and devious way the errant law-breakers. They all seem to be donning the same masks, through which the warriors recognise themselves.
This fight with one’s inner demon necessarily evokes concerns of mortality and death - timeless concerns that acquire an added pungency in the 1960s: would a dangerous, unheeding spell of hedonism finally defy life’s incontrove…