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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.

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