Red Desert (Il deserto rosso)
Italy (1964) Dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Following a car accident Giuliana (Monica Vitti) has been unable to shake the mental after effects, finding herself plagued by surreal dreams in which she suffers and as a result feels isolated from her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), manager of a petrochemical plant, and the people around here. When a business associate of Ugo’s, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris) arrives to recruit workers for an industrial operation in Patagonia, Giuliana finds it easier to talk to this stranger than to her own husband, but while a frisson between the two grows, Giuliana’s anxieties remain.
It’s hard to write about a film that is so highly regarded by critics and pseuds alike only to find that you don’t exactly share their unbridled enthusiasm and thus feel pressured to hand back your film buff membership card. Red Desert is the first colour outing from celebrated Italian new wave master Michelangelo Antonioni, and true to the new wave ideal, this is a heavily symbolic film that tries to tie in the loneliness and isolation of a woman who has it all in life against the gloomy backdrop of the rise of industrialisation in post war Italy. In other words, it’s likely to be dismissed by the mainstream audiences as one of those angsty foreign arthouse films that most people avoid like the plague.
What is exactly wrong with Giuliana is never made clear other than she appears to be suffering a post traumatic mental disorder, which in modern times might be diagnosed as some sort of bipolar condition; in 1964 this didn’t exist. Despite having a fairly luxurious life, with a successful and well off husband and precocious son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), Giuliana jumps at every shadow, tortured by the sinister noises that seem to follow her wherever she goes, most notably from the imposing chimneys from which smoke billows out to cloud the sky with its gloomy grey plumes. Naturally these bleak vistas exacerbate Giuliana’s condition and as she loses he sense of reality to her fears, her sense of identity goes with it. Corrado offers a glimmer of hope for Giuliana as he is an out of towner and thus represents something new and fresh, as well as the vibrancy of the life she used to know before the chimneys and their pollution.
Attempts to take Giuliana away from this dreary locale also fail, when she, Ugo, Corrado and some other couples head off to a portside shack for an impromptu weekend getaway. Instead of finding escapism Giuliana is even more isolated among this crowded setting, as is Corrado, who only knows Giuliana and Ugo and is beginning to fall for Giuliana. Eventually, Giuliana’s paranoia brings the weekend to a screeching halt and its back to square one.
There appears to be two subjects Antonioni is hoping to tackle here. One is the obvious exploration of the themes of isolation and neuroses in relation to the ever changing world around us. The second is a commentary on the industrial advances of (then) modern Italy and its effect on society itself. While for many simpler businesses these technological behemoths are a serious threat, for Giuliana they also pose one to her memories and comfort in the simple beauty of suburbia.
Her paranoia brought on by the eerie noises she hears, suggesting only she has an acute awareness of their supposed sinister presence. In the middle of all of this however, Antonioni has gone on record as saying he wanted to show that this industrial Italy had a beauty of its own, which is why patches of colour are on hand to break up the monotony of imposing grey, such bright red barrels sitting in the courtyards of the factories, or the green of the trees, and coloured smoke.
For his first colour film Antonioni went all out to exploit this facet on screen and the images remain as vibrant today as they did back in 1964. The crowning glory of the entire film though comes during a fantasy sequence where Giuliana is reading a story to her son about a young girl living along on a deserted island. Mere words cannot do justice to the shear beauty of the cinematography in this scene – how the clear sea water shimmers, the rocks seem to come alive and the sand looks invitingly soft. What was achieved with the camera back then would be subject to much computer tinkering today.
This was the fourth and final collaboration between the director and the captivating Monica Vitti, and from her performance, one can only assume they knew this. Giuliana is a complex character whose mood is never easy to read leaving Vitti with the arduous task of having to convey these changes whilst maintaining both the consistency of the character and the sympathy engendered through her suffering. It’s fair to say she passes with flying colours and delivers one of the most haunting performances of this nature, making it as intrinsic to the success of the film as Antonioni’s direction. Richard Harris – whose Italian dialogue I am certain was provided by another actor – had yet to reach stardom at this point in his career but his leading man potential is noticeable.
Red Desert has been heralded as a bona fide classic by certain quarters of the film buff brigade. Maybe I didn’t get all of its nuanced suggestions and I found it to often be an emotionally distant film, but while I can appreciate much of what it has to offer, I can only personally say it is a good and well made film of its time and ilk.