Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Red Dessert (1964)

Red Desert (1964) ****
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni.
Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerra.
Starring: Monica Vitti (Giuliana), Richard Harris (Corrado Zeller), Carlo Chionetti (Ugo), Xenia Valderi (Linda), Rita Renoir (Emilia), Aldo Grotti (Max), Valerio Bartoleschi (Giuliana's son).

We all know that by the late 1930s, color films were possible. Yet, for years afterwards, only big, expensive epics used color. Most of the great films of the 1940s were in black and white, and it was really only in the 1950s, that we started to see some major directors first use color. European art films were even later with making the change – not coming until the 1960s. Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) was his first foray into color movies – and it is worth noting that he did it before other international icons like Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. I don’t think audiences today really realize how big a transition it was to move from black and white to color. It is not a different art form per se, but it certainly requires a different set of skills. Which is one of the reasons why Red Desert is such a remarkable film – his first time out of the gate using color, and Antonioni uses it masterfully.

Red Desert came on the heels on Antonioni’s trilogy – L’Aventurra, La Notte and L’Eclisse – and it certainly shares some similarities with those films. All three of those films were about the emptiness of modern existence, and Antonioni’s masterful black and white camerawork was a perfect choice for those films. Red Desert is also, in a way, about the emptiness of modern existence, yet it is also a little different. For the first time, Antonioni’s heroine (Monica Vitti, who was in all three of the previous films) is dealing with mental illness as well. The emptiness she feels is not solely due to everything around her, but something inside her as well. From the opening frames of the film – huge, towering industrial smoke stacks – there is also a strange tone to the movie, almost as if Antonioni is making a science fiction film set sometime in the future, although one that is closely related to the present. It’s a tone he maintains throughout the film.

In Red Desert, Monica Vitti plays Giuletta, who has just been released from a mental hospital, after she tried to commit suicide. She is married to Ugo, and they have a young son together, but Ugo doesn’t seem to understand her, and is in fact fairly cold towards her. His business associate Zeller (Richard Harris, who is dubbed into Italian), is drawn to her though – and perhaps understands her. Many have criticized Harris’ performance over the years as being wooden, but I quite liked it. He suggests the same sort of depression and alienation that Giuletta feels, but it is something that he hides. The two spend much of the movie together walking and flirting – and in Zeller, she finds some form of release – sexual yes, but also something deeper.

People have often said that Red Desert is a criticism of the modern industrial age as dehumanizing, but Antonioni rejected that idea – saying that he wanted to show that anything, even those factories, can be beautiful, and that human are incredibly adaptable. Although Giuletta is alienated from her surroundings at the beginning of the film – so much so that she has tried to kill herself – but the end, she has come to grips with it.

The film is a technical marvel. The images in the film are striking and haunting at the same time. The sound design is equally complex – with a strange electronic score, distant whistles and horns, and an almost overwhelming industrial soundtrack, that bores into your skull. The film is anchored, in every scene, by the remarkable performance by Vitti, who doesn’t shy away from her character, and embraces her, contradictions and all.

Antonioni was one of the most highly regarded filmmakers of the 1960s – and into the 1970s. I don’t know much of his work beyond that period (other than his horrid contribution to the omnibus film Eros). But in the 1960s, he was a master – and Red Desert is one of his best.

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