Michelangelo Antonioni's 1960s panoramas of contemporary alienation were decade-defining artistic events, and RED DESERT, his first color film, remains one of his greatest. This provocative look at the spiritual desolation of the technological age--about a disaffected woman, brilliantly portrayed by Antonioni muse Monica Vitti (L'avventura), wandering through a bleak industrial landscape beset by power plants and environmental toxins, and tentatively flirting with her husband's coworker, played by Richard Harris (This Sporting Life)--continues to exert force over viewers. With one startling, painterly composition after another--of abandoned fishing cottages, electrical towers, overwhelming docked ships--RED DESERT creates a nearly apocalyptic image of its time, and confirms Antonioni as cinema's preeminent poet of the modern age.
As Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film, Red Desert
continues the director's Italian neorealist examinations of human anxieties induced by industrialization. Made in 1964, the film chronicles a neurotic woman, Giuliana (Monica Vitti), who suffers from loneliness and estrangement from her factory worker husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). While in the opening scenes Giuliana totes around her son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), a majority of the film focuses not on her role as mother but on her flirtation with Ugo's coworker, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). Throughout, human conflict unfolds in front of massive industrial landscapes that depict machinery and pollution to excessive degrees. Giuliana, established as somewhat of an unreliable narrator after she admits existential angst caused by a car accident that was intentional on her part, comes to look like the most sympathetic character by the end, compared to the others' cold distance. At the root of her illness is a woman who "wanted it all," as she says, when really all she wants is some purpose and connection. Shots capturing oily pools, electrical wires blocking the sky, and blaringly loud factory gear reinforce Giuliana's disconnect. Later in the film, one sees the familial repercussions of her inability to get a grasp on love, as little Valerio reenters the story. Even the title, Red Desert
, sets up this film as a study in how color can manipulate the viewer's emotions. Each shot, each scene, is so carefully composed that it has an almost eerie staged feel. A wonderfully funny, sexy sequence mid-film, in which Ugo, Giuliana, and Corrado visit a shack populated by bored, sex-crazed girls, lightens what is a rather melancholic portrayal of brewing madness.
Criterion Collection's treatment of Red Desert is excellent, as well. Two short black-and-white Antonioni documentaries, "N.U." and "Gente del Po," illustrate this director's earlier attempts at capturing on film the modern dilemma facing humans at the hands of burgeoning technology. Two archival interviews, one with Antonioni and one with Vitti, are full of rich anecdotal background information about the inspiration for Red Desert and L'Avventura. Even the film's dailies are included in the supplements so one can see how Antonioni composed and pulled off his amazing camera work. --Trinie Dalton