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Cold, rain, and fog surround a plant in Ravenna. Factory waste pollutes local lakes; hulking anonymous ships pass or dock and raise quarantine flags. Guiliana, a housewife married to the plant manager, Ugo, is mentally ill, hiding it from her husband as best she can. She meets Zeller, an engineer en route to Patagonia to set up a factory. He pursues her, they join friends for a dinner party of sexual play, then, while Ugo is away on business, she fears that her son has polio. When she discovers the boy is faking, she goes to Zeller, panicked that no one needs her. He takes advantage of her distress, and she is again alone and ill. Written by
Antonioni’s fourth film in a row with muse Monica Vitti sees the actress in perhaps her most difficult role yet; her co-star was Richard Harris: it was certainly interesting that the director wanted him so soon after having achieved stardom with Lindsay Anderson’s THIS SPORTING LIFE (1963) but, in retrospect, his is a part that anybody could have filled in adequately. It was ironic, then, that Harris and Antonioni didn’t see eye to eye and, reportedly, the former walked off the set (or was “kicked off”, depending on what sources one reads) and the film had to be completed with a double for its male star!
Anyway, the industrial wasteland (full of fuming factories, polluted rivers, massive steel structures, plague-ridden merchant ships) against which the events are set is supposed to mirror the lead character’s emotional turmoil; we first see her literally “scrounging for her next meal” (as Bob Dylan famously sang). Despite being ostensibly a character study, what we get – as is Antonioni’s fashion – are vaguely-defined characters and half-disclosed information (such as the nature of work in which both Harris and Vitti’s husband are involved, her own traffic accident which brought on her mental collapse, her son’s sudden and apparently inexplicable disability, the plague outbreak, and the source of the singing heard by the girl in the fable recounted by Vitti to her convalescent offspring).
As in BLOWUP (1966), the Italian surroundings here are made to seem other-wordly – as if the narrative was taking place in some forbidding science-fiction landscape; this is augmented by the electronics-infused soundtrack (occasionally interrupted by ethereal vocals, as mentioned earlier) and the meticulous color scheme (RED DESERT marked Antonioni’s departure from black-and-white cinema – in retrospect, it also emerges as one of his most haunting efforts). The film is quite long, however, and drags a bit during its second half…but the ending is, once again, inspired – with Vitti finally opening up, even if it’s in front of a foreign (and, therefore, non-comprehending) sailor.
The undeniable highlights of the piece are the Sunday afternoon outing at a remote cabin which develops into an orgy and the visualization of the afore-mentioned fable (featuring the red desert, actually pink-colored sand, of the title which symbolizes a sunny Utopia away from the contaminations of the modern world). RED DESERT won two prizes at the Venice Film Festival including the Golden Lion, the top honor, over Pier Paolo Pasolini’s THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964). Curiously enough, after this, both Antonioni and Vitti went ‘mod’ in Britain with BLOWUP and Joseph Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE (1966) respectively.
I’ve been tempted to pick up the R4 SE DVD of this one – featuring an Audio Commentary and a 1-hour documentary on the director (also available on the Criterion 2-Disc Set of Antonioni and Vitti’s previous collaboration, L’ECLISSE , which I’ve just ordered!) – but, since the R1 Image disc is now OOP and a number of that company’s titles have received the Criterion treatment, it shouldn’t be too long (especially now that the film-maker has passed away) before it’s time for RED DESERT to get its own re-release...
It seems to me that of the two brief retrospectives I recently embarked on, Antonioni’s has emerged as the more rewarding; some of Ingmar Bergman’s films would rate very highly on their own but, collectively, they lack the visual diversity which lends the Italian film-maker’s work its lingering fascination and compulsive aura of mystery.
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