Like a glossy catalog selling ennui, L’Avventura makes listlessness seem like an enviable lifestyle. Of course, it helps when the listless look like Monica Vitti and Gabriele Ferzetti and they do much of their anguished wandering on one of the craggy Aeolian islands. At turns aloof and alluring, they’re like lovers from another planet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. L’Avventura actually opens with Lea Massari as Anna, a temperamental woman disenchanted with both the vast wealth of her father and the half-hearted attention of her fiancé, Sandro, played by Ferzetti. The engaged couple, along with Anna’s friend Claudia (Vitti), embark on a yachting trip with a handful of well-off friends. When Anna disappears on one of the islands, Claudia and Sandro lead the search and fall for each other in the process.
L’Avventura is soap operaish on the surface. (Can you believe Claudia would do that to her friend! And Sandro? What a pig!) But director Michelangelo Antonioni, who made his international breakthrough here, is probing for something deeper. Carelessness – physical, emotional, intellectual and relational – is something of a virus in the film, so that the laissez-faire attitude the movie seems to be selling is ultimately exposed as a (perhaps literal) dead end. That’s why the final shot is perplexing, until you realize that it’s perfect in the way it captures two characters who have never been more alone, even though they’re together.
Carelessness – physical, emotional, intellectual and relational – is something of a virus in the film.
It’s the island sequence of L’Avventura that distinguishes the movie from other art-film exercises in existentialism. Using landscape as effectively as John Ford ever did, Antonioni lets the Aeolian outcroppings stand in as both threats and sympathetic figures. (“I don’t get them,” one of the boaters says of the islands. “Surrounded by nothing but water. Poor things.”) After Anna’s disappearance, the natural beauty seems to taunt the searchers. Waking up disillusioned after sleeping in a shack, Claudia opens the door to be greeted by one of the cinema’s most jaw-dropping sunrises. Yet the light reveals nothing.
When they leave the island, things get even murkier. Claudia and Sandro soon embark on an affair, though it’s as rife with guilt and regret as passion. The second half of the film traces their efforts to find out if Anna may have slipped away onto the mainland, and the motive for the searching gradually changes. After all, if they don’t find her, then they can pursue their affair in earnest.
If you find Claudia and Sandro detestable, consider that their tortured relationship is at least a form of remembrance. Everyone else in their yachting party seems eager to forget Anna (there’s a telling shot of one of them literally twirling an umbrella as they wait to leave the island). Posh gatherings soon resume, at which jokes about Anna’s disappearance are lightly made. When Claudia and Sandro reunite with the others at a hotel, no one seems to bat an eye at the fact that they’re now a couple.
Nevertheless, the prevailing mood of L’Avventura is not one of unaffected cool, but rather of sorrow. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it moralism, considering Antonioni’s camera is as eager to follow the freshest piece of flesh as Sandro. Rather, it’s a sadness that can be felt in even the most gorgeous of the movie’s compositions, a dissatisfaction that never quite leaves Vitti’s dark eyes. Don’t tell anyone on the yacht, but L’Avventura seems to understand that the pursuit of pleasure is not as consequence-free as we may like to pretend.