Red Desert (Il deserto rosso)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni & Tonino Guerro
Stars: Monica Vitti (Giuliana), Richard Harris (Corrado Zeller), Carlo Chionetti (Ugo), Xenia Valderi (Linda), Rita Renoir (Emilia), Lili Rheims (Telescope operator’s wife), Aldo Grotti (Max), Valerio Bartoleschi (Giuliana’s son), Emanuela Paola Carboni (Girl in fable)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: Italy / France
Red Desert Criterion Collection DVD
Red DesertIn an article Michelangelo Antonioni wrote in the late 1940s, he imagined a fictional situation in which an Italian director (obviously his stand-in) approached the Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn about making a color film that “doesn’t have fixed colors.” “So you see, Mr. Goldwyn,” Antonioni wrote, “wide horizons open up for a director who has understood that the law of beauty doesn’t lie in the truth of nature. I am one of those directors. I am a colorist director. Will you let me make a film?” The fictional incident ends with Mr. Goldwyn showing the Italian director the door, a gestural symbol of Hollywood’s general closed-mindedness when it comes to experimentation with the cinematic medium.

At that time, Antonioni was a critic, but he would soon direct his first feature film, and by the mid-1960s he was a legendary figure in the art cinema world, having garnered both acclaim and derision for this “alienation trilogy”: L’Avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’Ecclise (1962). Yet, despite his early interest experimentation with color, he did not make a color film until his ninth feature, 1964’s Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), which followed the alienation trilogy and immediately preceded his scandalous English-language hit Blow-up (1966). At the time, the majority of European films were still being made in black and white (as were many American films), so Antonioni’s decision to shoot in color was something of a provocation in and of itself.

Like his previous films, Red Desert is a conundrum; methodical in its meandering and almost maddeningly slow-moving, its lack of narrative interest despite clear-cut psychological characters and a central love triangle almost insists that you focus on it as a purely audio-visual experience (the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovksy decried Red Desert as one of Antonioni’s worst films for this very reason--he “got high on pictorial aesthetics” at the expense of story, theme, and feeling). Not only does Antonioni experiment with color in the film, casting large swaths of celluloid in unnatural, desaturated tones (achieved with both filters and literally painting physical objects), but he also plays with the film’s soundtrack, deploying a discordant, echoing electronic score that puts you on edge during the blurry opening credits sequence and maintains a sense of disharmony and unease throughout the entire film.

One of Antonioni’s strengths as a filmmaker has always been his ability to convey a powerful sense of location, often at the expense of characters who are literally dwarfed by their surroundings; even if you don’t remember the story in L’Avventura, you can’t forget the craggy beauty of the rock island on which the protagonists find themselves, and no one who has seen it can forget the montage of empty urban spaces that ends L’Ecclise or the evocation of swinging London in Blow-up. In this respect, then, Red Desert may be his true masterpiece, as it makes viscerally palpable the rise of the petrochemical industry in Italy in the 1950s, with its massive cooling towers, jumbles of iron pipes, and enormous steel buildings that house complex refining machines and employ hundreds of anonymous workers who constituted a new working class in postwar Italy.

The opening shots over which the credits fade in and out are out of focus, giving us an abstract sense of modern industrialization before coming into sudden, shocking focus with a shot of a tower belching flames into the sky that is followed by a shot of a petrochemical plant pouring steam and smoke into an already colorless sky. Antonioni and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (who would become favorite of Woody Allen’s in the 1980s and early 1990s) paint a dispiriting portrait of industrial toxicity, with the surrounding landscape not just dominated by the petrochemical plant, but literally poisoned by it, with everything (including the trees and grass) reduced to the same sooty ash-gray. It is as damning a portrayal of environmental ruin as anything ever committed to film, yet Antonioni curiously denied that Red Desert had a socio-political agenda, insisting instead that he was simply documenting in his own artistically heightened way the rise of industrialization (he even said in one interview with Cahiers du cinema that he wanted to depict the “beauty” of the factories).

It is within this world of black and gray that we are introduced to the film’s protagonists: Giuliana (Monica Vitti), the wife of the plant’s chief engineer Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), and a petrochemical engineer named Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris, dubbed and cast against type as a man of great sensitivity) who is trying to recruit workers to go to South America to start up a refinery in Patagonia. Giuliana is the film’s protagonist, and it is her psychological complexities that the film slowly probes, eventually revealing that she suffers from various anxiety disorders following an incident several months earlier. Her rattled psychological state and inability to truly connect with her husband or child (Valerio Bartoleschi) is a typical theme in Antonioni’s work, suggesting that he is a prime example of Jean Renoir’s contention that great directors make the same film over and over again. By setting the story against the backdrop of industrialization and pollution, Antonioni encourages us to see a connection between interior and exterior, with the contaminated industrial wasteland of the film’s opening moments suggesting a visual literalization of Giuliana’s damaged emotional state. The fact that Antonioni continually stages scenes in empty streets, depressingly antiseptic rooms, and various industrial sites only confirms this, as does his major stylistic break when he shows us breathtakingly beautiful images of an idyllic island as Giuliana tells her son a symbol-laden story about a young girl (Emanuela Paola Carboni).

As with all of Antonioni’s films, Red Desert is a challenging, provocative experience, one that does not necessarily reward on first viewing beyond its powerful visual nature and unconventional marriage of sound and image. The characters are understandable, if not particularly compelling, and its various narrative detours and apparent lack of focus can make for frustrating viewing if you’re not open to his unorthodox methods. Yet, for those who are familiar with Antonioni’s cinema and for those who are willing to explore those “wide horizons” to which Antonino alluded in his story about Samuel Goldwyn, Red Desert is a multi-layered treasure that offers much, but never easily. It is, as Stanley Kauffman wrote in The New Republic back in 1965, a film that “enlarges our vision of what a film can be and do.”

Red Desert Criterion Collection DVD
Red Desert is also available from The Criterion Collection on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioItalian Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs
  • Archival interviews with director Michelangelo Antonioni and actress Monica Vitti
  • Two short documentaries by Antonioni: Gente del Po and N.U.
  • Dailies from the original production
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by film writer Mark Le Fanu, a reprinted interview with Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard, and writings by Antonioni on Gente del Po and N.U.
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 22, 2010

    Befitting its startlingly beautiful visual nature, Criterion’s new high-definition transfer of Red Desert is nothing less than stunning. Taken from the original 35mm camera negative and digitally restored, it gives us a gorgeous presentation of Antonioni’s unique visuals. The image has a strong presence of grain, particularly in the sequences that feature wide expanses of a solid color, but that only enhances the image’s appeal and power. The almost monochromatic early sequences look fantastic, as do the richly saturated later scenes that depict the fable. The digitally restored monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print, also sounds excellent, providing a rather amazing sense of space and depth to the electronic score given that it emanates from a single speaker.
    Italian film scholar David Forgacs’s screen-specific audio commentary, which originally appeared on BFI’s 2008 Blu-Ray, offers a wealth of insight into this peculiar and challenging film, including numerous intriguing production details such as the fact that Antonio had vegetation around the processing plants spray-painted to give the image a more uniformly desaturated look. The disc also includes two archival interviews, one with director Michelangelo Antonioni (12 min.) that was originally broadcast on French television in 1964, and one with actress Monica Vitti (9 min.), which was originally broadcast on French television in 1990. Completists will be particularly jazzed about the inclusion of two of Antoninoi’s rare short documentaries: Gente del Po, which is about a barge trip down the Po River, and N.U., which documents the work of urban street cleaners. Also included are half an hour of extremely rare dailies (in both black and white and color and all without sound) recently acquired from the Cineteca di Bologna, and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet contains an essay by film writer Mark Le Fanu, a reprinted interview with Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard, and writings by Antonioni on Gente del Po and N.U..

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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