So this was not the right film to watch on a lazy, sit-around-the-house Sunday. Not because it was disturbing – at least, not on a gut level – and not because it was gory or got me fired up. On the contrary – it’s a slower-paced, meandering film, and if you’re already in a bit of a drowsy haze you run the risk of falling asleep midway through. I am embarrassed to admit that I did just that.
In my defense, nothing really “happens”, and the characters all seem kind of “meh….” about things as well. L’Avventura is a tale about a group of Italy’s nouveau-riche – Anna (Lea Massari), daughter of a politician and boyfriend to Sandro (Gabriele Ferzeti), an architect who’s just rubber-stamping a diplomat’s ideas these days. Anna and Sandro, along with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti), are setting out on a cruise on a private yacht with two other couples, poking around the Aeolian Islands just off Sicily. They drop anchor near one when Anna wants to have a swim and then explore a bit; at some point she slips away with Sandro for a bit of a relationship-status chat, since she’s frustrated with his habit of long business trips. He brushes off her complaints and suggests they have a nap together on the beach. Anna agrees – but when Sandro wakes up a bit later, Anna is gone.
Nor is she anywhere else on the island.
The party searches the island – Claudia and Sandro are concerned, but the others less so; one woman, Giulia (Dominique Blanchar), even seems more bothered by how her husband Corrado (James Addams) has been picking on her all day, and even interrupts Claudia’s sweep of a cave to ask her what she thinks about Corrado. After the friends come up empty, Sandro suggests that he and Corrado keep searching while the others sail back to get help. Claudia spontaneously says she will stay on the island as well. The police don’t show up until the next morning – and they strike out as well. Although, one officer lets slip that they caught a bunch of smugglers in another boat nearby the island the previous night; so Sandro insists on talking to them to see if they saw anything. Claudia insists that she will in turn search the neighboring islands as well.
As for the others…they actually seem more interested in getting back to the mainland, and a planned weekend at Corrado’s mansion in Palermo. And before Sandro and Claudia part ways, he suddenly tries to kiss her. He tries again when they run into each other on the mainland; Claudia is heading for Palermo to rejoin the others, and Sandro is checking out another lead in the hunt for Anna. But after making out with Claudia a bit, he finds himself suggesting they both give up the search and their weekend plans and run off together themselves. Claudia is torn, to say the least, and pushes him away – only to relent and rejoin Sandro a couple days later. And the longer they look for Anna, and the more time they spend together, the more Claudia is ashamed to realize she doesn’t want to find Anna….
So, it’s not a spoiler to say that we never find out what happens to Anna. Because the film isn’t really about that so much as it’s about everyone else’s reaction to her disappearance – or, in many cases, everyone else’s lack of reaction. Sandro and Claudia are alarmed at first, and committed to a search, but take up with each other pretty quickly, spending more time hooking up in various hotels where there’s been an “Anna sighting” than actually looking for her. The others act like the whole affair was just an inconvenience in their cruise and move on to the next party or the next reception or the next infidelity, and by the end of the movie, so have Sandro and Claudia, with Anna being almost completely forgotten by everyone.
This kind of aimless slow fade was part of what lead to L’Avventura getting panned by crowds at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, where it was first screened. And I do mean panned – the audience started snickering, then moved on to outright laughter, and then on to boos and catcalls, prompting both Monica Vitti and director Michelangelo Antonioni to run out of the screening. Vitti was just embarrassed, but Antonioni was incensed – the audience’s major complaint was that he’d included a lot of lengthy sequences where “nothing really happened,” causing Antonioni to protest that number one, the characters being lazy passive schlubs was his whole point, and number two, there actually was a lot going on in those takes. This film was Antonioni’s first major picture in which he used this kind of style, with long takes and seemingly disconnected events instead of a more straightforward plot. It’s a fairly cerebral approach Antonioni used to play up the aimlessness and disconnectedness his characters felt, and the emptiness and pointlesness of their lives. Fortunately, a number of other established filmmakers figured out what he was doing, and sent Antonioni an open letter praising his work and urging the Cannes Jury to give L’Avventura a second chance. And while naysayers did still give the director the nickname “Antoni-ennui“, L’Avventura went on to win the Cannes Special Jury prize, for its innovative approach.
The fact remains that I did doze off during the film – but I think this has more to do with my own frame of mind, rather than Antonioni’s approach. There are some films that you really shouldn’t watch on a lazy Sunday, it seems.