(This is the 34th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)
I’ve never been quite certain why I think L’Avventura is Antonioni’s one and only masterpiece. In many ways, it’s the kind of movie I’m always complaining about. It goes on forever, and nothing “happens.” But for some reason, L’Avventura hits me directly on my existential bone. The lives of these characters, upper-middle class at the least, are largely empty. Not completely empty, since they work at finding ways to fill the void (most of them seeming to involve sex). But ultimately empty, which is perhaps even harder to take than complete emptiness, because of the self-awareness of that ultimate journey.
Claudia (Monica Vitti) is the one character who is able to stand apart from the others. At the beginning of the film, every character is self-absorbed, except for Claudia, who loves her best friend, Anna. L’Avventura is about Claudia’s slow slide from someone who can love, to someone who is just like all the rest. Anna disappears on a visit to a craggy volcanic island. Everyone commences trying to find her, but it’s clear soon enough that only Claudia and Anna’s fiancé Sandro actually care enough to keep making the effort. And it doesn’t take Sandro long to join the rest of his friends. On the surface, he continues to search for Anna, but it’s all for show; he is already trying to pair up with Claudia.
Claudia is horrified at first, but gradually, Anna fades in Claudia’s memory, Sandro persists, and he and Claudia become lovers. When Claudia catches Sandro cheating on her, she runs off crying. But in the film’s final scene, she lays her hand on Sandro’s head. They have come to a reconciliation based on their mutual pity for each other, and their own self-loathing. The Claudia who could love is gone. All that remains is a shadow Claudia, who will go on to live the emptiness implied by “ultimately.”
As to why Antonioni’s other films don’t appeal to me as much, I have one idea. Antonioni followed this up with two more films, La notte and L’Eclisse, and as I re-watched L’Avventura for this essay, I thought back to those other movies, which I haven’t seen in a long time. Perhaps my problem is that L’Avventura’s greatness lies in part in the way the emptiness is ultimate rather than complete. Claudia’s journey takes us from a place of hope to one of pitiful acceptance, and that journey is key to L’Avventura. In the other films in the trilogy, the emptiness is there from the start; it is complete, and there is no journey. But I’m grasping at straws, and as I say, it’s been years since I saw those other films.
This one got more comments than just about any other movie on my list (close to 30 … too lazy to count). There was a discussion of “slow cinema”, and more than one person agreed with me that it’s odd I like L’Avventura given my tastes in general.