B&W, 1960, 143m.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Starring Gabrielle Ferzetti, Monica Vitti, Lea Massari, Dorothy De Poliolo, Dominique Blanchar, Renzo Ricci
Criterion (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9),
A deliberately-paced and hypnotic look at the effect of one disappearance on the rich and idle in Italy, L'avventura (or, essentially translated, The Adventure) marked the major international breakthrough for director Michelangelo Antonioni and, at least for several years, provided ammunition for detractors who found this and subsequent films like Blow Up and The Passenger to be aimless and self-important. That critical perspective has vanished almost completely in more recent years as the film has come to embody the darker side of modern western life, with many feeling unmoored and detached as the world marches on around them. Sort of like Picnic at Hanging Rock without the bloom of innocence, the film is more about mood and psychological tension rendered through visuals rather than gripping plotting or naturalistic acting.
A yacht containing a handful of wealthy passengers heading for a remote Mediterranean island proves to be the last trip for Anna (Massari), who vanishes without a trace. Her two companions during shore leave include her boyfriend, Sanro (On Her Majesty's Secret Service's Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (The Red Desert's Vitti), both of whom engage in a search for the missing girl but find their quest derailed when they begin an affair. Numbed by the confusing events surrounding them and their own day to day ennui, Sandro and Claudia find themselves incapable of generating any true emotion, even when they're later accompanied by Gloria (De Poliolo), another companion and an expert tease for no good reason. Eventually the entire situation disintegrates over the course of one fateful night.
Almost unbearable in its starkness and the unflinching manner in which it studies its damaged characters like specimens under a microscope, L'avenntura is never an easy or immediately gratifying experience; as with other Antonioni films, expectations of a grand dramatic payoff or a revelatory plot twist should be set aside to focus instead on the relationship of the characters to such larger factors as fate and nature. Everyone drifts through the film as if each character could also vanish at any second, so there's no point in putting down roots in a passive, stony landscape bereft of warmth.
Criterion first released L'avventura in its restored, 143-minute European length on laserdisc during that format's heyday, with an improved DVD issued in 2001 with what amounted to a state-of-the-art transfer at the time. The disc also includes cursory but interesting liner notes by the University of London's Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and a more in-depth critical audio commentary by film historian Gene Youngblood (previously on the laserdisc as well), who focuses on Antonioni's recurring visual and thematic schemes and the social conditions of the time in which the film was made. A second disc of supplementary material includes an hour long documentary, "Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials," directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi. A fine companion piece to the Antonioni-at-work documentary included on Image's Beyond the Clouds DVD, this comprehensive look at Antonioni's career covers both this milestone film and his other symbolic forays into the human psyche, both his European (La Notte) and his more misunderstood American work (Zabriskie Point). Other extras include the international theatrical trailer (which sells the film the only way possible, as a multi-layered art film) and a selection of Antonioni's written work and reminiscences, read by Jack Nicholson (who starred in Antonioni's sadly underrated masterpiece, The Passenger). Finally and most amusingly, the fold out insert also contains Antonioni's written statement to accompany the film's controversial exhibition at the Cannes Film Festival (where it took home the Grand Jury Prize despite a chorus of boos), followed by a signed list of judges who supported the award.
Thirteen years later the film seemed like an obvious candidate for an HD upgrade, and the essential Criterion reissue on Blu-ray (with a DVD revisit to match) does not disappoint. The new transfer looks immaculate with an almost insane amount of detail, especially in the seaside and city exterior scenes. The sense of depth and texture is a major leap over any previous presentation, which also increases the mysterious, intangible appeal of the rest of the film as well. The LPCM mono audio sounds excellent as well with much more dynamic range than the past DVD, particularly when it comes to the spare but effective score by Giovanni Fusco. The extras are all ported over here (including the previous booklet material) along with one new video bonus, a 26-minute breakdown of the film's visual motifs and themes by filmmaker Olivier Assayas who breaks it down into three movements and eloquently offers his own take on its importance in the world cinema canon.