Film: Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert)
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Good directors tell stories. Great directors try to do a lot more. When Michelangelo Antonioni decided to film in color for the first time with Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), he did so with more in mind than simply using color. The goal was to use color for specific purposes, not simply have it on camera just to have it.
Antonioni naturally went to Monica Vitti, his muse, as the centerpiece of this film. She plays Giuliana, a woman who has undergone a nearly complete mental breakdown and who has not yet completely returned from it. After an accident, she spent a great deal of time in the hospital, where she also tried to kill herself. She feels disconnected to everything around her—her husband, her son, and the rest of her world. Giuliana is in the middle of an existential crisis, and it’s not clear at all if she’s climbing out of it or spiraling deeper into it.
She doesn’t have a very nice location in which to attempt her recovery. She exists in the middle of a bleak, industrial landscape in which it appears that everything that should grow has died. The trees are withered and dead and the landscape is dominated by huge factories. The film has no musical soundtrack; instead, the “music” is the hum of electricity, the whir of giant machines, and the clank of the factories. It is a completely industrialized world, a world of human creation and destruction. The factories pump their waste products into the nearby rivers, killing the wildlife—people complain that their food tastes of petroleum.
Giuliana’s personal life fares no better than her external world. Her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) runs one of the factories and is emotionally distant. Giuliana also seems separated somehow from her son (Valerio Bartoleschi). Into this bundle of angst and existential drama walks Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), a colleague of Ugo. He is immediately attracted to Giuliana, and there seems to be some reciprocation, but she is too emotionally shattered to handle much. Eventually, she confesses her fears and anxiety to Zeller, who takes advantage of this moment of weakness for his own pleasure.
Like many exceptional films, Il Deserto Rosso is not a story with an actual plot (although it is not plotless), but is instead a character study. Giuliana has been thrust into this landscape of human creation, but it is a landscape inhospitable to humans. It is completely unnatural and it disconnects her from her natural surroundings. In this environment, since there appears to be no escape from it, Giuliana must learn to adapt herself—and this is where the problem comes in. She is unable to adapt to this human-made and simultaneously inhuman world of the modern day, in which clean ocean water is replaced by industrial sludge and factory smokestacks stand in for trees.
What is most impressive here, even though the focus of the film is on Giuliana as a character and her own (lack of) progression through her own illness, is Antonioni’s skillful use of color both to add meaning to particular shots and especially to focus the eye of the audience precisely where he wants it to go. Initially, especially, many of the landscapes may have just as well been filmed in black-and-white. They are soot-covered and virtually all black with flecks of white, and really look like black-and-white photography. And yet, in many of these shots, there is a single point of color—a flame from the top of a large chimney, or Giulianna in a resplendent green coat walking past the factories. Why green? Because at least at that point, Giuliana still exists in a natural world, even though her world is not natural. Her son, who will grow up in this world, is typically dressed in brown and beige. Later in the film, Giuliana dresses in far more neutral colors, switching back to green only at the end, when we also see actual living plants for the first time.
I also love that there is no soundtrack through the film, that our music is instead played by industrial machinery and passing ships. It adds another layer of disconnection from what we are used to both in our everyday life and in our expectation from a film. In essence, it forces us out of our natural world and into one that is artificial by design.
Sadly, this artificiality doesn’t work for everything. Richard Harris is obviously dubbed into the Italian; watching him speak, it’s evident that he’s speaking in English, and this is very disconcerting throughout.
This is the third Antonioni film I have watched, and I find that I like him more and more as I continue to watch his films. L’Avventura, which was alleged to be a revelation, left me somewhat cold. I liked Blow-Up more. Il Deserto Rosso is better still, and it makes me wonder if perhaps I shouldn’t go back and give L’Avventura another shot. No matter. Antonioni’s work here is superlative, and this is a film I will return to and watch very carefully in the future.
Why to watch Il Deserto Rosso: Antonioni…in color.
Why not to watch: The dub on Richard Harris looks really weird.