Author: Geoffrey Nowell-Smith
Released in 1960 and causing quite the controversy at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic film L’Avventura was received with jeers and boos when first shown at the festival and it is these comments that open Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s entry into the BFI classics series; a film that later went on to become the darling of the intelligentsia. Inclusion in this series of books underscores its place in cinema history. What Nowell-Smith fails to go into is to really establish why L’Avventura is the darling of the intelligentsia. He underpins for the most part what makes this film ground breaking and why it can be considered a classic and a piece of art, but not what turned the boos and hisses among the Cannes crowd to the open letter of approval by film critics and makers the very next day (the book includes the letter, ‘Dear Antonioni’ written by theoretician Roland Barthes as an appendix). The intelligentsia may have it seems read more into the film than has really been necessary and as a result Antonioni has become the champion of the intellectual cinema crowd.
The film itself has a simple plot centering on a group of friends who go on a sailing holiday to the Sicilian islands. While there one of the party, Anna goes missing and is never found. Her best friend Claudia whom she is holidaying with never really comes to terms with her disappearance and begins a love affair with Anna’s carefree playboy boyfriend Sandro which leaves her wracked with guilt. Claudia it would seem is the only one to even acknowledge or care about her disappearance as Claudia and Sandro travel around Sicily while trying to understand what may have happened to Anna. But can Anna and Sandro’s relationship survive this knowledge or each other? This is the question that is left hanging at the end of the film and like much of the rest of the film this remains a mystery much like the question of what happened to Anna? Apart from Claudia who is deeply affected it would seem that her impact seemed not to have much of an impact on the lives of any of the others.
It is a wonder the film was made at all when the author goes into the production on the film and it would seem that much of the film accredited as a classic in Italian cinema is due to the problems the director faced and the methods that Antonioni used to overcome these problems with filming on location on the Sicillian islands (the whole film was shot on location) and the financial backers going bust. Nowell-Smith also illustrates the geographical location with a map of Sicily of where the film is set and filmed making this film also something of an intellectual travelogue. Undoubtedly much of the film is strangely mysterious and this strangeness we hardly notice, so subtle is it.
As a whole this is a pretty slickly written addition to the series from a very experienced writer on cinema (Nowell-Smith is the joint editor on a the ‘Oxford History of World Cinema’ and has written many books about international cinema) and even draws on his own experiences on seeing the film for the first time in a movie theatre in Paris, already as a student being a great admirer of the trends happening in European cinema and the serious study already being invested in it, especially in France. He also sets the film within the context of other important foreign language films being made at the time, many of which that were also shown at that year’s Cannes: Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers and Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The author also goes onto write in perhaps a little too much detail about the rest of Antonioni’s career without really going anywhere with this information. Apart from the British film Blow Up (1966) Antonioni never really attained the same level as a filmmaker again although he did make a few quality Italian films before and after L’Avventura. But the context of the other films is also important and to these can also be added Luis Bunuel as well as the French filmmakers of the nouvelle vague and between them all these directors were creating a new language in cinema which in many senses makes this film important in identifying this. This alone is why this film is included and can easily be justified as inclusion in this series (Rocco and His Brothers is also included in the BFI series). Cinema has evolved so much in the past 50 plus years since it was made that it is hard for an audience today to appreciate how ground breaking it was, but as an artful film it is in my eyes worth viewing.