Friday, January 7, 2022

#2,690. Red Desert (1964) - Spotlight on Italy


Its landscape filled with factories, smokestacks, and apartment complexes, one might assume that Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, the director’s first ever color film, is a harsh critique on industrialization. Throughout the movie, its lead character Giuliana (played by Antonioni’s frequent collaborator Monica Vitti) seems to wander around in a haze, out of place in a world such as this, with her mental health, already fragile at the start, deteriorating further as the story progresses.

But the fact of the matter is that Antonioni loved this industrial setting; he found it beautiful, and chose the modernized city of Ravenna, Italy, for this very reason.

So if Red Desert is not an expose of urbanization and its effect on the individual, the reverse must be true; it is about a character who cannot keep up with an ever-changing world, and the manner in which her psyche processes her surroundings is where the film’s true story lies.

To make matters worse for her, Guiliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is the manager of a successful petrochemical plant. While talking one day with Corrado (Richard Harris), an associate who paid him a visit, Ugo confesses that his wife was recently in a car accident, and though physically fine she has yet to recover from it mentally.

Corrado, who is recruiting workers for his new factory in Argentina, takes an interest in Giuliana, and the two strike up first a friendship, then, eventually, a romance. But Giuliana, who fears the modern world, cannot escape her feelings of isolation and dread, which seem to be rapidly closing in on her.

Vitti does a remarkable job conveying her character’s fears and phobias, even if we - like Ugo, Corrado, and even she herself - have no idea what is causing them, or how to remedy her situation. In an early scene, Giuliana awakens from a nightmare, telling Ugo that she dreamt she was sinking in quicksand and could not escape. Later, following an afternoon getaway with Ugo, Corrado, and several others, Giuliana is convinced a ship that recently docked is carrying a disease, and does everything she can to get away from it as quickly as possible.

To his credit, Antonioni does not try to explain Giuliana’s mental state nor does he vilify it. Her condition remains enigmatic throughout, and while it is obvious that she is somehow a victim of her surroundings (much like Julianne Moore’s character in Todd Haynes’ Safe), Giuliana is as baffled by it all as those around her.

Though a deliberately paced motion picture that often favors visuals over character and plot, Red Desert nonetheless provides food for thought, and is open-ended enough to allow the audience to draw its own conclusions.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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