• Ravi Swami

"The Red Desert", Dir: Michaelangelo Antonioni, 1964



I can't pinpoint the exact reason why I gave Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 film "The Red Desert" a pass on a number of occasions in spite of the fact that like his earlier films, "L'Avventura", "La Notte" and "L'Eclisse", it also starred his muse, Monica Vitti (1931-2022) and was his first film shot in colour.


Vitti was able to demonstrate her range as an actress in the preceding trilogy and her role in "The Red Desert" is no exception, and while a linking theme is one of some kind of existential crisis in the lives of the upwardly mobile middle classes in post war Italy, things take a darker and more complex turn in this film.


Antonioni is consistent in exploring the changing landscape of a period characterized by rapid urban development and the emerging styles of brutalism in architecture and here this is compared to the older urban town planning of Ravenna, the location of the film, with its canyon-like cobbled streets and stark vertical angles of rendered brickwork.


The characters in the film often seem dwarfed by the structures around them and full use is made of the environment of a petrochemical plant, such as huge vents that belch out clouds of steam, and Antonioni chooses to linger on these shots almost as if they are natural and not man-made wonders.


The majority of the story is set against a bleak industrial landscape of cooling towers, refineries and smoking slag heaps, and in one scene, row upon row of antennas of a radio observatory extending to the horizon.

Vitti plays "Giuliana", and in the opening scene of petrochemical plant workers threatening to strike over working conditions, she appears with her young son and promptly approaches a man - possibly a plant foreman - who is eating a sandwich and asks him for it. The man hands it over and Giuliana leaves her son a short distance away to eat the sandwich ravenously, after offering her son a bite, which he refuses.


To all intents and purposes she is a homeless woman in need of food and with a child and it is only moments later when we see her enter the petrochemical plant to meet "Ugo", who is the plant manager, that it is revealed that she is his wife. Ugo introduces her to a visiting business associate, "Corrado Zeller", played by the British actor Richard Harris (dubbed in Italian) and there is an immediate attraction between the two.


Giuliana seems nervous and distracted and shows signs of neurosis and Ugo informs Zeller that following a car accident, his wife suffers from a type of post traumatic stress that has changed her personality.


Giuliana tries to keep a lid on her spiraling descent into mental illness for the sake of her son, and her husband seems preoccupied with his work and unable to grasp her condition enough to be able to support her.


Meanwhile she begins to find herself attracted to Zeller since she feels at ease talking to him in a way that she finds difficult with her husband.


At the weekend, Giuliana, Ugo and Zeller meet Max, another industrialist, and his wife Linda, while out walking near a polluted estuary in the fog and they go to a riverside shack where they meet Emilia and what follows is an afternoon of eating and drinking and role playing led by Max, who seems intent on bedding at least one of the women, but not his wife, in the tiny cramped shack.


Giuliana appears to find the goings-on a temporary distraction from her melancholic state and even persuades Zeller to start dismantling the wooden shack to feed the small wood burning stove which is keeping them warm, which they all think is funny.


A container ship appears out of the fog and docks right next to the shack, so close in fact that they are able to see the crew hoisting a yellow flag to indicate that there is an infectious disease on-board. This causes Giuliana to panic and she asks to leave, which the friends agree to do, but she reaches her car before the others and drives off into the fog, stopping just short of the end of the pier.


Ugo announces that he has to leave on a business trip for a few days, leaving Giuliana to look after her son but with a housekeeper to keep her company. Her state of mind is upset further when her son appears to lose the use of his legs but it turns out to be a false alarm.


Desperate for company, Giuliana seeks out Zeller and visits him at his apartment but it is clear that her mental state is very fragile. Zeller seems unconcerned that she is exhibiting strange behaviour and is possibly hallucinating and instead makes an advance toward her even though she doesn't want to. The two eventually make love and afterwards Zeller drives her to an empty property in the town that Giuliana intends to turn into a shop where she rambles about the awful nature of reality.


She returns to the dock intending to board the ship there with the intention of possibly escaping from her troubles and talks to a sailor there who doesn't understand what she is saying, the gist of which is her sense of isolation.


The film ends as Giuliana and her son wander through the foggy, bleak industrial landscape as smokestacks belch out toxic yellow smoke, prompting her son to ask her if birds will die if they fly through it, to which she replies that birds know better than to fly through it.

If you're expecting the neatly tied up endings of the earlier films then you will be disappointed, instead Antonioni opts for a curiously disjointed and unsettling narrative that explores the relationship between the inner and outer worlds, against a backdrop that, on the face of it, would offer nothing in the way of dramatic colour to alleviate the desaturated monotonal gloom of much of the film, to the extent that it could have been shot in black and white.


However, out of this drab palette he manages to extracts moments of vividly intense colour, such as in the scenes set in the shack with its' red painted clapboard walls, or when she tells her son a bedtime story depicted as a flashback about a young woman, perhaps herself, frolicking in the sea in some tropical paradise, as if to suggest that it is during these episodes that Giuliana is temporarily relieved of her mental stress and colour has literally entered her life again, though it is only momentary.


When Zeller and Giuliana visit the radio observatory she asks one of the workers what they are building and he replies that it is to see into deepest interstellar space, something that reinforces the notion that everyone around Giuliana is preoccupied with quantifiable reality, like space or the factory or the container ships or material comforts - or sex, in the case of Max - to the exclusion of the interior world and any sense of self-awareness or conscience.


Perhaps Antonioni is hinting at a malaise of the modern world and "progress" as a possible cause of the kind of mental illness and alienation that Giuliana is suffering from, which today would be termed a bi-polar disorder.


There are many similarities to other films that have touched on similar themes of mental illness, most notably Hitchcock's adaptation of Winston Graham's "Marnie", released in the same year and also set around docklands and shipbuilding, and Roman Polanski's "Repulsion". In the case of "Marnie" there is the suggestion that she is cured of her psychosis by a sort of sexual healing administered by the psychiatrist who falls in love with her, whereas here the outcome is possibly more realistic and would suggest that Giuilana in her vulnerable state has been taken advantage of by Zeller.


In all three films the focus seems to be on women suffering from mental breakdowns with the intervention of men as either saviours or abusers and without any real exploration of the causes, though as pointed out in an earlier review of "Repulsion", we are left with a clue at the end, and in the case of "The Red Desert" the conclusion is open-ended, leaving the viewer to try and make sense of what went before.


Monica Vitti delivers an unsettling bravura performance quite different to her roles in the preceding films that makes "The Red Desert" seem to stand apart from what could otherwise be considered a thematically linked quartet of films.



"The Red Desert", Dir Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964

Criterion Channel



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