Blu-ray Review: L'Avventura - The Criterion Collection

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The Criterion Collection has issued Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 L’Avventura on Blu-ray, the perplexing odyssey of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Claudia (Monica Vitti). This is a gorgeous film to drink in; its presentation so artful that it almost masks the shortcoming in the storytelling. As is so often the case, Criterion’s extras package makes for a useful lesson in cinema. There’s audio commentary (originally recorded in 1989) by film historian Gene Youngblood and a truly impressive, three-part analysis by Olivier Assayas (a French-produced television program from 2004, re-edited by Criterion for reasons unknown). More on the extras later but suffice it to say they go a long ways towards making a case for L’Avventura as a significant achievement.

L Avventura 3 (380x300).jpgThe thing is, despite a plethora of highly skilled technicians, the film is so devoid of actual plotting that it ultimately doesn’t really justify its leisurely 143-minute running time. The intriguing first act introduces us to best friends Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia. Along with Anna’s boyfriend Sandro, they venture out by boat the Aeolian Islands for a little leisure time. They’re a disaffected bunch, going about their activities with an air of boredom. They swim. They try to avoid an alleged shark. They laze about on the rocks of a particularly alien-looking, rocky island. Then suddenly Anna vanishes without a trace. Her father (Renzo Ricci) is summoned, as are the authorities, but a subsequent search turns up nothing. Things take a hard turn as Claudia and Sandro begin an unexpected (and initially resisted, by Claudia at least) relationship in the wake of Anna’s disappearance.

L Avventura 2 (380x263).jpgIt’s a bit like Psycho (released the same year) in that the primary character we’re introduced to turns out to have a minimal presence as the story morphs into something else entirely. While both Sandro and Claudia pursue the mysterious of Anna’s disappearance, albeit rather half-heartedly on Sandro’s part, the movie drifts into kind a study in apathetic living. As more rich, disaffected friends and acquaintances drift in and out of their lives, L’Avventura feels almost like a precursor to Seinfeld (i.e. a movie about nothing), except minus the laughs. It has production value to spare, shot on location at dozens of picturesque spots around Sicily, Rome, and the Aeolian Islands. But, at the risk of sounding like a philistine, I don’t believe that all the undeniably fascinating atmosphere, beautiful scenery, moody performances, and distinctive music can make up for a basic lack of cohesion and narrative drive. There’s no sense of purpose behind all of Antonioni’s technique.

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents a stunningly fresh, vibrant image. Aldo Scavarda’s black-and-white cinematography looks as near to perfect as can be expected in this newly created, high resolution digital transfer. According to Criterion’s booklet notes, the transfer was made from a combination of the original 35mm camera negative and a fine-grain 35mm print. Considering the beautiful cinematography is perhaps L’Avventura’s finest attribute, it was essential that Criterion do their best (and they have). Less outwardly striking, but equally flawless, is the LPCM 1.0 soundtrack, offered in the original Italian (English subtitles are, of course, provided). Giovanni Fusco’s subtle score blends well with the dialogue.

L Avventura 4 (380x274).jpgSpecial features include, in addition the aforementioned commentary and analytic featurette (27 minutes), a trio of Antonioni’s essays as read by Jack Nicholson. The essays offer a deeper glimpse into the director’s artistic process. Carried over from the previous Criterion DVD edition of L’Avventura is the hour-long documentary Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials. The original theatrical trailer is included and, in the Blu-ray insert, an essay by critic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith.

Initially booed upon its first screening at the Cannes Film Festival, L’Avventura ended up winning the Jury Prize at the festival following a second screening. The Criterion Collection’s restore presentation is well worth the time for fans of Michelangelo Antonioni’s work, though casual viewers will likely need patience to adapt the film’s unconventional rhythm.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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