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review added: 9/19/02



L'Avventura
1960 (2001) - Cino del Duca/Janus Films (Criterion)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

L'Avventura Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A/A

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film

143 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.77:1), 16x9 enhanced, Amaray dual-disc keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch 1:15:38 at chapter 20), audio commentary with film historian Gene Youngblood, color bars, insert booklet (with a reprint of Michelangelo Antonioni's statements about the film following the 1960 Cannes premiere and liner notes by film critic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith), film-themed menu screens, scene access (35 chapters), languages: Italian (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: English

Disc Two - Supplemental Material

NR, full frame (1.33:1), Amaray dual-disc keep case packaging, single-sided, single-layered, Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials documentary (16 chapters), 2 essays by Antonioni read by Jack Nicholson (with Nicholson's personal recollections of Antonioni), theatrical trailer, restoration demonstration, film-themed menu screens, languages: Italian, French & English (DD 1.0 mono), subtitles: English


Part of the problem in writing about movies (or even just being particularly vocal with your opinions about 'em) is that it's extremely possible that someday you might change your mind. After years of saying one thing, you've got to sheepishly go back and say you've made a dreadful mistake. Sometimes a movie that you used to love seems to have lost all its charm. I'm particularly embarrassed about the fact that back in 1985, I enjoyed The Goonies so much, I went to see it twice in the theatre (and, by the way, I'm fairly confident this marks the first time any review of L'Avventura has made any reference to The Goonies). Or sometimes, as is the case here, a movie that you never used to enjoy starts to make sense.

The first time I saw L'Avventura, I thought it was right up there on the list of the most boring motion pictures I'd ever suffered through. I had just seen Antonioni's 1964 film Red Desert, a movie that I have to admit I still think is one of the most boring of all time. But I make it a point to never dismiss a director after just one movie, particularly if they have a reputation as formidable as Michelangelo Antonioni. So I sought out the film most film scholars seem to consider his masterpiece: L'Avventura. At the time, I simply thought it was pointlessly oblique, meandering and dull as dishwater. And now, loathe as I am to admit it, I realize I just didn't get it.

The plot... actually "plot" may be the wrong word to use here. The story of L'Avventura is deceptively simple. An idle rich girl named Anna (Lea Massari) embarks on a yacht trip with several of her equally shallow and wealthy friends. Among her fellow passengers are her lover Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). They stop on a remote and desolate island for a few hours. There, Anna simply vanishes without a trace. So Sandro and Claudia pair off to search for their lost friend and a relationship quickly develops between them.

Antonioni uses this framework to develop and explore a wide range of themes, including (but by no means limited to) womanhood, love, sex, art and the ever-widening gap between old and young. What makes L'Avventura either fascinating or frustrating, depending on your willingness to work with it, is that Antonioni refuses to draw any conclusions about these themes. He's simply exploring issues, provoking thought and hopefully discussion. This is a movie that demands multiple viewings to even begin scratching the surface of its complexity.

In my defense, part of the reason I disliked the film originally had to do with the visuals. Everything I'd heard about the movie led me to believe that L'Avventura was a spectacular looking film with spellbinding black and white cinematography. What I saw was a badly damaged print that resembled nothing so much as a bucket of thick mud. Fortunately, Criterion rides to the rescue with this new double-disc DVD. This new transfer is nothing short of a revelation, rescuing the carefully composed photography of Antonioni and cinematographer Aldo Scavarda from near oblivion. Many black and white films awe the viewer with the contrasts of deepest blacks and brightest whites. Appropriately enough, the beauty of L'Avventura lies in its shades of gray. The volcanic rocks of the island where Anna disappears are disturbingly beautiful. Every element of each frame is placed just so and this can really only be communicated in 1.77:1 aspect ratio presented here (and anamorphically enhanced here, I might add). Still, for all their fine work, which truly borders on the miraculous, this is still not an absolutely flawless picture. There's a wee bit of instability, particularly noticeable in the opening credits, and a slightly annoying shimmer on particularly busy patterns. One particular dress worn by Vitti about halfway through the film sent my monitor into fits. Also, a tiny bit of print damage remains, most noticeable in a vertical line that practically bisects the picture toward the very end. But these problems are nothing compared to how L'Avventura used to look. Check out the Restoration Demonstration on disc two if you doubt me.

As for audio, L'Avventura sounds remarkably good for a mono track. There is no distracting hiss or distortion of any kind. Subtle effects, like a boat motor that Sandro hears approaching on the island, come through admirably well. And when the track is meant to go quiet, as it often does, it's a solid wall of silence.

The extras are equally fine, particularly good at putting in L'Avventura in some much needed context. Audiences at the Cannes Film Festival greeted the film with boos and hisses upon its premiere, a reaction so severe that it prompted several prominent filmmakers and critics to sign a letter praising L'Avventura. It's difficult to imagine this movie receiving such a hostile response today, so many of the extras attempt to make us understand what exactly was so different about this film at the time. Gene Youngblood's commentary is a bit dry but strikes a good balance between production anecdotes and his own interpretation of the film. Whether or not you enjoy his style, Youngblood clearly knows his stuff and his commentary is a welcome addition.

The second disc features a 58-minute documentary, made for Canadian television, entitled Antonioni: Documents and Testimonials. It's an appropriate name since Antonioni doesn't talk much, though he's seen frequently. Rather, he lets his work and his associates speak for him. The well-shot documentary features interviews with Vitti, composer Giovanni Fusco, Federico Fellini (with whom Antonioni collaborated on the script for Fellini's The White Sheik) and many others. We also get to see rare behind-the-scenes glimpses of Antonioni at work and a taste of a scene cut from L'Avventura. It's a valuable addition to the set. The other notable extra features Jack Nicholson (star of Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger) reading two essays the director wrote for the press kit of L'Avventura. Nicholson also contributes his own recollections of Antonioni, some of which directly contradict what he'd written in the essays. The booklet includes the expected Criterion essay (this one by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) as well as Antonioni's statement following the Cannes premiere and the aforementioned open letter. Finally, you get the original trailer (which just proves that American distributors have never and probably will never be able to adequately promote foreign movies) and that Restoration Demonstration I mentioned.

L'Avventura is not a movie to just toss on one boring Sunday afternoon when you're in the mood for some good old escapism. It's a challenging, maybe even daunting, picture that you must invest yourself in to get anything out of. If you're willing to go the extra mile with it, it's a thoughtful journey well worth taking. And if you're going to take the journey, travel first class. The Criterion edition of L'Avventura is simply the only way to experience this important film.

Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com




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