Antonioni's 'Red Desert' reveals more in its 4K restoration


During a visit to New York City in 1962 for the American premiere of L’Eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni met with postmodernist painter Mark Rothko. The Italian filmmaker had written to Rothko earlier that year after seeing his exhibition at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. The two men, who admired each other’s work, spoke for about an hour and a half, according to Rothko’s friend and fellow painter Robert Motherwell. On that studio visit, the artist showed the writer-director many of his paintings, asking him to choose one as a gift. It was the elemental and shimmering colors of Rothko’s imbricated style that inspired the mise-en-scène of Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso, 1964). An excellent 4K restoration by Luce Cinecittà screens, in its original 35 mm format, at the Museum of Modern Art’s Antonioni retrospective in New York this Sunday.

Monica Vitti, who starred in l’Eclisse, accompanied Antonioni to Rothko’s studio, and had been with him at the exhibition. Motherwell told art critic and author Christopher Heathcote that Vitti was “effusive” in her praise for the paintings, and that Antonioni, greatly moved by them, said to Rothko: “Your paintings are like my films—they’re about nothing…with precision.” It is not clear whether the painter understood the intended compliment: Art criticism of the times was influenced by existentialist philosophy, and Antonioni’s remark may be a reference to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, in which “nothingness” articulates aspects of human consciousness that create negation.

In Red Desert, Giuliana (Vitti), Antonioni’s protagonist, is suffering from an unnamed neurosis that once led her to attempt suicide. For much of the film, she is in a constant state of distress, writhing or moving spastically, or frightened of something not apparent to the other characters, although brilliantly exposed by the shock of Rothko’s colors in the production design and her costuming. In the beautifully framed opening sequence, Antonioni places Giuliana, in a green coat, and her child Valerio, in more muted colors, against a monotone landscape, one created by the filmmaker and a painting crew. Antonioni had the receding grass and tree branches of Ravenna’s evergreens painted a slate gray. That forest, evanescent in the wake of encroaching slag ponds, is backgrounded by industrial buildings with rather colorful smokestacks. It is where Ugo, Giuliana’s husband, works.

As a result of the color restoration, it is clear that Antonioni’s choice of a jewel tone for Giuliana’s coat was deliberate; a Rothko color, there is irony in that green when Giuliana walks through the forest that should be green. It is a color that at once appears to define her as another object belonging to the landscape, and a person apart from it. In other words, the sequence is a visual recognition of Giuliana’s human qualities, and a negation of her and Valerio, who appear to violate the symmetry of industry. Red Desert may serve as an example of the “precise” delineation of nothingness Antonioni strove for—the film marks his first use of multiple cameras and lenses, although it appears to be shot entirely from a single angle. In the book My Antonioni (edited by Carlo di Carlo), published for the retrospective, the filmmaker says that the multiplicity of lenses allowed “matter” to be “transformed into color.”

During a brief sequence in the film, when Giuliana’s son begs to hear a new story before he goes to sleep, and she recounts what is obviously an autobiographical tale, there is a dramatic shift in the color scheme. Antonioni provides a moment of reflection, of a time when Giuliana was free of her neuroses; that change to a “normal” cinematic palette also provides the needed contrast to the one of the film. It is in that past and Giuliana’s present, illustrated in Rothko colors, that the filmmaker articulates, with masterful precision, the root of her suffering and, by extension, the predicament of humanity in the age of technology.

RedDesert’s pervasive mist, fog and smoke (much more apparent in 4K), as well as Antonioni’s deliberate blurring of objects within the frame or of entire shots, act as screens that transform people and objects, and sometimes obliterate them—as Valerio points out, birds are trapped and killed by smoke. These vapors are also a sublime leitmotif of Giuliana’s sense of isolation. In contrast, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) and Corrado (Richard Harris), an American engineer, admire a copious amount of steam as it belches from a large steel pipe. While it could not be said that Antonioni intends a feminist reading of the differences between the emotions of men and women, his film illustrates how Giuliana’s crisis of displacement makes her vulnerable to the sexual exploitation of the engineer. Ugo, on the other hand, while more protective of her, is hardly the model husband. During a visit to the factory, he criticizes her for wearing her “worn shoes” rather than her new ones, a petty retribution exacted for the glance she exchanged with Corrado.

A 4K restoration also allows for the recovery of sound, which is always carefully curated in Antonioni’s films, but which is especially significant in Red Desert. The cacophony of the title and opening sequences, a seeming mix of industrial sounds and music, is deafening in the newly struck print, while the score, by frequent collaborator Giovanni Fusco and Vittorio Gelmetti, is also notable for its consistent discord, which articulates Giuliana’s distress. This is especially obvious in a scene on the wharf when, gathered in a shack for an informal meal, Giuliana, Ugo and their friends, along with Corrado, retreat to a single mattress. This is obviously a frequent occurrence, an exchange of sex partners, and while it temporarily arouses Giuliana’s desire for Ugo, it also intensifies her distress, which is expressed through a protracted musical segment—“matter” transformed into music.

Film criticism of the late 1960s and early 1970s frequently characterized Antonioni as the prophet of alienation, a filmmaker whose work anticipated the peculiar ennui of people living in an age marked by profound technological advances. What critics often failed to point out was that Antonioni appeared far more interested in the relative harmony of forms, of architecture, for instance, than he was in the chaos of human psychology. Stills of his earlier black-and-white films were compared to the work ofpittura metafisica (metaphysical) painters, especially Giorgio de Chirico. In Red Desert, the title and opening sequences devoted to the skyline of the factories are an admiring glance, and the painting of the forest a foreshadowing of its necessary decline. It is Giuliana, in her assault of green, who is the ill-fitting object in the frame. The men, in their dun clothing, are like forest animals whose colors match that landscape.

When Giuliana approaches a workman eating a sandwich in that opening sequence, she craves the sustenance that he so easily relinquishes to her. That need separates her from the thrumming equilibrium of industry and technology to which he belongs. Giuliana’s neuroses may have predated the polluted environs where she and Valerio are forced to live, but Antonioni places her there in Red Desert, specifically in the waning forest, as a symbol of an existence in its death throes, the last spasm of a way of life that will soon vanish. No apparent nostalgia accompanies these images, because for Antonioni Red Desert is portrait of “nothing,” rife with a portent only for the audience who still resists, as Giuliana does.