Initial audience reaction continued the downward trend. L’Avventura was trashed by the crowd at Cannes, rejected as an overlong (145 minutes), soporific, pretentious work about shallow people and their trivial lives. Fortunately, a small band of critics recognized the film’s ravishing pictorialism in the service of a vision of modern life as a quiet hell of ennui. They managed to get Antonioni the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the first step in rehabilitating L’Avventura and securing its place in the upper tier of postwar cinema classics. Surprisingly, it was also a box-office success.
L’Avventura has a deceptively simple premise. A group of upper-class Roman couples takes a boat tour of the Aeolian islands. These pleasure cruisers include the couple Anna (Lea Massari) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Anna vanishes during a tour of a desolate island made of volcanic rock, and Sandro and Claudia spend the rest of the film searching for her. In the process the Anna-Sandro relationship is reborn with Claudia and Sandro, who ends up cheating on her just as he cheated with her on Anna.
Antonioni has been accused of creating stick figures, puppets of fate who move incomprehensibly against the director’s sleek, sterile backdrops, but L’Avventura in fact excels as a character study. Sandro is a typical Antonioni male, self-absorbed and shallow, grasping and self-pitying, with artistic pretensions based on nothing in his personality. "I saw myself as a genius working in a garret," he says. "Now I’ve got two flats and I’ve neglected to become a genius." Anna is one of the director’s powerfully unhinged women, seeing the world too clearly through the eyes of a temporary visitor to an alien culture. Antonioni never clarifies the secret of her misery, or her whereabouts, but offers clues to her personality in the few scenes before she vanishes.
Anna desperately tries to create a feeling of being alive where there is none. She interrupts the dreary leisure of the boat trip by pretending a shark is after her (a pointed metaphor for Sandro). Even her lovemaking with Sandro is shown as confused and disconnected, punctuated by jerky, uncertain movements as she tries and fails to connect with her lover. Despite being quickly dispatched by the director to an unknown fate, the idea of Anna dominates the film as a symbol of all that is unobtainable and unknowable in life. Claudia, on the other hand, is not part of the haute bourgeois world of her friends. She’s from a lower class and, in the director’s Marxist worldview, the only character who appears to have some connection with her own emotions. She initially repudiates Sandro’s advances, which happen too soon after Anna disappears, and she’s the only one who seems to really want to find her friend. These qualities of fidelity and simpatico are part of what make her attractive to Sandro, and make him betray her in the end.
The dissenters at Canne hailed L’Avventura "for a new movie language and the beauty of its images." One of the fascinating things about this director is his ability to create tension between a world of pristine, almost abstractly beautiful images and the emptiness of the lives that foreground them. In one of L’Avventura’s most powerful images, Antonioni’s camera looks down on Claudia as she stares transfixed into a voidlike ravine with waves crashing in and out; ostensibly she’s looking into the void that may have claimed Anna, who was certainly suicidal, but the ravine is an unmistakable metaphor for a world of primal, inescapable violence and inscrutability. The island, the film’s metaphorical center even though it’s only seen in the film’s first half, is alive with what Antonioni called the "secret violence" of life, constantly threatening, and sometimes overwhelming, humankind: an ominous hurricane on the horizon, a huge boulder falling into the sea, the probable absorption of Anna by the sea. In a 1961 interview, Antonioni quoted Lucretius in words that offer a perfect description of L’Avventura, indeed his entire oeuvre: "Nothing appears as it should in a world where nothing is certain. The only thing certain is the existence of a secret violence that makes everything uncertain."
Criterion’s print, a digitally restored anamorphic transfer, is gorgeous and sharp throughout. The two-DVD set includes an original trailer (unrestored), middling feature commentary by critic Gene Youngblood, the director’s Cannes statement, Jack Nicholson’s recollections of Antonioni and readings from his writings, a restoration demonstration, and an essay by Geoffrey Novell-Smith. The second disc contains a one-hour documentary made for Canadian television that is less than useful, being mostly testimonials to Antonioni’s greatness (it only covers his career up to 1966).
L'Avventura is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer with restored image and sound. The two-disc set includes several extras: audio commentary by Gene Youngblood; a 58-minute documentary by Gianfranco Mingozzi titled Antonioni:Documents and Testimonials; a selection of Antonioni's writings read by Jack Nicholson; a reprint of Antonioni's statements about L'Avventura, circulated after the film's premiere at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.