Welcome to the moral unknown: a video essay
September 30, 2015 § Leave a comment
“I am not a moralist, and my film is neither a denunciation nor a sermon.” So said Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni at the Cannes press conference for his seminal 1960 work L’avventura.
In this statement, which also contains his famous ”Eros is sick” remark, Antonioni expresses a clear exasperation with what he deems to be a schism between western society’s relative intellectual progressiveness and its archaic moral hang-ups (presumably the abiding influence of Catholicism in the case of post-war Italy). In Antonioni’s eyes, this fundamental and unhealthy inconsistency in the societal fabric insidiously finds a mode of expression in the realm of sexuality, in the broader context of emotional expression of course.
Considering the explosive blossoming of frank sexuality in western media during the late fifties and early sixties which, fifty years on, has yet to hit a nadir, it’s not surprising that Antonioni sensed something other than a society letting loose after an eternity of repression; that there was (and is) something slightly pathological about the near obsessive omnipresence of sexuality, representing – perhaps – an itching desire for connection, validation, escape, and who knows what else.
Yet, it’s this very wariness that threatens to paint Antonioni, his views and – by extension – his films post-L’avventura, in a decidedly conservative light. Impassioned and eloquent as his words are (so much so that I marvel at the very idea of him uttering them unrehearsed and off the cuff), there is something simplistic and needlessly binary about Antonioni’s comparison of ‘scientific man’ and ‘moral man.’ Moreover, his assertion that he is not a moralist is almost at odds with the supreme self-awareness of his cinematic approach.
So is L’avventura at heart a conservative, moralist work? Watching the film, Antonioni’s somewhat aloof visual and narrative style is anything but polemical or brow-beating, though there is a simmering undercurrent of despair and disaffectedness which renders much of the hanky panky devoid of joy or pleasure. This ends up being, in itself, an unfavourable comment on the sexuality of the characters. Perhaps it is a moralist film in amoral clothing.
On a more gossipy note, Antonioni and the film’s lead actress, Monica Vitti, were in a relationship out of wedlock; lovers. And while this might not mean much, it does suggest that at least two of the film’s key creators weren’t necessarily stalwarts of traditional Catholic/Christian values.
Having previously written about this film, which has become – over the years – less of a personal favourite while remaining a game-changing revelation, I find myself returning once more to L’avventura‘s final scene, in which Claudia’s apparent gesture of forgiveness and comfort towards Sandro the lecher could be perceived otherwise, specifically, as acknowledgement of the fact that he has finally become self aware. Following on from the idea that the film is about several characters happening upon a painful realisation at various stages in the narrative, and using Antonini’s Cannes statement as a guide, this is a brief examination of L’avventura as a film preoccupied with morality if not overtly moralist in itself.
Brief impression: “L’avventura”
December 22, 2014 § 1 Comment
It’s interesting to revisit a film whose first and only viewing was so seminal a moment in the viewer’s life that it was and has been considered an unwavering favourite in the viewer’s mind for years. Interesting in that those elements which initially seduced and bewitched on an almost purely sensual and intuitive level are now approached with an invariably analytical eye. Now that the packaging has been duly admired and fawned over, it’s time to see what’s inside, which in truth would be an erroneous assumption seeing as, with this and many of Antonioni’s subsequent films, form is function. On seeing “L’avventura” for the second time, the images are appreciated for more than just their crystalline beauty but for their role in externalising the interior, in being the visual analogue of the kind of spare modernist prose that can in a few choice words paint a terse yet lucid and eerily precise impression of a character’s essence, intellectual, spiritual and otherwise. Sure, the descriptive density may be low, but the accuracy of the few afforded descriptors is high, and higher still, their suggestive and implicative capacity. Similarly, the physical expanses and edifices, photographed with a challenging degree of patience, double as both the external world in which the characters materially exist and the mindscape in which so many find themselves so hopelessly lost. It’s not enough to view the physical world in “L’avventura” as being symbolic or expressive of the psychological; it is the mind of the characters that inhabit it.
The languid pacing, while often testing, is a deeply ingenious way to induce not only a meditative disposition in the viewer, but a state of mind which mirrors that of the characters in the film, characters cursed with an excess of leisure time so great that they are wont to spiral ever deeper into a vortex of their own inner conflict and despair. Rather than providing the viewer a comfortable boxed seat high up in the stadium from which to view Claudia and Sandro struggle with their dual allegiances to tradition and (at the time) counter-conventional modernity: the concurrent desire for externally prescribed fulfilment and that which is self –determined, Antonioni the director thrusts the viewer onto the lonely emotional playing field alongside the characters he has created and demands that they, that we, play as much a role in this game of the soul as does he, as do his creations. There are probably only two ways to view this film: complete engagement or complete disengagement. As a piece of cinema, this does not suffer the passive patron. It does not give unless given to, which is to say, offered one’s patience and capacity to empathise, or at the very least analyse. What also becomes clear is the artistic shrewdness inherent in the decision of screenwriters Antonioni, Bartolini and Guerra to shoot existential turmoil through the lens of sex and romance, or at least the quest for it. There is perhaps no aspect of the human existence that highlights our perennial state of fickleness, insecurity and confusion quite as unforgivingly as that which relates to the figurative heart and the literal genitals. Contained within and symbolised by the shifting romantic fidelities and sexual scruples of “L’avventura’s” central couple, the decisions and indecision and seesawing between neediness and stubborn yet fragile independence (particularly on the part of Claudia) is – to paraphrase the title of critic Pauline Kael’s disparaging assessment of Antonioni’s follow up to “L’avventura”, “La notte” – ‘the sick soul of Europe.’ The most surprising realisation reached on second viewing, however, might simply be that this film, for all its visual and thematic intensity and brooding, has scattered throughout it instances of dry humour of the kind used by deeply sad people to throw others off their depressive scent. These moments, while able to evoke a smile, a chortle or even just a transitory levity, only serve to highlight the pain belying the pleasure.
But of all the things which stand out on repeat viewing, the film’s final gesture, that of Claudia placing a hand on the head of a seated, weeping Sandro (whom she has just discovered being unfaithful to her on a sofa with a young married starlet), is suddenly a great deal richer than it initially seemed. On first viewing this action bore the scent of forgiveness. This is not to say that she doesn’t forgive him for his infidelity, granted their relationship is itself built on infidelity and the flimsiest foundations; the hand on the head could and probably does encompass a wide range of implications, and Claudia may very well be doing it for various reasons, some perhaps unbeknownst to her. But of all the possibilities, it’s tantalising to imagine that Claudia is perhaps welcoming Sandro, welcoming him to the realm of insight that she and Anna before her have been wandering through, or at the very least the realm of acceptance of the fact that something is not quite and has never been quite right with the state of humankind and with themselves. It should not be forgotten that Claudia is herself in tears when Sandro appears on that rooftop. Her distress may be related to simple betrayal, or regret for her belief, however fleeting, that something durable may have existed between Sandro and herself. Yet when she sees that Sandro, who has hitherto displayed only the slightest bit of self-reflection, is not only contrite but is clearly in the throes of an abrupt realisation that his soul is a void which will not simply be filled by sexual approval and conquest, she is relieved for his sake, though mutedly so. If the film’s central triumvirate of Anna, Claudia and Sandro are at different points along the road to modern self-actualisation, Anna is furthest along, her deep sense of crisis at the film’s outset and her eventual demise or rebirth (whichever the viewer chooses to believe she has suffered/undergone) being the catalyst for Claudia’s own existential awakening, and Sandro’s moment of painful clarity.
So is that the crux of Antonioni’s film: to beautifully, elegantly dwell on the misery of a subset of a subset of a species, one in helpless ontological crisis? Maybe. Perhaps it is a comfort to the average viewer to see that to be simultaneously beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed does not preclude one from suffering pain of a type unique to a beautiful, wealthy and well-sexed existence, which is probably not true. The pain most likely traverses all borders: racial, social, gender, class, aesthetic. “L’avventura” clearly has no answers, no truths or revelations that will guide a person down the path of true happiness and self-fulfilment, nor does it seem in the least bit interested in providing such unequivocal nuggets of self-help gold. If there are to be found in the film, this viewer certainly missed them. But one thing seems apparent; Sandro’s tears are as much a sign of discovery and personal growth as they are of anguish. Perhaps in this moment Anna has finally been found, somehow.