(director/writer: Michelangelo Antonioni; screenwriter: Tonino Guerra; cinematographer: Carlo Di Palma; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; music: Giovanni Fusco; cast: Monica Vitti (Giuliana), Richard Harris (Corrado Zeller), Carlo Chionetti (Ugo), Xenia Valderi (Linda), Rita Renoir (Emilia), Aldo Grotti (Max), Valerio Bartoleschi (Valerio); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Antonio Cervi; Rizzoli; 1964-Italy-in Italian with English subtitles)

“Fantastically haunting psychological drama.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michelangelo Antonioni’s (“La Notte”/”Eclipse”/”L’avventura”) The Red Desert was his first feature in color, where he creatively used a unique palette of expressive earth tone hues to film the effects of fog, pollution and the shadowy bleak landscape. The director who is at the peak of his career after his acclaimed trilogy, which is noted above, makes an eerie connection in The Red Desert with the restless soul of the neurotic heroine yearning for love and meaning in her life to the shots of the inhospitable industrial wasteland where she dwells. It was filmed in Ravenna, Italy, and was shown at the 1964 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize. Antonioni’s fantastically haunting psychological drama that dishes out both feminist and ecological themes before they gained popularity, is both a beautiful and scary work that plays the troubling drama out in an industrial landscape that seems to be misplaced from the set of an H. G. Wells story.

Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is obviously bad news from the first moment she appears on the screen, as she seems unusually distraught and disorientated. She’s just arrived with her young son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi) at the grim site of the Ravenna factory, where her electronics engineer husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is the manager. There’s a thick fog covering the area and a foul black smoke coming out of the chimneys, and the workers are on strike at the power generator plant when she impulsively walks up to a stranger eating a sandwich by the roadside and she bravely asks where he bought it. Then she offers to buy it from him even though he already started eating it, and upon the purchase rushes off to a secluded marshy area to wolf it down in solitude.

Giuliana next pays a surprise visit to her husband, who is cutting a deal with an enterprising British mining engineer named Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). The foreigner is recruiting a specialized workforce for an industrial project in Argentina–where they must sign a year contract. In Giuliana’s absence, Ugo feels he has to explain his wife’s erratic behavior to the businessman and relates that she’s never been the same since she suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a near-car accident. Though suffering no physical injuries the beautiful woman was hospitalized for a month for an ongoing case of shock and hasn’t yet recovered.

The impenetrable Corrado is sexually interested in the woman and seems to feel a certain connection with Giuliana’s dissociation from the real world. As soon as he leaves her hubby’s plant, Corrado visits where Giuliana’s planning to open an unspecified business on a deserted street and is fumbling around to figure out how she should decorate the shop and what colors to paint the walls.

The stranger, who is just passing through town, becomes Giuliana’s anchor in the storm, as she knows her hubby no longer loves her and she is desperately searching for something tangible to hold onto. Giuliana goes to a nearby town with the ignoble Corrado visiting first the wife of a potential recruit for his project, and later Giuliana and Corrado meet with Ugo and some amoral business friends (Grotti/Valderi/Renoir) at a run-down fishing shack for an ungratifying parlor game of sex. Giuliana’s need to be wanted is further crushed when her son feigns having a serious illness during the time Ugo is away on business and thereby her role of a mother, albeit one filled with a possessve love, is also compromised.

Antonioni’s film explores Giuliana’s alienation and boredom, and her need to find reassurances of her worth through an adulterous affair. In the final scene Giuliana returns to the same spot where the film opened and explains to her son that the yellow smoke coming out of the chimneys is poisonous. Valerio asks, “Won’t the birds passing by get killed?” Giuliana responds “Birds learn not to fly there or else they will die.”

Vitti gives the best performance of her career, as she hurts all over and despite the pains realizes she needs others to survive–a role that gives one the shakes in how convincingly she pulled it off. She’s a typical Antonioni neurotic heroine trying to adjust to a life that has become overwhelming, as Giuliana becomes resigned that she can’t change the world and learns to accept her fate no matter how bitter the pill is to swallow. In a film where not much seems to be happening, nevertheless the heroine has gotten over her urge to commit suicide she exhibited during her hospital stay and seems willing to try to make her life bearable with her distant husband. Giuliana does this in a polluted environment, where all the people around her have been dehumanized and even a simple activity like fishing has been banned because of the polluted waters.

Red Desert Poster