Monday, March 30, 2015

Adventure in identity

Image result for monica vitti l'avventura
The iconic actress Monica Vitti in L'Avventura.
One of the movies that invariably finds its way onto my list of all-time favorite films is Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960). Very little seems to happen in this film: a party of the idle rich take a day's jaunt to a small rocky island where one of their party, Anna, mysteriously disappears. Her lover Sandro and her best friend Claudia continue to search for her in the towns of the area for several days, during which they too become lovers. Very quickly he is unfaithful to her, but she forgives him. End of picture (running time: 2:25).

This precis does no justice of course to what the movie is really about. Which is? Well, if you are interested in Antonioni's amazing cinematic style, style is substance and the artist's way of selecting images and placing the actors in interesting natural and architectural spaces is the end in itself. If you are more inclined to want to find a "meaning," then the existential philosophy of Antonioni and the European intellectuals of the time is a natural connection. The film simply underlines the futility of modern life through the shallow, sex-obsessed ways of the bored upper class, and the endless repetition of profane experience that gives no surcease for the soul.

My version of what existentialism should be is discovering the intrusion of pure existence into the landscape of what we call the real but is not in fact real at all, only appearance. L'Avventura is a film burgeoning with pure existence. It is fraught with the trembling ecstatic edge of possibility, replete with the meaning that passes understanding.

The opening catlike theme of the movie is a fantastic dance that announces that we are about to witness nothing less than a mystery story of the most intriguing kind. And that is exactly what we get: like many of Antonioni's films, L'Avventura is a mystery. The question is what happened to Anna? Did she drown? Did she slip away from the island somehow and completely leave her life behind? After all investigations and speculations, it comes down to this: we don't know. We will never know. The filmmaker has posed to us a conundrum and refused to give us the answer, after creating expectations that we had every right to expect should be fulfilled. But of course, what kind of conventional satisfaction are you going to get from an existential mystery, where every question is an open question, and the answers stay at last in the locked rooms that they inhabit?

The real mystery here is not what happened to Anna but what happens to Claudia. As she searches for her lost friend, she takes on Anna's identity. The first sign of this is that after getting drenched in a storm, she puts on a dry shirt belonging to Anna. Then she appropriates Sandro, Anna's boyfriend, taking her friend's place in that relationship and showing the same ambivalence about him that Anna did. Towards the end of the film, she has the fear that Anna has returned but she finds Sandro in the arms of a trollop instead. By accepting him as he is in the end, her quest comes to an end by finding the object (Anna) as herself (Claudia).

Against the primal pure existent background of the sea, the wind, the rocky island, the deserted towns, the silent architectural edifices, the characters shuffle between odd encounters with each other and minor disappearances which seem to emphasize the randomness and fragility of the patched-together reality in which they live.

The ultimate mystery here is the film itself, how it exists, somewhat miraculously, like a monolithic gnomon amidst the wanderings of bewildered humans.