Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 masterpiece, Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), was the director’s color film debut, and he chose an evocative setting and subject for the occasion: the coastal city of Ravenna and the industrialists that soiled its landscape with toxic runoff from the giant power plants that popped up near the shore not long after World War II.
Monica Vitta plays Giuliana, the delicate wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), a distant man in charge of a power plant that seems to lay waste to everything around it. We meet Guiliana shortly after her discharge from a hospital, where she was receiving treatment for shock following a car crash. Vulnerable and on edge, she needs more than her cold, indifferent husband can muster, and she tries to get it from Corrado (Richard Harris), her husband’s business partner. But the affair only serves to further fray Guiliana’s raw nerves.
Plot aside, the most memorable aspect of Red Desert is the film’s picturesque shots. “There are no paintings in my films,” Antonioni said in an interview on French television. The color in Red Desert, he insisted, serves the story and evokes emotion. Certainly Antonioni was a pioneer of cinema as an original art form, but his use of color — even the non-color gray — makes many of his shots worthy of a gallery wall.
But Antonioni did not exploit the novelty of color when it first came out. In Red Desert, color — the black sand, the green-yellow discharge from gigantic machinery — is an abstract, expressionistic tool. It is also a means to magnify character, such as when Antonioni places brilliant reds behind Giuliana when she is at her most manic and softens the hue to pink when she is subdued.
In a film set among the industrial ruins of post-war Italy, the most beautiful sequence in Red Desert is, fittingly, a fantasy. At one point, Giuliana tells her sickly son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), a tale about a young girl swimming in the pristine waters of a private cove. The only respite from the town’s oppressive scenery in the film, the sequence shows how badly Giuliana wants to connect with nature and how lost she is without it.
Though the story unfolds on a subtle, almost obtuse level — typical of Antonioni, a pioneering art house director — the narrative of Red Desert pales in comparison to the experience of the film. Watch it for Antonioni’s use of color, and for the luminous Vitta, and you will see why this film has maintained its acclaim since winning both the Golden Lion and FIPRESCI Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival 45 years ago.
Miami Beach Cinematheque will screen Red Desert at 8:45 p.m. on Wednesday night. Learn more on mbcinema.com.
Hans Morgenstern maintains a blog on independent film and music called The Independent Ethos. He has freelanced for several music publications, taught cinema studies, and worked in programming at local film festivals.