Written by Toby Wertime
On February 2nd, Monica Vitti, the most recognizable actress of her day, passed away aged 90. Those accustomed to modern filmmaking may be unfamiliar with her work. This is no surprise. Vitti’s last feature, Secret Scandal, was released more than 30 years ago. Yet, Vitti’s indelible mark on cinematic history cannot be understated. This impact was best summarized in a short statement issued by the Italian Minister of Culture: “Addio a Monica Vitti, addio alla regina del cinema italiano.” Or, as translated to English: “Farewell to Monica Vitti, farewell to the Queen of Italian Cinema.”
Her legacy was inextricably – and as others have pointed out, somewhat deliberately – tied to that of frequent collaborator and lover Michelangelo Antonioni. In the early 1960’s, they made four films together; a canon of works that took the proverbial sledgehammer to the accepted norms of cinema and, in their wake, left a blueprint for what a film could and should look like. None of those films was more important, more polarizing, and more celebrated than the first, L’Avventura (The Adventure).
Vitti stars as Claudia, a young woman who takes a vacation with her friend Anna, and Anna’s boyfriend, Sandro. Anna disappears under mysterious circumstances and Claudia and Sandro are tasked with finding her. Simple, right? Not so fast. At the time it came out, L’Avventura was a very different movie. Antonioni crafted a narrative exploring a creeping pessimism pervading the modern world. Technically, he placed “the burden of narration almost entirely on the image itself… on the character’s actions and on the visual surface of their environment.” This filmmaking process called for actors who were adept at exhibiting emotional range uncommon in films before it. Not only did Vitti rise to this challenge, but her performance cemented her as one of the all-time greats.
L’Avventura’s rise has since become the stuff of legends. At first, there were tears. During the film’s initial screening at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, audiences loudly jeered the film’s long, pensive sequences – undeniably the film’s staple visual feature – reducing Vitti to tears. To many, L’Avventura was a cultural obscurity, so unapologetically esoteric and languid that few could take it seriously. A New York Times columnist decried the film, noting that he wished that Antonioni “would help us a bit along the way.” Yet, as days passed, the plaudits rolled in. An open letter, led by Roberto Rosselini and signed by leading filmmakers and critics of the time declared L’Avventura “the best movie ever screened at [Cannes].” It went on to win that year’s Jury Prize and, as they say, the rest was history.
Plaudits aside, some 60 years after its polarizing Cannes debut, L’Avventura has graduated into an almost mythic echelon of films. In the relatively short lifespan of cinema, few films are universally considered as one of “The Greats.” Even fewer are considered era-defining. Or, as the late film theorist Gene Youngblood once wrote of L’Avventura, “[i]t divided film history into that which came before and that which was possible after its epochal appearance. It expanded our knowledge of what a film could be and do. It is more than a classic, it’s an historical milestone.” Such adulations are in no short supply. Indeed, the Criterion Channel – the streaming service I used to re-watch this movie – synopsis of the movie reads, “Antonioni invented a new film grammar with this masterwork.”
But what makes L’Avventura so different to the movies that came before it? At a superficial level, Antonioni adopted a variety of novel aesthetic techniques. Most notably, the film is punctuated with long, static sequences of nature, vehicles passing by, and characters arrested in deep thought. This defined a new aesthetic domain of inaction. This form is, quite literally, antithetical to the title of the film. But the aesthetic form evokes a scintillating contradiction, one that belies definition and suggests richer meaning beneath the surface.
In order to situate L’Avventura in the annals of cinematic history, one must interrogate the philosophical basis of the filmmaker himself. In a press conference following Cannes, Antonioni framed L’Avventura in the context of a shifting cultural paradigm facing the modern world:
Today the world is endangered by an extremely serious split between a science that is totally and consciously projected into the future, and a rigid and stereotyped morality that all of us recognize as such and yet sustain out of cowardice and sheer laziness. Where is this split most evident? What are its most obvious, its most sensitive, let us even say its most painful, areas?
He viewed this schism not as one that he hoped, or that he thought could, be rectified – but instead, as one that was “misunderstood.” One feature, he suggests, of this misunderstanding is eroticism. But he poignantly declares, “Eros is sick” and the misery of his characters stems from an “erotic impulse,” one that is “unhappy, miserable, futile.”
Fundamentally, L’Avventura is a story about spiritual absence. “For Antonioni's idle and decadent rich people,” Roger Eber writes, “pleasure is anything that momentarily distracts them from the lethal ennui of their existence.” Indeed, as the New Yorker’s erstwhile film critic, Pauline Kael, observes, “[t]oo shallow to be truly lonely, they are people trying to escape their boredom in each other and finding it there.” Fifteen years after the world emerged from the clutches of war, Antonioni became the first of many auteurs to capture and narrate the growing listlessness felt by the West – one instilled by a futile attempt to abide by a “decript and no longer tenable” moral code. The result: a hypnotic expression of ennui; the birth of the filmmaking grammar of malaise; and a film that served as the harbinger for the pessimism pervading modernity and defined the artistic milieu of decade that followed it.
Much credit has been bestowed at the feet of Antonioni. Yet, what’s often missing from these conversations is a recognition of the sheer difficulty of bringing that vision to life. Exceptional filmmaking is, amongst other things, the result of a symbiotic process between the filmmaker and their actors. As much as Monica Vitti’s success was due to Michelangelo Antonioni, Antonioni’s success was the product of Vitti’s generational talent. Before L’Avventura, Antonioni enjoyed little success as a filmmaker and, at the age of forty-six, thought about quitting filmmaking entirely. Instead, he found an actress who was able to deftly articulate the spiritual contradictions fundamental to his work and worldview. The film critic Gilberto Perez fabulously argues that “none has made a woman his surrogate in the way that Antonioni has Monica Vitti.”
At a high-level, Antonio’s philosophical underpinnings implies a spiritual decay. For this decay to resonate widely, the characters must undergo transformation without evoking contrivance. In various respects, Vitti – through her character, Claudia – owned these transformations and made Antonioni’s vision her own.
Claudia is introduced to us as merely a secondary character – the friend of Anna, the film’s initial protagonist. Anna appears to live the sought-after life. She is wealthy, attractive, and engaged to Sandro, who also happens to be wealthy and attractive. And yet, she is hopelessly jaded. Here, Claudia’s role is akin to a muted sounding board. She can’t grasp her friend’s misery. She isn’t as wealthy, isn’t engaged, but also does not share her pessimism. As the characters begin the “adventure”, and travel around the Sicilian islands, we realize that most of the characters are more akin to Anna than to Claudia. They hold deeply bourgeois sensibilities, trade jabs and undermine and each other, and most importantly, complain. Frequently. The apex of this early ennui manifests when Anna admits to Claudia that an earlier shark sighting was a lie. “It’s Sandro, I suppose,” Anna remarks. She confronts Sandro, and as he attempts to placate her, she poses her misery as a contradiction: “The idea of losing you makes me want to die. And yet, I don’t feel you anymore.” Her emotional fatigue galvanizes strange behaviors, ones that amount to a cry for help, perhaps testing the waters for how those would react if she was to disappear entirely.
By this point in the film, Claudia assumes the role of the spectator. As the other characters bemoan their respective partners and the trivial, she patiently sits – often in the background of scenes – and smiles. She’s too unacquainted with the rest to comment, but in conversations with Anna, her remarks insinuate a blissful naiveté of the crumbling bourgeois world around her. Vitti appears to be comfortable in this role, at times blending into the background when the script calls for it. While this may not emphasize her talent, it demonstrates one end of an exceptional range displayed throughout the rest of the film.
Of course, Anna, our protagonist, disappears – setting the movie into motion. Unbeknownst to Claudia, she is thrust into a quasi-protagonist role. Long take of her searching for Anna predominate the story, and the audience gets a taste of Vitti’s magnificent acting. During these long sequences, we begin to see her increasingly worried and frayed, whereas her counterparts remain emotionally apathetic and fixated on their own issues. These juxtapositions reach a boiling point as Claudia runs out into the rain and screams: “Anna!” Vitti, all on her own, captures the emotional weight of such a traumatic event, and in the process, she effectively illustrates the emotional dearth of the other characters.
Sandro, a mere day after Anna’s disappearance, begins to make his advance on Claudia, and kisses her before departing from the island. These advances persist as they return to the mainland and continue their search for Anna. Claudia rebuffs him, showing a clear disgust for his actions. However, throughout these sequences, Vitti’s acting reveals a genuine internal conflict: Sandro’s attract, despite the recency of Anna’s disappearance, is alluring – regardless of how morally incorrect it is. This conflict forms the basis of Claudia’s own moral decay –central feature of the plot.
Anna eventually rendezvouses with her new bourgeois friends from the boat at an opulent villa. Giulia, another jaded unhappily married socialist, begins to flirt openly with a young, unbearably pretentious, minor prince. She eventually gives into his advances, taking particularly to compliments of her appearance. Here, as before, Claudia is playing the role of spectator. In a microcosm, Claudia observes her friend act against her better judgment in the name of spite. This moral decay stars Claudia in the face, quite literally – Giulia begins to make love with the Prince in Claudia’s presence and directs Claudia to tell her husband about her infidelity. Claudia has yet to fully assume the role of the protagonist, because in order to do so, she, too, must discard her moral virtues and join the rest in their spiritual dearth.
She eventually re-joins Sandro in his quest to find Anna and, shortly after arriving in a town where Anna had been spotted, fully gives into Sandro’s tenderness. They begin to make love in a field, and she showers him with adoration. “My Love,” she whispers to him. “Mine.” This marks the most profound shift in Claudia’s character arc. She fully assumes the role of the protagonist; she transforms from the spectator into the performer; and she becomes one of them. Indeed, the object of her concern– finding Anna – becomes secondary to her love of Sandro. A paradox ensues. They continue to look for Anna – but Claudia’s thoughts no longer rest on finding her. Instead, she becomes fixated on the potential awkwardness that would arise of Anna were alive. Vitti expertly navigates these profound character transformations so that, even though we disagree with Claudia’s choices, we can empathize with the internal conflict she faces.
The end of the movie symbolizes the end of Claudia’s disenchantment. Despite various leads, Anna is relegated to a Schrodinger’s Cat-like figure, and our protagonists give up their search. They return to their bourgeois surroundings, and while Claudia’s infatuation for Sandro grows, his clearly wanes. His boredom leads him to another attractive socialist, and Claudia catches them in the act. Rather than internalizing the contrivance of his love and lack of any moral standing, the movie ends with her comforting – and implicitly, forgiving him.
Here, we see the result of a startling character transformation. Over the course of 143 minutes, we see the moral and spiritual decay of a character – predicated on the issues outlined by Antonioni in his Cannes statement. Claudia, who is first shown to us unassumingly in the background transforms into the epitome of Antonini’s worldview. The enormity of this cinematic task could not be appreciated if told by inferior actors. However, the emotional range, flexibility and thoughtfulness of Monica Vitti’s acting made the movie what it is today: an era-defining achievement. Those who jeered L’Avventura at Cannes – particularly, the scenes of Vitti staring off into the great unknown – did not realize what they were playing witness to: Vitti’s coronation as the Queen of cinema.
Vitti’s working relationship with Antonioni would result in three more movies created in similar mold to L’Avventura, and her career would last several decades after that. Though she took a shy turn towards the public eye in her later years, the weight of her accomplishments will be felt long past her death – until cinema ceases to be an artform. The Queen of cinema has died; may she rest in peace.