Colour splashes on a black and white land­scape

A re­stored print of the starkly beau­ti­ful may also help re­store the rep­u­ta­tion of its ne­glected au­teur, writes Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

FOR MUCH of the last cen­tury Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni was listed along­side Bergman, Ford, Hawks, Renoir, Mi­zoguchi and Kuro­sawa as one of cinema’s great masters. By the 1990s, how­ever, the Ital­ian di­rec­tor’s stand­ing was on the wane.

Younger film-mak­ers, with the ex­cep­tion of Todd Haynes, no longer stud­ied An­to­nioni’s sig­na­ture medi­um­long shot. More tellingly, L’Avven­tura (1960), once a sta­ple fea­ture of any canon claim­ing to rep­re­sent the great­est films of all time, had started to slip down the polls. Its com­pan­ion pieces, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), are now, ac­cord­ingly, al­most as ob­scure as An­to­nioni’s lesser-spot­ted early ne­o­re­al­ist films.

The di­rec­tor’s death in 2007 failed to in­spire a flurry of in­ter­est in the back cat­a­logue. Be­yond the Clouds (1995), his fi­nal film, nei­ther won new con­verts nor felt like a real An­to­nioni pic­ture. (In fact, it was co-di­rected by WimWen­ders.)

Hence this pris­tine, re­stored ver­sion of Red Desert (1964) ar­rives to mark the centenary of the film-maker’s birth and, we hope, to re­store some of the lus­tre to An­to­nioni’s once glo­ri­ous rep­u­ta­tion.

His fourth col­lab­o­ra­tion with muse and one-time lover Mon­ica Vitti is char­ac­terised by dwelling: dwelling on ge­o­graph­i­cal places, on states of mind, on an­gu­lar ar­chi­tec­ture. Vitti’s Gi­u­liana can­not shake a feel­ing of dis­lo­ca­tion: even her son is ca­pa­ble of play­ing cal­lous pranks on her. Carlo Di Palma’s cam­era sim­i­larly lingers on the fac­to­ries and smok­ing stacks of Italy’s eco­nomic mir­a­cle to post-apoc­a­lyp­tic ef­fect. The tone is re­lent­lessly list­less and de­feated.

As Guil­iana wan­ders around in en­tropic dis­tress, des­per­ate to hide her in­creas­ingly frag­ile men­tal state from her wealthy in­dus­tri­al­ist hus­band (Carlo Chionetti), she meets Cor­rado (Richard Har­ris), a busi­ness­man who has seem­ingly adapted suc­cess­fully to the new post-hu­man, petro­chem­i­cal pro­duced land­scape.Might he be a soul mate? Or might he only be af­ter one thing?

An­to­nioni finds a strange po­etry in the men­tal an­guish and noisy fac­to­ries. This was the di­rec­tor’s first colour film and, in keep­ing with the ti­tle, there are splashes of pri­mary pig­ments – red petrol drums, yel­low pol­lu­tion – dot­ted across each tableau.

Al­though much of the di­a­logue sounds dated (“You won­der what to look at; I won­der how to live”), time has been kinder to Red Desert than to the oc­ca­sion­ally groovy tril­ogy that pre­ceded it or the vaguely psy­che­delic films (the ex­plod­ing tele­vi­sions of Zabriskie Point, any­one?) that fol­lowed.

“We are all sep­a­rate”, sighs Vitti in his­tory’s neat­est sum­ma­tion of An­to­nioni’s ex­is­ten­tial oeu­vre. No won­der Ing­mar Bergman com­plained that the Ital­ian was just too darned de­press­ing for his tastes.

There is no men­tion of the eco­nomic tra­vails in this un­nec­es­sar­ily aus­tere doc­u­men­tary, but, within min­utes, it be­comes clear where all the loot has gone. Each year, the chef closed his res­tau­rant for six months to al­low a staff of 12,000 (or so it seems) to prod mush­rooms, in­flate cray­fish and smear frogspawn on play­ing cards. Only then would the menu be placed be­fore a rel­a­tively tiny band of pay­ing cus­tomers.

It is, even for those sus­pi­cious of lux­ury cul­ture, an in­ter­est­ing topic for a doc­u­men­tary. Un­for­tu­nately, as if cook­ing a par­tic­u­larly del­i­cate souf­flé, Gereon Wet­zel has elected to sit way back and make no im­po­si­tions upon the in­gre­di­ents.

We learn al­most noth­ing about the per­son­al­i­ties in­volved. Wan­der­ing ran­domly in and out of the frame, the chefs shift from one dish to the next with­out al­low­ing us to fol­low any project from in­cep­tion to com­ple­tion. No­body wanted a high­brow ver­sion of the The F Word, but a tad more struc­ture would have been wel­come.

That said, there are enough out­breaks of culi­nary weird­ness to keep true en­thu­si­asts dis­tracted. Mar­vel as the chefs care­fully pho­to­graph wisps of del­i­cately ar­ranged car­ti­lage or brown pud­dles of ex­pen­sive grease. Pon­der the puz­zling sug­ges­tion that all an ex­per­i­men­tal dish re­quires is a lit­tle touch of “mal­todex­trin”. De­spite Wertzel’s best ef­forts (or lack of same), the film ends up just about sat­ing the palate.

Still, I’m not sure I fancy the canapé of chicken “skin and ten­dons”. How­ever did elBulli’ go broke?


An Ital­ian state of mind: the orig­i­nal re­lease poster for Red Desert

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