An­to­nioni’s ‘Red Desert’ has im­proved with age

In light of gulf oil spill, catas­tro­phe themes take on deeper mean­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - MOVIES&LIFE - JOHN DE­FORE

I’ve al­ways had a tough time ap­pre­ci­at­ing the in­tense alien­ation in the work of revered Ital­ian filmmaker Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni. Four or five decades down the line, his char­ac­ters’ psy­chodra­mas are pretty easy to mock, even when other as­pects of his films (the per­fect time-cap­sule por­trait of Swinging London in “Blow-Up,” for in­stance) make them in­valu­able.

I men­tion this only be­cause I’m guess­ing I’m not the only movie lover with this hang-up, and be­cause re­watch­ing An­to­nioni’s “Red Desert” in light of re­cent events makes me won­der if the movie’s free-float­ing dread might ac­tu­ally have held up bet­ter over the years than I thought.

In the face of hu­man-made catas­tro­phes like the BP oil spill, why are we all not just as af­flicted by anomie as Mon­ica Vitti, who wan­ders through An­to­nioni’s blighted land­scapes like a lost and trou­bled child?

Con­tin­ued from D

The movie, just brought back into print by Cri­te­rion on both DVD and Blu-ray, is, among other things, an early en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist state­ment.

From its first scene to its last, it sets tiny hu­mans against the loom­ing poi­sons they’ve cre­ated: dunes of ash, mys­te­ri­ous freighters with dis­ease-struck crews, clouds of yel­low poi­son, and — BP alert — a stag­nant la­goon of petro­chem­i­cal runoff that has swal­lowed what must once have been a lovely Ital­ian water­front.

Vitti (who was An­to­nioni’s muse through a re­mark­able run of early-’60s films) plays the only char­ac­ter here who can’t main­tain a sane façade when wit­ness­ing the con­se­quences of her life­style.

Her in­dus­tri­al­ist hus­band might blame her per­pet­ual ag­i­ta­tion on stress fol­low­ing a car crash, but the truth is she sim­ply has for­got­ten how to care about any­thing in her life.

The ac­tress’ per­for­mance isn’t sub­tle by to­day’s stan­dards (hers is an antsy, cow­er­ing sort of de­pres­sion), but it makes her vastly more Ital­ian filmmaker Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni, above, en­listed cin­e­matog­ra­pher Carlo Di Palma to craft a film that, de­spite its flaws, is quite pow­er­ful. alive than the com­pro­mised char­ac­ters around her.

Vi­sion­ary psy­cho-en­viro- para­ble or not, “Red Desert” is in­dis­putably great when it comes to the im­ages on- screen. Made with cin­e­matog­ra­pher Carlo Di Palma (who later shot a dozen or so Woody Allen films), An­to­nioni’s first color movie is a mas­ter­piece of com­po­si­tion, ben­e­fit­ing from force­ful use of muted col­ors and an eye for beau­ti­ful de­cay.

Art di­rec­tor Piero Po­letto de­serves credit as well, with some of the film’s strong­est im­agery com­ing from its sets — like the tiny fish­ing shack with the blood-red bed­room that is torn apart for fuel by li­bidi­nous rev­el­ers.

Be­hind the cam­era, Di Palma some­times uses out-of-fo­cus scenes very ex­pres­sively. At other times, though, he seems to bounce hap­haz­ardly be­tween blurred and crisply fo­cused shots — a ten­dency that is more no­tice­able in high def­i­ni­tion. (As is the fact that, since his voice was dubbed by an Ital­ian speaker, co-star Richard Har­ris’ lips aren’t in sync with his di­a­logue.)

But its quirks do lit­tle to di­min­ish the hyp­notic power of “Red Desert,” a movie that seems des­tined to rise above its flaws for suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of skep­ti­cal cinephiles.

crI­te­rIon col­lec­tIon

Mon­ica Vitti, right, stars in Ital­ian filmmaker Michelan­gelo An­to­nioni’s ‘Red Desert,’ a film that makes de­cay look al­lur­ing.

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