Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura poses as a confounding poetic film about the purposelessness of a select group of Italians with too little to worry about not to continuously worry about themselves. On the surface, this film could be taken as a nihilistic view of a culture twisting its way towards the disposable and frivolous, a warning shot still reverberating, if not expanding throughout the globalized world today. Yet, Anotonioni’s film is stark, surreal, Absurdist, and dedicated to skewing both the conventions of narrative cinema as well as skewering the culture at large. After multiple viewings, I’ve come to see this film less as an allegorical “adventure” and more as a reduction of humanity to its barest elements. Late in the story, Monica Vitti explains that everything has become “hideously easy.” Therein lies everything Antonioni’s film sets out to explore. People create drama, goals, and difficulty as a distraction from the bitter truth that we are animals who die, disappear, seek pleasure, and worry primarily about ourselves. That this bleak view comes by way of a stunningly shot piece of work that finds no less than one breathtaking Italian locale after another, acts only as another layer for attempting to create purpose out of nothingness. The very fabric of L’Avventura challenges us because we are meant to seek meaning from a story where people come to grips with a lack of meaning.
Before Anna goes missing, she mentions that love survives stronger in the imagined state, when two people are apart, unable to see each other face to face. This makes direct allusion to people’s penchant for living inside a false self. Where most narratives tell the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, often driven into action by an inciting incident that presents a goal, L’Avventura carefully moves through space, forcing the momentous plot shift upon the viewer a third of the way into the film. This comes when the main character goes missing off the coast of a rocky island. At first, this would seem to be the shift that will take the plot the rest of the way. The pampered boat patrons do their due diligence by searching the island and even employing the coast guard. Once it becomes clear that Anna is gone for good, the people do what any group would realistically do: they move on. This isn’t how movies are made. People don’t give up in the cinema, they have a goal and they see it through. That said, to say that L’Avventura is like life is only partially true.
Most dramatic films train their cameras on the kinds of people who have to set goals and work hard to achieve them. That’s why poverty porn or down-and-out characters return over and over again. Similarly, a police officer, like a superhero, has an inherent duty to see situations through to their ends. This is why they’ve been a staple in multiplexes and on television screens for decades. It’s challenging to tell a story about people who have so little concern that they create emotions from thin air. Antonioni monkeys our expectations of narrative by throwing in an inciting moment that should genuinely spark action. However, people so used to inaction are shackled by their inability to engage. That somehow this film transcends just being about weepy rich people learning how vapid they are is a miracle, and perhaps can only be explained by the primal urges at its core.
To call L’Avventura a precursor to Reality TV, while particularly stupid-sounding, wouldn’t be completely off base. Like Keeping Up With the Kardashians makes our aspirations seem only a few sisters away, Antonioni makes vanity and inactivity feel understandable. And ultimately, this film challenges the drama we consistently seek out in our own lives, just to give us the sensation of movement. We prefer to live in our imagined self rather than be faced with the realities of our state as organisms. To my mind, Anna died, and that’s all there is to it. She went exploring on the cliffs, fell down, hit her head. and drowned. It seems almost naive to assume that such a simple explanation could be burning under Antonioni’s poetry, yet it feels as though that’s precisely the answer to each idea within the narrative. To think deeper about how we as a culture have become unable to separate the contents from the packaging is to start to illuminate how brilliant L’Avventura is. This film both comments upon and compounds our efforts to seek meaning even when meaninglessness has become apparent.