Illness abounds in Michelangelo Antonioni's 1964 masterpiece Red Desert, the director's first foray into (Techni)color filmmaking. Antonioni regular Monica Vitti returns as Giuliana, a woman recently discharged from the hospital after an accident related to her flawed mental state. But it's not just Giuliani who is ill; the entire backdrop that constitutes the world in Red Desert is an industrial nightmare, wheezing and coughing up various colors of smoke and haze, birthing an environment that mirrors our protagonist's cluttered and fragmented vision of a terrible reality.
Against this image of a ravaged landscape, Giuliana travels from place to place as if experiencing a vision, one where only she can see the natural being supplanted by the man-made. Yes, there are signs that the environmental spaces depicted are objective: both her husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), and his business associate, Corrado (Richard Harris, looking here at times like a young Marlon Brando), witness a monumental amount of built up exhaust being released from the factory that Ugo manages, while her young son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), asks why the smoke funneling out of the factory is yellow.
Giuliana's crisis, however, seems to derive from her inability to see these signs of the modern age as the progress that Corrado interprets them as being. She may also be experiencing an existentially felt sense of responsibility for the wreckage she witnesses; after all, her husband supports their bourgeois lifestyles with his job at the plant. No one else in the film seems at odds with their surroundings, while Giuliana struggles ceaselessly against them.
Much like in his 1975 film, The Passenger, Antonioni departs from the main narrative in the third act for a short tale relayed by one character to another. In both films, the story is allegorical, aiding in the viewer's understanding of the exceedingly elliptical, primary storyline. Giuliana tells her son of a girl who lives in isolation on an island that is quite the opposite of the polluted spaces seen in the rest of the film. Paralleling Giuliani's predicament, the island girl stumbles upon an essential truth pertaining to her surroundings.
A helpful bit of context when viewing the film: Red Desert appeared within two years of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a text often credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement. Whether or not Antonioni's film was directly influenced by Carson's book, it's really difficult to talk about Red Desert without at least acknowledging the impact that the environmental movement has on one's understanding of the film. It's possible to imagine Red Desert as a poetic lens through which to view the urgency of environmental concern or, conversely, a conceptual piece driven by the zeitgeist of the early-to-mid 60s environmental consciousness.
Red Desert plays at the NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium (in the Portland Art Museum) on Thurs., March 29th through Sun., April 1st at 7pm.
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