Decades after its release, ‘Red Desert’ still delivers a timely message

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Monica Vitti as Giuliana

By Brett Kessler
Green Right Now

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (Il deserto rosso), released in 1964 and winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is an atmospheric drama whose carefully crafted imagery makes haunting poetry of the industrial world. It came out two years after Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, and like that work it marks a time when artists, scientists, and thinkers began to consider — with earnestness and clarity — the impact of industry and modernization on human life.

The film — released last week on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection — carries an environmental message made all the more powerful by the oblique way that Antonioni presents it.

Red Desert stars Antonioni muse Monica Vitti as Giuliana, a psychologically troubled woman who is alienated from both her son and her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), manager of the plant that serves as the film’s setting. In the opening scene, she wanders across a field of muted colors, wrapped in a bright green coat, while towers loom overhead emitting smoke and flames. The effect is chilling. Antonioni’s signature eye for composition and Carlo di Palma’s striking cinematography transform a landscape of factory buildings and petrochemical waste into a surreal world that is both beautiful and terrifying.

Richard Harris plays Corrado, a business partner of Ugo’s who takes an immediate interest in Giuliana, sparked in part, Antonioni suggests, by his ability to understand her deeper fears. He, too, is sometimes troubled by the world around him. At the same time, though, they are a mystery to each other. As in earlier films such as L’avventura and L’ecclise, Antonioni uses Red Desert to explore the unusual relationships that develop between characters in search of answers to their own struggles. For Giuliana, Corrado, with his talk of running away to Patagonia, represents the hope of a possible future, an escape from the cold monotony of her life.

Antonioni’s unerring precision as a filmmaker allows him to turn deceptively simple stories into profound examinations of man’s relationship – physical and spiritual – with his environment. The polluted river that runs past the factory, marbled ashen black and gray, is both a potent reminder of the effects of technological progress and of the weight the modern world places on man’s soul. Unlike some other filmmakers who have tackled ecological questions in heavy-handed ways, Antonioni lets the imagery of Red Desert speak for itself.

Red Desert examines the impact of industry and modernization on human life.

In the film’s most stunning sequence, a young girl swims alone along a beach of pink sand, an Eden-like scene of primitive beauty. Monica Vitti’s narration hovers over tranquil images of this imagined paradise. The story, which Giuliana tells to her bedridden son, is “an escape from the reality of her life, a way out to a world where the colors are those of nature,” Antonioni said in an interview with Jean-Luc Godard, included in a booklet with the DVD.  “The sea is blue, and the sand is white. Even the rocks take on a human form, embracing her and singing to her sweetly.”

The most overt “environmentalist” moment is a spare dialogue between Giuliana and her son late in the film, and its impact is heightened by the absence of anything similar preceding it. The two watch a stream of yellow smoke drift silently from one of the plant buildings, and after he inquires about the odd color, Giuliana tells her son that the smoke is poisonous.

“You mean if a little birdie flies there, it’ll die?” the boy asks.

“The little birds know by now,” she says. “They don’t fly there anymore.”

For anyone who appreciates thoughtful cinema, Red Desert offers a provocative, mesmerizing and timely experience.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

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