Movie Night With Urbaniak: L’Avventura

The first thing you need to know about L’Avventura is that it has no plot. The second thing you need to know about L’Avventura is that, in spite of having no plot, it is still tremendously exciting.

I don’t know how it manages to do that.

This was a rare instance of

  actually requesting a movie to watch, rather than the two of us just kind of pawing through my DVD collection until we find something we both want to watch. He showed up with the movie clutched in his slender, spidery, indie-stalwart hands, still it its shrinkwrap, still with the price tag from Amoeba on it.

The movie is loaded with symbolism, but the characters aren’t symbolic — they’re real people. At least I think they are. Every time I tried to read the movie as purely symbolist it would answer with a scene that said that it was actually a character study.

Come to think of it, the story structure kind of reminds me of Raymond Carver. It’s not about big moments, or about a coherent dramatic arc. It’s about these people caught in a situation and it kind of sits there and studies how the people behave. And all the incidents that make up the narrative are all really small and not necessarily significant in and of themselves, but are so specific, and so ineffably cliche-free, they retain our interest. We keep watching partly because we want to know why the people are doing the things they’re doing and partly because we want to know why the filmmakers chose to shoot the scene. What do all these little moments of behavior add up to? Will the trashy celebrity who shows up in Act III show up again in Act IV? Why this town, why this church, why this shirt, why this room, why this hour of the day? Resonances and echoes show up all over the place (just like they show up in that scene with the church bells) and every time you think a scene isn’t going anywhere the scene goes somewhere, but never where you thought it was going.

In other ways, the story structure reminds me of Kubrick, in that there are long slabs of narrative dedicated to illustrating one plot point and we don’t know what the plot point is until we arrive at it at the end of the slab. Those slabs are, roughly:

1. Let’s go on a cruise! (30 min)
2. Looking for Anna (30 min)
3. Will Sandro get a leg over? Will Claudia give in? (30 min)
4. Claudia commits (30 min)
5. Crisis (17 min)

1. So there’s this woman, Anna. She’s young and Italian in 1960. She was probably a child during the war. Her father is a builder of some sort. We first see her have a halting conversation with dad in front of one of his building projects. He’s tearing down some old buildings to put a new one there.

  says that’s a major theme of the movie: destroying down the old to make way for, what, exactly? The anxiety of that question hangs over the entire narrative.

Anna’s in love with Sandro. Or maybe she isn’t. Claudia is in love with Anna. Or maybe she’s in love with Sandro. In any case, there’s a lot of unspoken tension between the three of them. Maybe Anna isn’t really happy with Sandro and would rather go with Claudia. Maybe the opposite is the case.

This bunch of funsters go on a cruise in the Mediterranean with some friends. Their friends’ relationships are, to put it mildly, dysfunctional at best and doomed at worst.

Theyarrive at an island.  Folks go swimming, folks climb on rocks, folks bicker.

2. Somebody notices Anna isn’t around any more. The group searches the island. They call the police. The police and whatever authorities do things like this search the island. For 30 minutes we watch people climb over rocks and gaze into the water and wonder what the hell happened to Anna. Because either she’s hiding, which is unlikely, or she’s unconscious somewhere we haven’t looked yet, or she’s dead somewhere we haven’t looked yet, or she got on a boat we didn’t see and rode off somewhere. If she’s dead, she could be dead by suicide or by murder or by accident.

3. Apparently Anna is not on the island and nowhere near the island. The other couples go on with their vacation while Claudia worries about Anna and Sandro half-heartedly searches a nearby town. I say half-heartedly because, well, for some reason Sandro, now that Anna is gone, doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to make a move on Claudia. Claudia is horrified by Sandro’s advances — her friend-girlfriend -Sandro’s-girlfriend is missing and she feels guilty and terrible about it — this is no time to be messing around the ancient, tumble-down towns of rural Italy.

The narrative starts to splinter here as Sandro gets distracted and Claudia gets anxious. Sandro runs into that trashy celebrity mentioned above, Claudia gets caught at a society gathering refereeing for her non-friend Giulia’s (or is it Patrizia’s?) makeout-session with a Bob Denver-lookalike teenage artist, whose paintings are an affront not just to the beauty of the villa where he’s staying but an affront to their subjects and to the act of painting itself.

4. Claudia suddenly, and without preamble, gives in to Sandro’s advances and declares herself desperately in love with him. Maybe she’s been in love with him from the beginning, maybe she’s just recently decided she is, maybe she’s fooling herself. We know Sandro is a lout who has no idea what love is, that seems clear enough, but Claudia seems to be cut from different cloth. First, she’s the only one on Team Ennui who wasn’t born wealthy, second she’s the only one who carried any sense of guilt about Anna’s disappearance all the way through Act III. This is where I started to think L’Avventura is about postwar Italy, how a new generation chose to move ahead into some ill-defined bright tomorrow while others couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt and loss for what had been destroyed in the war. In any case, loss, the careless destruction of the old and beautiful, the replacement of the old and beautiful with the new and ugly (and profitable) is one of the movie’s ongoing concerns.

  griped toward the beginning of the movie that he didn’t like the actor playing Sandro, that he was uninteresting and shallow, giving a kind of generic “60s leading man” performance. By the end of the movie he had changed his tune, realizing that the actor was not giving a shallow performance, he was performing the action of being shallow, which is a completely different thing. That is, it’s not the actor who is giving a generic “60s leading man” performance, it is Sandro who is giving it. As Act IV goes on and Sandro starts to reveal his true ugliness, shallowness and restlessness he becomes infinitely more interesting. Conversely, Claudia, once she gives up on honoring Anna and gives in to Sandro’s indelicate advances, becomes slightly less interesting as she pines and swoons and tries on different outfits.

Why does Claudia fall for Sandro? We don’t want her to. If she always had a thingfor him, she’s an idiot, and she doesn’t seem to be an idiot. I prefer to think that both Sandro and Claudia had a thing for Anna and when Anna vanished she created a kind of relationship black hole that sucked Claudia and Sandro toward each other. Claudia becomes attracted to Sandro because they now have something in common — missing Anna.

Let’s say for the moment that Anna is a symbol for something really pretentious like “the soul of Italy.” The soul of Italy has vanished and only Claudia seems to really care about any of that. Sandro doesn’t care — he made his peace a long time ago that he wasn’t going to create anything beautiful. He had his chance — he coulda been a contender architect, we learn at one point, but gave it up for the short-end money. Then we see him knock a bottle of ink over onto a drawing someone’s making of a gorgeous church window. Sandro cares about the soul of Italy insofar as he wishes to destroy it as quickly as possible. To replace it with what? Well, that’s where Sandro’s anxiety comes in. He doesn’t have any idea what he’s going to replace it with. Maybe that’s why he makes such a fast move for Claudia — he’s just reaching out for the nearest available object to replace the hole in his soul that opened up when Anna disappeared.

5. Sandro and Claudia, having declared their undying love for each other, check into a hotel where their friends are staying. There’s a big party going on. Claudia is tired and wants to stay in the room, but Sandro gets duded up in his tuxedo to check out the action. Claudia can’t sleep and mopes around the room while Sandro wanders, bored and restless, among the empty suits and fashionable gowns. He sits down to watch a TV show in the hotel TV room. We don’t see what’s on TV, but it seems to be a show primarily about things that go “WHOOOSH!” He watches this scintillating program for a few seconds before wincing at it and moving on.

Claudia suddenly has a vision that Anna has returned, which she feels would be really bad at this point because it means that her love with Sandro would be doomed. She rushes downstairs to the empty ruined ballroom and finds Sandro making out with the trashy celebrity from Act III.

Claudia dashes out of the hotel, as one does in situations like this, and Sandro chases after her. (The trashy celebrity begs Sandro for a “souvenier” and he disgustedly throws a wad of money at her. She lazily gathers it up with her bare feet like an octopus capturing its prey.)

Sandro collapses on a bench and cries. Does he feel something? Is he worried about losing Claudia? Is he mourning Anna? Is he mourning his own soullessness?

Claudia approaches. A satisfying ending would be: she hits him with a big rock and screams “I KILLED ANNA AND ATE THE BODY, YOU FOOL!” But that’s not what happens. She should, at the very least, be very angry at him — he went pouncing off after Paris Hilton mere moments after declaring his unending love for Claudia — and did so while Claudi was right upstairs! But we watch as she balances that anger for a moment, as she literally balances her own self, gripping the back of the bench to keep herself upright. Then she places a hand on Sandro’s shoulder, as though to forgive him, then, incredibly, she moves her hand up to his head, to pull him to her, to comfort him.  We have no idea what happened to Anna, all we know is she’s gone and, as far as the movie is concerned, isn’t coming back.

(Idea for sequel: L’Avventura II: Anna’s Return!)

And then the last shot, reproduced above. Half mountain, half ruined building, the wounded, conflicted, embattled couple facing their uncertain future.  “The ‘adventure,'” says

, is the couple’s adventure into adulthood.”  “And Italy’s adventure into the future,” I add, half-heartedly, because I’m really not sure.

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10 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: L’Avventura”
  1. catwalk says:

    sounds like the kind of movie i used to catch on tv on lazy weekend afternoons sprawled on the couch surfing the channels until i found something that wasn’t a murder mystery, a romantic comedy, or a cooking show… always used to put me in a surreal mindset after.

  2. zodmicrobe says:

    I have to say… I never digged L’Avventura. I chalked it up as a “classic” I just never jibed with (similar to that whole indie “mumblecore” thing, the nuevau-Cassavettes Funny-Ha-Ha/Old Joy type thing which I just can’t deal with for some reason), However, your breakdown of it has spurred me to perhaps put it on my Netflix queue a second time.

    But not before Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters.

  3. craigjclark says:

    I caught this when TCM ran it in the wake of the Scorsese documentary My Voyage to Italy (which is a fairly exhaustive primer on the Italian Neorealist period). It was my first Antonioni and I have to say I much prefer L’Eclisse and Red Desert.

    • Todd says:

      Ugh — L’Eclisse is quite possibly the worst movie ever made.

      Or, wait — is that the one with the trucks that turn into giant robots?

      • Anonymous says:

        “Ugh — L’Eclisse is quite possibly the worst movie ever made”

        wait – you can’t possibly mean the movie that takes the one minute of silence in the middle of the stock exchange.

      • craigjclark says:

        Nothing that stars Alain Delon can be the worst movie ever made, so it must be the truck one.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Translator’s note

    “L’avventura” also means “the fling” — a fleeting affair.

    • Todd says:

      Re: Translator’s note

      I had a feeling that might be the case. When I was describing it to my wife this evening it occurred to me that on one level it’s a simple romance about the eternal triangle.

      • Anonymous says:

        Eternal triangle

        Your astute point about Anna’s disappearance creating a “relationship black hole” that sucks Sandro and Claudia together fits that interpretation. The movie also certainly works — at least a little — as a critique of the nature of Italy’s postwar economic “miracle,” with Anna as the vanished Soul of Italy. And then there’s that last scene, with Claudia’s almost maternal gesture of consolation and forgiveness…

        What makes this movie so great, of course, is how it operates on so many levels at once. In fact, it can’t be pinned to a single meaning: “it’s a romance,” “it’s a political metaphor.”

        I’m going to have to see it again (it’s been a loooooong time) to respond to your full post. But it’s interesting to look at it next to “La Dolce Vita,” which also came out in 1960 and deals with many of the same ideas in a very different way.

        By the way, La Dolce Vita has a scene in which the protagonist’s wealthy and disaffected lover, Maddelena, makes out with another (totally disposable) man not just after but *while* Marcello is confessing his unendng love for her.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Eternal triangle

          When the trashy celebrity showed up in L’Avventura I thought “Hey, she just wandered in from La Dolce Vita, but I didn’t know they were both released the same year. That’s quite a year.

          And Psycho, of course, completing the “Black-and-White-Modernist-Fuck-With-The-Audience’s-Head” hat trick.