Red Desert: Industrial-Strength Antonioni 

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Red Desert (1964)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Red Desert offers an industrial-strength treatment of Antonioni's great alienation-of-modern-man theme. Surveying an often out-of-focus wasteland, and the paint-job textures of various austere rooms (Antonioni confirmed to Godard in a 1964 Cahiers du Cinéma interview that his first color film was originally titled Pale Blue and Green), Red Desert depicts its protagonist's world as an optical illusion, a kind of Magic Eye from which an underlying pattern refuses to emerge.

Wife, mother, and prospective shopkeeper Giuliana (Monica Vitti, suffering, as ever in Antonioni, from an acute case of estrangement) is first glimpsed with her son, Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi), stumbling through a damp moonscape—and littering it with a sandwich wrapper. A petroleum slick has suffocated the trees and clotted the ponds surrounding a colossal power plant. Giuliana's well-adjusted husband, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), works inside the facility, but Antonioni shows us the factory landscape as she sees (and hears) it, productive only of a thick haze with which to enshroud itself: Smoke issues forth from smokestacks in giant plumes; tankers sound foghorns, their massive hulls emerging slowly from the seaside mist; even the muck smolders, as if in manmade imitation of some unholy geothermal event. Indoors, Giuliana often finds herself backed into a corner, as during an abortive love-in at a shed by the water. "What am I supposed to look at?" she wonders aloud at a window, panic-stricken. She later tells her mysteriously incapacitated son of a place where "the colors of nature were so beautiful, and there was no noise," visualized in the film as a pristine inlet bounded by flesh-colored rocks that seem to have been formed in man's image. In contrast, getting behind the wheel of a car seems to trigger in Giuliana an instant death wish.

She spends much of the film tailed by the melancholic Corrado Zeller (a conspicuously dubbed Richard Harris), an associate of Ugo's who eyes her with a more insistent interest than she's accustomed to—though as they edge toward the consummation of the affair in Corrado's hotel room, Giuliana sees him as barred off by the red bed frame. The vibrancy of such colors is crucial to registering her internal state of shock ("Streets, factories, colors, people—everything!" she says when Corrado asks what she's afraid of), making the recent refurbishing of Red Desert, long available only in degraded form for Region 1 consumption, essential viewing. It's worth noting that, while Antonioni's brand of modernist ennui might now seem mustier than his still hugely influential mise-en-scène, Giuliana's constant disorientation of scale is perhaps not so different from the vertiginous alarm induced by any number of recent documentary panoramas of industrial waste in the developing world.

Opens September 2 at BAM

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