It’s already a few weeks since I’ve written here, and I realise I never wrote anything about my return to the Champo to see the next film Antonioni made, Il deserto rosso. His first film in colour. It was shot in the Po valley, around Ravenna, not so far from Bologna, not too distant from Ferrara, Antonioni’s home town.
Antonioni films in colour but there are no natural colours in the film — except for a segment near the end which perhaps serves the same function as the blast of colour in Wenders’ Der himmel uber berlin or the suddenly moving figure in Chris Maker’s La Jetee: we immediately realise how impoverished our screen existence has been up to then. Antonioni’s vision of the countryside of Emilia Romagna is of a terrifying blasted landscape where the rivers have been turned to sludge and the skies are filled with flame and steam. The cities that we see consist of monochromatic back streets where no-one lives and no-one could possibly live. And through all of that comes the famous fog of Emilian Romana, a fog which can linger for days thanks to the long low level plains where there is no wind, no air to move or stir things. Every so often, immense ships drift along the canals and waterways, materializing by magic, and they seem, perhaps, to offer in equal proportions the possibility of escape or plague.
Once again, the very beautiful Monica Vitti wanders in the midst of this awful desolation, but this time even less cognisant than before. The ostensible reason is that she was in an ‘accident’ but we know that it was really because of all those microparticles in the air, the heavy metals in the water, the constant noise and smoke. An abortive affair with Mr. Richard Harris provides no respite because of course Mr. Harris is there just to take advantage of her weakened state of mind and subsequent intermittent failures of judgement. And of course she can’t escape on any of the ships that slide terrifyingly close to her bedroom window because, alas, she can’t speak the sailor’s language to ask them for a passage to — wherever.
Watching the film, I could see echoes of two films yet to come — Lynch’s Eraserhead and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, both of which rather cruelly subjected their principal characters to the same overwhelming epic industrial alienation. Like Stalker, Il Deserto Rosso is an ‘inaction movie’ where the most important thing always seems to be what might happen — which does not, of course. But I appreciate very much the certain peculiar atmosphere these films have. Each shot in Antonioni’s film is beautifully framed and after fifty or so minutes of “beautiful” smoke stacks and power plants or close pans of the hypnotic regularity of antennaes of the Medicina radio telescope, one might even believe that this kind of beauty is the only kind of beauty which exists. It’s only when we travel to the distant island (recounted in a story by mme. Vitti) and we see the distant seas, the open sky and the blue waters below do we realise, actually, that this thing we thought beautiful is, in fact, very, very ugly.