Watching Michaelangelo Antonioni's "The Red Desert" isn't an easy endeavor, an experience shared even by some of the other famed directors who watch his movies, like Orson Welles, who isn't fond of Antonioni's use of the long take: "I don't like to dwell on things. It's one of the reasons I'm so bored with Antonioni - the belief that, because a shot is good, it's going to get better if you keep looking at it. He gives you a full shot of somebody walking down a road. And you think, 'Well, he's not going to carry that woman all the way up that road." These days, we refer to them as real-time film making, a technique employed mostly by art-house directors like Nur Bilge Ceylan ("Uzak"), Tsai Ming Liang ("What Time Is It Over There", "The Skywalk is Gone") and even Jeffrey Jeturian in films like "Kubrador".
In the film, psychologically unstable housewife Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is grieving over an illness she believes would ultimately kill her. She doesn't tell her husband of her worries, but he knows nevertheless. And a new acquaintance, an engineer Zeller (Richard Harris) who's bound for Patagonia (an Argentine town, which is a take-off point en route the South Pole) to build factories, is waiting on the wings before Giulina finally accedes to an affair.
Giuliana's struggles are comprehensively documented amidst the backdrop of industrial pollution coming from factories emitting yellow fumes; rivers filled with sludges and refuse; cargo ships hoisting quarantine flags, etc. The initial picture painted is one bleak city (Ravenna); mud, cold, rain and low lying fog. But as soon as Antonioni lurches into Giuliana's gradual association with Zeller, the director's penchant for playing with colors came through, as this was the director's first foray into color cinema, and he had a field day playing with his saturated reds, and blues, and greens. Earlier critics refer to this as "exploiting color as a significant expressive element".
Antonioni's spare style and purposeless characters are on full view here, as well as his predilection to tackling issues related to factories and industrialism. I do not envy Monica Vitti's position, as it couldn't be fun portraying Giuliana, although I could be wrong. Some actresses welcome such tediousness. As a spectator, I sure didn't, except her scenes with Richard Harris who, as a younger man was suave and dashing. There was always an undeniable sexual tension between them, as early as when they were introduced by Giuliana's husband.
But watching Antonioni has undeniable rewards too. While he paints a gloomy picture of Ravenna, he pans his camera all over a city that has seemingly overtaken nature. The shipyard looks derelict, encumbered by a fog thick with pollutants. The roads a viscous sludge of muck, and people are getting sick from mere breathing of its air. It speaks of a world unviable to life. And this realization is echoed in the tormented Giuliana who looks at her world like doom's day waiting to happen. Zeller remarked about her dilemma: "You wonder how to look at; I wonder how to live" as he's never experienced happiness, thus he keeps moving from one place to another. In Giuliana's musings about her condition, he finally told her: You think about it too much." My point exactly.
"The Red Desert" is considered as Antonioni's "4th" part of his popular "Incommunicability" trilogy: L'Avventura (The Adventure), La Notte, and L'Eclisse (The Eclipse).
Monica Vitti was Antonioni's lover (and cinematic muse) for most of the actress-director's professional lives.
Michaelangelo Antonioni was born from a rich family, but he always favored the middle class as well as his poverty-stricken neighbors.