November 15, 2018

Posted March 26, 2012 by Ed Goldberg

I was remiss in not posting about two Italian films playing at the Northwest Film Center, Rocco and His Brothers, already over, and The Red Desert, starting this Thursday, the 29th of March.
Of the two films, both considered classics, I would prefer The Red Desert.

Rocco was directed by Luchino Visconti, considered one of the neo-realist directors of post-World War II Italy. This genre includes great films like The Bicycle Thief and La Strada, grim and despairing in the shattered landscape and populace of that unfortunate country.

Born into wealth in Milan, Visconti became a Communist during the war.  Much of the Party’s support came form the impoverished south of Italy.  Some of that world view is evident in Rocco, but the film came out in 1960, and Italy was on the verge of a new era.  Federico Fellini was about to shift from neo-realism to the gaudier style we remember.

Rocco is operatic in style, schmaltzy and sentimental in equal parts with its grit and “realism.”  No surprise that Visconti directed operas.  Ultimately, the film becomes obvious and a bit trite.  So, missing it is not tragic.

Desert, on the other hand, was directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, a director who fails more interestingly than most others succeed.  This is not his best movie.  Indeed, it has been described as “vague and boring.”

The movie is not boring.  Vague?  I guess so.  I was never quite sure what Antonioni was getting at, beyond a critique of industrialization and its effects on the people.  On the surface, it is a story of a discontented housewife, Giuliana (Monica Vitti), who is married to the manager of a chemical plant in Ravenna.  The workers are on strike, and there is hardship.

Giuliana has recently been in a car accident, and she has become mentally unstable, according to her husband.  We can see that something is not right with her.

Corrado (Richard Harris) is an associate of the husband’s, and his company is seeking to open plants in South America, away from the pressure of the leftist unions.  Harris is speaking his part in English, which is dubbed into Italian.  This is annoying, but bearable.

Giuliana is having frightening dreams, her husband is unsympathetic, and Corrado decides to take advantage of the unstable woman.  When she leaves his apartment, she tries to speak with a sailor who can not understand her.  The theme of loneliness and isolation is underlined here.

It is difficult to decide what agenda Antonioni has here, if any.  A social commentary on the effects of Capitalism and industrialization?  The fragility of the human psyche resulting from this?  All?  None?
And yet, the film is fascinating to watch, not least because of Vitti, just getting her acting chops.  Antonioni went on to direct some seminal 1960s films, leaving the neo-realist conventions in the dust for a more impressionistic and existentialist vision.  Only four years later than Rocco, it is as if the old ways never existed.

It is also Antonioni’s first color film, and the palette of primary colors is striking.  Worth seeing.