The Illusion of Progress

Red Desert Revisited

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) is one of the most beautiful films ever made about ugliness.

Post-war Italy, according to Michelangelo Antonioni.

Or, to be precise, about how to find beauty anywhere, no matter how desolate or degraded the setting. But it is also a film about the perils of that pursuit, made during the boom years of post-war Italy, the period called its economic miracle.

At first glance, Red Desert’s deeply depressed protagonist Giuliana, masterfully portrayed by Monica Vitti, seems to be exactly what the film wants us to look for. Someone whose beauty transcends her inner turmoil and her bleak surroundings, like a colourful bird set off by the grey skies of winter.

The problem is that we not only see her, but also what she is seeing and, through a series of disquieting reaction shots, what she feels about what she sees. 

Because Giuliana cannot see herself, she is deprived of the beauty she represents and has to search for it elsewhere. 

Although that search is sometimes satisfied, as when she strokes the hair of her sleeping son Valerio, those momentary consolations pale before the ugliness that presses in on her from all sides.

Early in the film, Giuliana buys a half-eaten sandwich and walks toward the apparent solace of a grove of trees. When she turns around, however, she is confronted by the spectacle of pits of blackened, smoking refuse.

This is a hellscape, but one that doesn’t prove to be that much worse than the industrial areas that adjoin it. For a drama that otherwise strives to be as enigmatic as possible, it’s clear why the small shop she is fitfully renovating is on a street named after Dante, the greatest poet of the Underworld. 

If Red Desert recounted one woman’s struggle to stay sane in these surroundings, it would already be a remarkable film. 

What elevates it to the status of a masterpiece, however, is the fact that it also shows us what Giuliana cannot perceive, either because she is not physically present or because her privilege makes it hard for her to connect her suffering to the suffering of others.

In a scene near the beginning of the film, we see Giuliana wake up in a panic. She puts a thermometer under her arm to take her temperature, then gets out of bed and walks out into the hall. As she approaches Valerio’s room, we can see a mechanical creature with glowing eyes. Entering the room, she switches on the light to reveal that it’s a toy robot, crossing back and across the floor. She picks it up, switches it off, and then bends over her sleeping son.

It’s not hard to understand why she would find the toy’s movements distressing. Even today, we are made uneasy by the perception that technology might have a life of its own. Back in 1964, when computers were few and far between and even wealthy people’s homes were not “smart”, the prospect of objects acting this way inspired terror.

At the same time, however, we know that Giuliana must be aware of the existence of this toy robot, which was surely very expensive. It disturbs her for seeming possessed, but not for being an indication of her privilege.

The same goes for other items in her tastefully modern home. After leaving Valerio’s room, she walks back into the hall, existential panic written on her face. Unsteady on her feet, she looks for somewhere to rest. But the only place to sit is a minimal bench, the sort of mid-twentieth-century designer fare that forces people to adapt to its uncompromising aesthetic, an “uneasy chair” if you will.

We feel for Giuliana at this moment, no doubt channelling our own experiences of spending time in built environments that pretend to prioritise function over form, but end up doing the opposite. But there are limits to the sympathy she elicits. Although she may not find her home comfortable, it is the product of personal choice, unlike the austere apartment buildings constructed for workers in both the East and West.

While cavorting, though in a somewhat dissociated manner, with friends in a shack by the Adriatic, Giuliana becomes aware that the giant ship that has docked nearby has been put under quarantine, because someone on board is infected with a potentially dangerous pathogen. 

Her impulse is not to feel for the sailors confined on the ship or the doctor who had to risk his health to make the diagnosis. 

Rather, Giuliana urges her companions to get away from the ship as fast as possible and, when they fail to show the proper urgency, gets in her husband’s car in a panic and nearly drives it off the pier into the sea.

In this instance and others throughout the film, Giuliana reduces people outside of her moneyed social circle to instruments of pleasure or pain: the man whose half-eaten sandwich she buys; the wife of a worker being recruited by Zeller who gives her a glass of wine; a sailor she speaks to about her existential dilemma, even though he doesn’t understand a word of Italian. 

Although we feel for Giuliana when we see how clinical and condescending her husband Ugo’s treatment of her is, she treats others with similar coldness. 

This critique of the bourgeois protagonist’s blind spots could have provided the foundation for a more sustained political lesson. But Red Desert is not that kind of film, even though it forcefully communicates, through the bleakness of her life and surrounding environment, a profound discomfort with Italian society and the direction it was taking.

Although Michelangelo Antonioni’s leftist sympathies come through clearly, the director is more interested in problematising perception than telling audiences how to perceive. Like his next film Blow Up, Red Desert goes out of its way to show that there are different ways of responding to the same sensory input. 

The only other character besides Giuliana whose perspective we are encouraged to inhabit for any length of time is Ugo’s friend Corrado Zeller (played by Richard Harris), with whom she ends up having a tortured sexual encounter.

This strangely withdrawn figure, marked as an outsider both by his name and fair complexion, is the only one who tries to connect with her emotionally. And this effort, even if it is largely self-interested, appears to grant him some of her sensitivity. 

Zeller first meets her at the factory her husband runs. Although the way they make eye contact with each other suggests mutual interest, she is reluctant to engage. After she leaves them, Ugo explains that she was recently in a car accident which, while only causing minor injuries, had a major impact: “It was a tremendous shock more than anything. She spent over a month in the hospital. And the gears still don’t quite mesh.”

As Giuliana later confesses to Zeller, this car accident was a suicide attempt. But Ugo can only think about her condition with the dispassionate rationality of an engineer. She is a machine, prone to malfunctioning like any of the ones he supervises at work. 

Significantly, this conversation is followed immediately by one of Red Desert’s most striking sequences. First, we cut from a medium-close shot of their conversation to a long shot of them seen from behind. Massive amounts of steam are being released in the distance, making a loud roar. Ugo doesn’t react. But Zeller covers his ears.

The film then cuts to another long shot, from even farther away, which shows them from the front. We again see Zeller cover his ears while Ugo looks on, seemingly impervious to the noise. 

And then, because the camera is now positioned beyond the source of the steam, we see clouds of it gradually obscure our view of the men until their figures have disappeared entirely.

The final shot in the sequence perfectly meets the traditional definition of the sublime, in equal measure majestic and terrifying. But it isn’t produced by the vastness of the ocean, the dizzying pinnacles of the Alps, or the thunder of a massive waterfall.

This is an emphatically technological sublime, making human beings feel insignificant, not in relation to nature, but their own handiwork. 

What is more, as Red Desert’s depiction of the Italian landscape makes clear, its sublime dimension is inextricably bound up with the destruction of nature.

For this reason, Red Desert can be described as an environmental statement, of a piece with Silent Spring, American conservationist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book about the negative effects of pesticides, and with the then-burgeoning anti-nuclear movement. Yet that interpretation is also overly reductive. 

While Antonioni documents the destruction wrought by heavy industry, he is not making a documentary about it. There are too many colourful backdrops, too many shots that look like abstract paintings for us to believe that his main purpose is reporting the facts of pollution. 

In his comments about making Red Desert, which was his first colour film, and its successor Blow Up, it became obvious just how much he wasn’t trying to capture the world as it actually is.

In the former, Antonioni confessed to making the trees in the background of some scenes look much lighter than they actually were, to accentuate the fogginess of the coastal setting. 

In the latter, he shot over a number of months in a London park, during which time the foliage changed colour. To remedy this potential continuity error, he had his crew spray-paint the leaves of any trees that were visible. 

These are the sort of details that typically don’t come out until after a film has been made, ones which moviegoers may not have had the opportunity to learn about. 

For Red Desert, however, Antonioni was so intent on revealing the degree of artifice in his shots that he also included shots that nobody could mistake for realism.

Early in the film, after Zeller has gone to visit Giuliana at the shop she is planning to open, the two of them walk out into the street, the one named after Dante. 

Seemingly unsure about how to proceed, she crosses it and sits down in a chair adjoining a fruitseller’s cart. Every one of the wares in his cart is the same dull grey, a colour that no fruit, no matter how sickly, has ever been.

Then, towards the end of the film, during the scene of their sexual encounter, the colour drains from the objects in the room, turning a kind of sandy pink that recalls the colour of the beach she describes in a story she has told her Valerio in a previous scene.

These moments of what might be called magical realism dispense with any notion that Red Desert is trying to document objective reality. 

But they also differ from the sort of scenes where moviegoers are provided with the subjective point of view of a character who is suffering from hallucinations.

In other words, we don’t see the grey or sandy pink in these scenes as an indication of what Giuliana is seeing. Rather, we recognize, with a startlingly visceral intensity, that we are seeing what the director wants us to see and that his reason for showing it to us is aesthetic. 

These scenes clue us into something that is happening throughout the film, such as when the steam hides Ugo and Zeller from view. Again and again, we see – and hear – things that are disturbing or ugly, but in a way that makes them aesthetically appealing. 

This is surely the biggest reason why people love Red Desert. Few films come close to matching its transformative power.  Yet that power is troubling in its own right. 

On the one hand, Antonioni seems to be suggesting that we need to subject our sensory processing to radical revision, learning to see what is good in something that our native instincts tell us is bad. 

On the other, through Giuliana’s experience of mental illness, he indicates that the failure to adapt to this new reality might be the sanest response to the new world human beings have created, one which seems to demonstrate a collective death wish.

That this new world is witnessed in Italy, after the cataclysm of fascism and the Second World War, is not insignificant. The criticism is as local as it is universal.

Maybe the only way to reconcile these antithetical attitudes is to hold both simultaneously in what, for want of a less loaded term, we might call a dialectical engagement with the immensity of our own creation and the equally immense destruction that follows in its wake.

That Italy would fall into a quasi-civil war four years later, the appropriately-dubbed Years of Lead, which continued into the late 1980s, should come as no surprise. In many respects, Red Desert can be read as an account of the circumstances which helped trigger it.

Photograph courtesy of Criterion Films. All rights reserved.