A haunting and moody portrait of alienation in a modern world, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert is a masterwork of both tone and image. Antonioni develops an all-encompassing — almost smothering — sense of aloneness with a series of beautifully composed shots that often pit humanity against machinery. Working for the first time in color, he creates striking portraits with often unnatural hues bursting out of the dreariness of the rest of the frame.
An examination of the moral and psychological implications of a technologically advancing society, Red Desert nonetheless is relentlessly ambivalent, with shots of industry at progress both horrifying — bodies of water turned into sludge; pillowing clouds of poisonous yellow smoke — and majestic, in a way — towering identical machines that possess a kind of sublime symmetry.
Wandering the industrial landscape is Giuliana (Monica Vitti), the wife of plant manager Ugo (Carlo Chionetti). Giuliana is in a kind of perpetually shell-shocked state, having just recovered from a hazily detailed car accident, but for all the mystery surrounding that incident, she seems to be a very vulnerable person — almost involuntarily offering herself to someone, anyone. In the process, she finds Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), a co-worker of her husband’s who takes a detached interest in her immediately. The two flirt, traversing the barren landscape and examining a storefront in town where Giuliana inexplicably wants to open a gallery.
Red Desert is known for its painting-like images, and Antonioni’s consistently astonishing compositions make the source of that reputation quite evident. He famously painted some natural objects in certain scenes — indicative of the film’s larger aesthetic of painting with the camera. Pervasively drab though it may be, the film introduces shocks of color frequently.
Vitti turns in a wonderfully understated performance as Giuliana, opening up from her initial quiet desperation to a kind of hesitant inhibition in a key scene with a group of friends inside a sleepy fishing cottage to revealing as much of her inner self as possible in a beautifully realized interlude where she tells her child a story. The character is on a journey to nowhere, and these glimpses never give us a true understanding of her inner state, but the ambivalence extends beyond Giuliana all the way to the hulking machines that dominate the landscape. Antonioni creates a meditative atmosphere with Red Desert, masterfully examining feelings of isolation that perhaps no one can explain.
The Blu-ray Disc
Red Desert is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. At first blush, the presentation here is perhaps a little less visually striking than most of the other fantastic Criterion Blu-rays, although clarity and a nice film-like grain structure are quite nice. Still, it becomes clear that this is a very solid transfer, with color contrast between the monotony of the landscape and colors such as Giuliana’s green jacket or the yellow smoke from the factories looking very strong. The presentation captures the visual aesthetic nicely, and the fantasy interlude, with a pink sand beach and crystal clear water, is absolutely gorgeous. The print does have several instances of fairly significant damage, but overall, it’s been cleaned up very well.
The audio, presented in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, features typically over-dubbed Italian dialogue, which doesn’t have much oomph, but is plenty clear. The film is often very quiet, resulting in a clean track that is pretty much completely free of hissing. The metallic, droning portion of the score by Vittorio Gelmetti is particularly striking.
Supplements on the disc include an audio commentary ported over from the BFI edition by Italian film scholar David Forgacs as well as archival interviews with Antonioni and Vitti and about 30 minutes of silent dailies from the original production. The highlights of the extras are two short films from Antonioni — early short documentaries with a neorealist flair. "Gente del Po" (1943-1947) looks at the lives of people living in the Po Valley, while "N.U." (1948) examines the tasks of street cleaners in Rome. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer and a booklet with an essay by Mark Le Fanu and an Antonioni interview by Jean-Luc Godard for Cahiers du Cinéma.
The Bottom Line
The beautiful and haunting images of Red Desert stick with you long after the film is over. Highly recommended.