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Revisiting: Red Desert (5 stars)

BFI re-release of Michelangelo Antonioni's exquisite 60s film

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Revisiting: Red Desert

In 1964 cinematic maestro Michelangelo Antonioni directed his first colour film, the exquisitely expressive, elegantly tortured Red Desert. To mark the 100th anniversary of Antonioni’s birth the BFI are reissuing the film, restored to something of its former glory. Red Desert is a portrait of encroaching, inescapable depression set against a barren industrial landscape. Monica Vitti plays Giuliana, the wife of an engineer, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) and mother to a young son (Valerio Bartoleschi). A solitary bloom amidst an industrial wasteland, she catches the eye of her husband’s friend and colleague Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris) who is in town to recruit workers for an overseas project. As ever with Antonioni it’s short on plot and long on psychological anguish. Giuliana is shown to be mentally fragile, her turmoil reflected back at her in her surroundings – the poison escaping into the air, the masking fog, the destruction of nature, the cool blues and hot reds.

Red Desert followed Antonioni’s alienation trilogy – L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962) – and forms a bridge between those films and 1966’s Blow-Up. In the casting of Richard Harris, it would hint at a move into English-language cinema. Red Desert was a deeply personal project for Antonioni as he was inspired to make it after witnessing the violent transformation of the countryside around Ravenna, close to his home town. It explores the impact such devastating environmental change has on the human psyche. This would be Antonioni’s penultimate collaboration with the ravishing, enigmatic Vitti and the last they would complete as lovers (they would however reunite one final time in 1981 for The Mystery of Oberwald); and thus it seems fitting that every frame should be rich with sorrow.

Selected release from Fri 27 Jul.

The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso)

  • 4 stars
  • 1964
  • Italy
  • 116 min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Michaelangelo Antonioni
  • Cast: Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti
  • UK release: 27 July 2012

A woman who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown begins a tentative affair with a friend of her husband. Antonioni uses muted colours and an industrial landscape to magnificent effect, as Vitti's fraught heroine becomes dislocated and menaced by her surroundings. A masterpiece of cinema as art.

Elsewhere on the web

RED DESERT Trailer (1964) - The Criterion Collection

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