Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Red Desert' gains import over years

John DeFore
Monica Vitti, right, stars in Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni's 'Red Desert,' a film that makes decay look alluring.

I've always had a tough time appreciating the intense alienation in the work of revered Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni. Four or five decades down the line, his characters' psychodramas are pretty easy to mock, even when other aspects of his films (the perfect time-capsule portrait of Swinging London in "Blow-Up," for instance) make them invaluable.

I mention this only because I'm guessing I'm not the only movie lover with this hang-up, and because rewatching Antonioni's "Red Desert" in light of recent events makes me wonder if the movie's free-floating dread might actually have held up better over the years than I thought.

In the face of human-made catastrophes like the BP oil spill, why are we all not just as afflicted by anomie as Monica Vitti, who wanders through Antonioni's blighted landscapes like a lost and troubled child?

The movie, just brought back into print by Criterion on both DVD and Blu-ray, is, among other things, an early environmentalist statement.

From its first scene to its last, it sets tiny humans against the looming poisons they've created: dunes of ash, mysterious freighters with disease-struck crews, clouds of yellow poison, and — BP alert — a stagnant lagoon of petrochemical runoff that has swallowed what must once have been a lovely Italian waterfront.

Vitti (who was Antonioni's muse through a remarkable run of early-'60s films) plays the only character here who can't maintain a sane façade when witnessing the consequences of her lifestyle.

Her industrialist husband might blame her perpetual agitation on stress following a car crash, but the truth is she simply has forgotten how to care about anything in her life.

The actress' performance isn't subtle by today's standards (hers is an antsy, cowering sort of depression), but it makes her vastly more alive than the compromised characters around her.

Visionary psycho-enviro-parable or not, "Red Desert" is indisputably great when it comes to the images onscreen. Made with cinematographer Carlo Di Palma (who later shot a dozen or so Woody Allen films), Antonioni's first color movie is a masterpiece of composition, benefiting from forceful use of muted colors and an eye for beautiful decay.

Art director Piero Poletto deserves credit as well, with some of the film's strongest imagery coming from its sets — like the tiny fishing shack with the blood-red bedroom that is torn apart for fuel by libidinous revelers.

Behind the camera, Di Palma sometimes uses out-of-focus scenes very expressively. At other times, though, he seems to bounce haphazardly between blurred and crisply focused shots — a tendency that is more noticeable in high definition. (As is the fact that, since his voice was dubbed by an Italian speaker, co-star Richard Harris' lips aren't in sync with his dialogue.)

But its quirks do little to diminish the hypnotic power of "Red Desert," a movie that seems destined to rise above its flaws for successive generations of skeptical cinephiles.