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Discussion in 'Archived Reviews' started by Matt Hough, Jun 16, 2010.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
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    Matt Hough
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    Red Desert (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1964
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 117 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: PCM 1.0 Italian
    Subtitles: English


    MSRP:$ 39.95

    Release Date: June 22, 2010

    Review Date:  June 16, 2010

    The Film


    Like many of his films, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert has its adherents and detractors. I tend to straddle the middle ground of the two views: Antonioni in his first color film is toying with hues through various intensities in a novel and galvanizing way. On the other hand, his narrative, true to his slow, deliberate style, is unremarkable and rather shallow, hampered by a less than commanding performance from his leading lady and a story that’s not very compelling. In the hands of others, something more remarkable might have been fashioned from this material, but central miscasting and the lack of narrative momentum sink the famous director this time out, despite the fact that the jury at the Venice Film Festival voted it the Golden Lion in 1964.

    After a car accident which has left her visibly shaken and unsteady (and might have been a suicide attempt), Giuliana (Monica Vitti) finds living in the ever-increasing mechanized world more and more a problem. Her husband (Carlo Chionetti), an enthusiastic participant in the world of manufacturing, seems unable to rouse her from her psychoses, even going so far as introducing her to a handsome salesman Carrado Zeller (Richard Harris) and arranging that they take part in an orgy with several of his co-workers. Her mental unsteadiness reaches a breaking point when her son seems to develop polio and Carrado comes on to her to the point of rape.

    Michelangelo Antonioni and co-writer Tonino Guerra’s attempt to depict the despair and alienation of a segment of society with the unending progress of the modern world seems somewhat ill-conceived and incomplete. Clearly, the director finds an innate beauty in the architecture of the factories, and the billowing clouds of steam they produce while operating aren’t actually shown in the negative. (Some acrid yellow smoke and some dark gray sludge, naturally, do get the point across ultimately.) He manipulates the focus continually, and he also toys with the colors throughout the film, of course, (spray painting lots of ash grays and blacks and browns over scenes and color timing certain sequences to desaturated the image) in an attempt to convey the misery of his central character and the general feeling of disaffection he wants the audience to grasp. On the other hand, a bedtime story to the main character’s son about a beach with pink sand is one of the film’s glories, a magical sequence with eye-popping color made to seem a fantasy long gone (even though the opening credits thank the owner of the property for allowing the company to film there; clearly it’s not a fantasy land.) But the film’s delineation of a troubled mind in a downward spiral just doesn’t have the electric sensation that such similar efforts as Polanski’s Repulsion or Bergman’s Face to Face offer leaving the central motif of the film rather hollow and underwhelming.

    Monica Vitti rose to fame as an Antonioni leading lady, but she’s overparted here with a role she simply isn’t capable of sustaining. She has moments of pathos, but she often appears rather dazed by what she’s being asked to do, vacant and distracted. Even worse is Richard Harris, ill-at-ease and awkward as the husky salesman intrigued by the troubled Giuliana. Dubbed with a voice that’s nothing like his natural instrument, his entire performance seems artificial and lackluster. Carlo Chionetti gets into the spirit of things with his supportive but thwarted husband Ugo while Valerio Bartoleschi makes for a sweet and believably curious child for the uneasy couple.

    Video Quality


    The film has been framed at 1.85:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Not only does Antonioni play with color during the film but also with focus making it sometimes hard to know whether a shot is soft on purpose or due to problems with the transfer. There are a couple of instances with a yellow band running vertically through the image for a few seconds, and some of the subdued colors do sometimes smear a bit. At its best, however, sharpness is beautifully delivered (you can easily make out the nap on the green coat which opens and closes the film) and skin tones, while sometimes on the wan side, also appear to be natural most of the time and are often quite striking. One screening of the movie, however, will allow the viewer to understand how very difficult it is to accurately assess the video qualities of the transfer. Subtitles are white and are easy to read. The film has been divided into 18 chapters.

    Audio Quality


    The PCM 1.0 audio track (1.1 Mbps) delivers the director’s intentionally distorted electronic music and sound effects quite well with a robustness that will surprise you. With all of the post synching, however, there is a hollow sound to much of the dialogue, but the track has been scrubbed of annoying aural artifacts like hiss and crackle and is likely the best the movie is ever going to sound.

    Special Features


    The audio commentary is by Italian film expert David Forgacs. He provides a scene-by-scene analysis of the movie and additionally provides background information on the production and its personnel and references to other works by the director and its stars. There are gaps, but he gets to the heart of the film’s symbolic and obscured meanings which makes for a very worthwhile track.

    Michelangelo Antonioni is interviewed for French television in this 1964 interview in which he discusses the themes of his film. It runs for 12 minutes in 1080i.

    A 1990 interview for French television finds star Monica Vitti discussing her work and personal life with the director. Though Red Desert is not specifically mentioned, there is a fair amount of discussion about L’avventura in this 9 ¼-minute interview in 1080i.

    There is 28 minutes of dailies mostly concerning the orgy sequence but also with other sequences throughout the movie. It is mostly black and white, but also some color footage is presented in 1080i.

    “Gente del Po” is a nonfiction short film produced and directed by Antonioni between 1943-1947 dealing with the farmers in the Po River Valley. It’s presented here in slightly fragmented form that runs 11 minutes in 1080p.

    “N.U.” is a brief nonfiction film that pays tribute to Rome’s street cleaners and sanitation workers. It runs 11 ¾ minutes in 1080i.

    The original theatrical trailer runs 4 minutes in 1080p.

    The enclosed 41-page booklet includes the complete cast and crew list, some striking color plates from the film, an essay about the art and artist by cinema teacher Mark Le Fanu, an interview with the director about Red Desert conducted by Jean-Luc Godard, and the director’s own notes about the two nonfiction works included in this package.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    3.5/5 (not an average)

    A slow and thoughtful meditation on the effects of creeping civilization on delicate modern psyches, Red Desert will delight Antonioni fans but will likely not win the director any new converts. The Criterion Blu-ray release includes an excellent  transcription of the film along with some very agreeable bonus offerings making for another successful Criterion package.

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC


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