Yuri Sangalli (University of Toronto)
Interiorized Settings in Antonioni's Tetralogia

I. Tetralogia
II. L'avventura
III. La notte
IV. L'eclisse
V. Deserto rosso
VI. Works cited

§ II. L'avventura

I. Interiorized Settings in Antonioni's Tetralogia

[...] modern man lives in a world without the moral tools necessary to match his technological skills; he is incapable of authentic relationships with his environment, his fellows, or even the objects which surround him because he carries with him a fossilized value system out of step with the times.1 (Amberg, 213)

After recognizing the substantial bond between character and setting in Story and Discourse Seymour Chatman, in the work's conclusion, defines studies of setting as "practically terra incognita" (264). This type of study has not been carried out for L'avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and Deserto Rosso (The Red Desert, 1964). The four films converge in concepts and method and have become known as the "Tetralogy".2 Most strikingly, in each case the director favours a complex and abstract mode of expression which tends toward relating a character's emotional progress to his or her setting. Consider the desolate landscapes of L'avventura, the contemporary functional architecture and maze-like urban-industrial settings of La notte and L'eclisse, the expressive use of colour in Deserto Rosso or the emphasis placed on the emotional distance between characters, poetically suggested by appropriate backdrops, by ringing telephones that remain unanswered and by the frequent use of thresholds, doorframes, windows, fences, walls and hallways that constantly frame the isolated and foiled protagonists. The emphasis on the urban-industrial context, the atypical story construction, the minimal role of direct speech and, in particular, the camera movements are unique methods of cinematic expression. Thus, Antonioni's Tetralogia represents a most appropriate corpus of films to examine for the purpose of any study concerned with a serious approach to the relation between the two types of existents3 in question. The bond between character and setting will be examined in each film as peculiar instances surface in the Tetralogy where the relation is strongly stated: the island setting in L'avventura, the closed urban spaces in La notte, the stock exchange in L'eclisse and the industrial settings of Deserto rosso.
The four films reveal Antonioni's mastery and firm control over every detail of the visual arrangement of his images: the representation of and the relation between 'inside and outside', which is to say between a protagonist's intimate state and the dehumanized setting, is a matter of striking prominence with this director. In fact, the interiorization of the contemporary landscape and, likewise, the exteriorization of a character's inner life is the key issue of the works themselves. Simultaneously the films raise questions about perspective, particularly with regards to the point of view of characters acting as witnesses to the action. The limits of the 'witness' standpoint are repeatedly stated. Often there is an inability to transcend such limits and to find words or appropriate responses to events and actions. Significantly, the camera movements point to a deceivingly quasi-documentary recording and understanding of the characters and their precarious ties to their 'habitat'; more precisely they are used to indicate the problematic psychic states of the individual in the contemporary environment. Ultimately, a sort of subjective, psychological realism seems to surface.
Yet the outcome of this type of inquiry is invariably disappointing:

There is hardly a single film of Antonioni's which does not involve, or is not primarily structured around an investigation, but an investigation which inevitably loses its way, becomes diverted, displaced; interest in it dissolves. (Rohdie, 114)
We follow the characters as they stroll aimlessly, as they stray through the spaces of contemporary Italy ultimately searching for nothing specific until finally, like the protagonists, we sense that we too have found nothing. As Antonioni puts it:
Noi sappiamo che sotto l'immagine rivelata ce n'è un'altra più fedele alla realtà, e sotto quest'altra un'altra ancora, e di nuovo un'altra sotto quest'ultima. Fino alla vera immagine di quella realtà, assoluta, misteriosa, che nessuno vedrà mai. O forse fino alla scomposizione di qualsiasi immagine, di qualsiasi realtà.4 (Fare un film è per me vivere, 61-62).
Antonioni's films question and abandon the general directions of neorealism. In particular the director contradicts Cesare Zavattini's concept of character as the mere product of a social environment; moreover, Antonioni contends the screenwriter's ardent faith in the validity of the onlooker's point of view as a witness to 'empirical reality'. The director acknowledges the role of the social conditions, but goes further inasmuch as he is aware of the problem of the visual perception of reality. An emphasis is placed on the emotional life of the characters through visual means: the mirroring between a subjective inner life and the external setting constitutes a reciprocal relation which clearly contrasts with the realistic approach employed in the post war period by the leading figures associated with neorealism. According to Peter Bondanella, in Antonioni's cinema the director's "cinematographic technique is his content" (212). Humanity's plight is that it must be content with "the surface of the world"5 as the reality beyond the environments that enclose the characters of the Tetralogy - as much as contemporary humankind - seems destined to remain concealed.
The environment alluded to is of course that of the Miracolo Economico with its industrial buildings and structures, modern skyscrapers and shoddy, affordable housing. Provincial, rural Italy moves out of the way to be replaced by the new urban creation, to be redesigned by a strange mixture of layers of pavement, steel, concrete, cement and to be crossed by piercing and speedy Lambrettas, reckless Spyders and roaring Alfettas.


§ III. La notte

II. L'avventura

In L'avventura Antonioni, through the characters of Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti), outlines a general inability to feel by means of barren landscapes employed as an emblematic and suggestive setting for the agony of the tormented couple(s). With a sense of apprehension the viewer perceives the massive, jagged Lisca Bianca (Eolian islands) suddenly looming above the yacht; the uneasiness is punctually remarked upon through the soundtrack by way of the haunting and persistent humming of the vessel's engine and again by Patrizia's commentary: "Io le isole non le ho mai capite. Con tutto quel mare attorno, poverine..."6 (L'avventura, 63).
It is evident that the traditional idyllic myth of the plush nature of deserted isles is here denied since the volcanic island, is a lifeless space, almost a void. The sterile landscape mirrors the emptiness of the protagonists and the islands themselves echo their solitude. Conceivably, the island sequence could stand for a quest: the members of the miserable band are seeking refuge from their urban reality; but the attempt to flee and to briefly establish an integration with a more human environment seems doomed to failure from the onset. The emphasis shifts towards an impossible relation between humankind and nature in an era of technology and mass consumption. The intimate barrenness the protagonists experience wherever they go is emphasized by their demeanor toward each other and by their perception of their settings to the point that the bond between their spiritual state and their desolate milieus becomes the principal focus of the film.
Appropriately, Anna's disappearance will remain a mystery: her exit mirrors her companions' indifference. Yet their listless response emblematically stands for their inability to continue a search. For Antonioni this is due to a "malattia dei sentimenti" or to a dependancy on an inadequate, archaic outlook. As the director puts it, "(l'uomo) agisce [...] sulla spinta di forze e di miti morali che non dovrebbero, oggi, alla vigilia di raggiungere la Luna, essere quelli dei tempi di Omero; eppure lo sono"7 (Bianco e nero, 82). Interestingly enough, the pots and vases scattered on the island are the sign of an ancient people. Moreover, like Anna, they too appear as if mysteriously faded into nothingness. Within such a setting the witnesses of the young woman's vanishing are incapable of responding to the bleak events in any genuine or meaningful manner and thus their search loses its way. The crisis that the director puts forward touches precisely the standing ground of modern humanity. Indeed, the protagonists are incapable of advancing with their quest as they lack the ground (here embodied by a barren island) or the coordinates with which to proceed beyond the surface of what they witness. Accordingly, their setting mirrors their malaise. The effect of such a game of reflection-reflected is a reciprocal relation between inside and outside which explicitly unveils Antonioni's views on contemporary existence.


§ IV. L'eclisse

III. La notte

In La notte, the setting is no longer the open/rural Mediterranean landscape of Sicily as Antonioni shifts his focus towards the oblivion of contemporary existence within the industrialized environment of a closed/urban space. The natural scenery has now been replaced by the formal setting of a maze-like city centre. Right from the opening images the motif of an anonymous looking metropolitan space repeated to infinity is implicit. As the credits flash by a suggestive reflection of the city scape is offered by a plunging dolly shot attained along a skyscraper's windows. Giorgio Gaslini's score shares in setting the mood here (as elsewhere in La notte) as the music echoes the traffic cacophony of a working city. Camera work is employed to render the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. Shot after shot the first half of the film invariably illustrates the protagonists' predicament as they appear with their backs against the wall when inside or as small figures at the base of a modern building when outdoors. Indeed Antonioni is making a point about the growing, modern, urban environment and about the direction taken by contemporary architecture. Certainly the builders of edifices and skyscrapers of those years worked with and on new architectural signifiers. But this 'modernization' of design could not take place without a change in practice: from the onset modern design frequently had a clearly utilitarian inclination for functionality and expedience (i.e., space and time).8 Some consideration can be made in relation, for instance, to the concept of division, or rather, fragmentation of space: a propensity for accessibility and social function clearly marks the blueprints of the contemporary utilitarian architecture of such spaces as offices, dwellings and mansions exhibited in La notte. Yet the arrangement of interior and exterior walls, rooms and volumes, as represented by the director, rather than assisting the characters, overwhelms them. Here, the madness of a systematic and rationalized urban planning appears to leave man trapped within the centre of his own labyrinth.
The film outlines the new spaces created by the 'Economic Miracle' and the change in lifestyle that resulted from the urbanization and industrialization of Milan and, by extension, Italy during the years of the 'Rural Exodus'9: the peasant homes and the communal use of the living space have been replaced by the urban apartments of mass society and by a segmentation of space. Lidia's (Jeanne Moreau) loneliness and her submission to her setting would seem to be prompted by the anonymity of her very surroundings: not only the private dens seem interchangeable; indeed the very within and without of the dwellings would appear to have dissolved into an indistinguishable, impenetrable, endless pattern.10


§ V. Deserto rosso

IV. L'eclisse

The characters of the third chapter of the Tetralogy, L'eclisse, are portrayed as if interchangeable with the objects and commodities around them. The reality the director depicts is clearly punctuated by 'fragments' of objects and people. From the patterns of gates, tiles and walls that frame the protagonists to the images of truncated actors and objects: the levelling of people and objects is absolute. Human behaviour is burdened by a process of reification of needs and feelings and is seen as an integral part of such fragmentation. The film ends with several minutes consisting of a myriad of frames where there clearly is a refusal to continue the story by means of events or characters precisely because neither is no longer plausible. Paraphrasing Pascal Bonitzer, with L'avventura and La notte Antonioni had proposed that the subject is unable to feel reality; now he sustains that the subject himself has disappeared into the void or 'false consciousness' of Verdinglichung (150).
Here the director presents us with an eloquent and thorough description of the trading floor of a stock exchange. Gradually we sense that this setting is the correlative of the film's description of the existential chaos of the characters. Like all institutions the stock exchange has its own language and patterns of expression. Indeed the director observes: "In Borsa non so come fanno a capirsi, a fare delle operazioni con segni così rapidi, svelti"11 (Fare un film è per me vivere, 248). From the bellowing of offers, to the whispering of news, from the incessant, obscene heckling to the shoving and jostling: all of the contenders play their roles frantically while trying to appear perfectly at home. Having fully embraced a dehumanized lifestyle they easily hide from themselves any qualm or remorse concerning others or any suspicion that their own existence is unauthentic.
The setting of the stock exchange must have appeared remarkably significant to the director. To the ancients the massiveness of the columns of Greek temples might have represented what the highest of our skyscrapers symbolizes to us: prosperity, accomplishment and power.12 The presence of a colonnade within the structure of the edifice suggests an eclectic attempt to convey both triumph and achievement on the one side and style and artistic temperament on the other as if the architect and/or decorators had aspired to soften the venal and mercenary side of the marketing establishment and to counterbalance the two dispositions somehow. Nonetheless, in the sequence which takes place at the stock exchange the leading characters appear downright foiled. Their innermost feelings are aptly summed up by the director in a single image which finds the couple silently standing on opposing sides of a massive pillar while looking in opposite directions.
Like the ants on a tree trunk gazed upon by Vittoria (Monica Vitti) during the final scene, the characters seem aware solely of each other's functions and physical presence. Mirroring the creed of the stock exchange, the protagonists assess each other in terms of utility/value. Objects and people have become interchangeable and the grip of the former on the latter surges to the level of 'absolute reality' (Paci, 89). Such is the case in L'eclisse's eloquent, final images. The protagonists have vanished and have been replaced by objects as the final shots uphold. Moreover, rather than with an eclipse, the film ends with a blinding close-up of a street light. The artificial light could stand for humanity's progress: subjectivity itself is denied and consequently subjects are eclipsed.


Torna al sommario

V. Deserto rosso

In Deserto rosso, Antonioni's first colour film, the director has the industrial machines and conduits consistently appear in bright hues while the characters appear dull: clearly the viewer is not perceiving everything from the protagonist's (Giuliana's) viewpoint alone.13 During the opening credits we view out-of-focus images of factories. A yellow tint dims the setting giving it a lurid, sickening appearance. In addition, a deathlike impression is accentuated through ghastly, sinister trills, realized by means of electrical music instruments and presumably employed to transfigure the sounds of the factories in order to reproduce a disturbed perception of them. At this stage we still do not know who is experiencing such a response but we comprehend that the viewpoint is subjective. Following the credits we perceive the initial sequence from Giuliana's (Monica Vitti) perspective and again, the vision of the strikers marching before her also appears out-of-focus. Shortly thereafter we hear the same sounds we had heard during the film's opening and we understand that the repulsed viewpoint is Giuliana's and that the chilling sounds are the representation of her alienation. On the other hand, the intense tones adopted for the industrial machinery would seem to be the director's personal viewpoint.
Undoubtedly the opening outlook (Giuliana's) is contradicted by the vividly coloured machines. Addressing the contrast between the dull, sick nature and the industrial settings the director contends:

La fabbrica è più varia, più vivace perché, dietro, si avverte la presenza dell'uomo con la sua vita, i suoi drammi, le sue speranze. Io sono a favore del progresso, e pure mi accorgo che per la sua violenza è portatore di crisi. E tuttavia è la vita moderna, il "domani" che già bussa alle porte.14 (Fare un film è per me vivere, 254)
Paraphrasing Chatman, the desert of the film's title is in Giuliana's very mind since Ravenna, a city known for its Byzantine mosaics, is not portrayed exclusively as a wasteland (73). Since now and then the film's world is colourfully depicted and much attention is given to the abstract beauty of the machinery's shape and design, it would appear that there are in fact three witnesses to the action: Giuliana, the director and the camera. The latter of the three is at times a sort of 'objective' narrator. Giuliana's and Antonioni's outlooks are clearly set apart and are the result of technical artifice. Filters, dyes and the editing of colors in the studio are used to this effect. Elsewhere the images appear without any obvious colouring, presumably to remind us that objects ultimately exist in utmost indifference to our perceptions of them15: whether attractive or repulsive there must first be a subject to perceive them as one or the other. Within this framework the director restates the notion that commodities, machinery even progress itself are no more than the use we make of them. As Peter Bondanella puts it, for Antonioni humankind's "outmoded codes of behaviour and romantic view of nature must give way to a fresh morality" (221).
We should not lose sight of the fact that, as the opening citation illustrates, Antonioni's stance apropos the relation of technology and progress on the one hand and society and humanity on the other is not one of condemnation or rejection. Clearly, according to the director, the difficulties could not possibly lie in the indifferent being of the commodities we create and employ, but squarely in the use we make of and in the meaning we ascribe to them. Accordingly mass society is left wanting an outlook or attitude capable of parallelling the widespread technology.
With each of his works the director remains tied to the problem of the subject and its surrounding environment, yet from L'avventura to Deserto rosso the problem is constantly redefined, his argument becoming more precise and offering increasingly stronger implications. From this point of view it would appear that Antonioni feels the exigency to update and to reexamine his existential beliefs with the ever-changing reality around him. L'avventura, La notte and L'eclisse would seem to form a trilogy of closely related works which find their epilogue in Deserto Rosso. With L'avventura Antonioni explored the changing Italian lifestyle through the portrayal of a space set aside by contemporary society for the purpose of recreation, a sort of "non-work space" as Lefebvre puts it (58); from this perspective, in La notte the focus shifted towards the space of contemporary urban architecture; carrying on in this direction we could say that the setting of the stock exchange epitomized the contemporary value system in L'eclisse while the factories, wharfs and vessels of Deserto rosso carried the analysis towards industrial landscapes and modern technology.
Antonioni's Tetralogy links dehumanized surroundings with the inner lives of the characters as much as the latter represent the interiorization of such contemporary settings. The director renounces plot and chooses to follow his protagonists as they seek their 'self' or as they attempt to escape from themselves. The structure of the contemporary city, as the Italian director portrays it, connotes the present historical moment itself: a critical time brought about by a process of reduction of the subject to an object. In the Tetralogy edifices, architecture, landscapes and structures are more than mere spatial distributions of urban settings. Antonioni seems to look at them in a twofold manner: as both a manifestation and product of the relations and hierarchies between individuals and as the expression of their reified consciousness caused by contemporary existence.


Works cited


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