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The big three of cinema’s High Modern moment, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, achieved their acclaim in part because of their efforts to make films comparable in sophistication to other arts, particularly literature. Antonioni’s first color film, Red Desert, is one of the most blatantly indebted to literary models, employing a cinematic equivalent to the so-called free indirect style in which the external world becomes an objective correlative of the protagonist’s emotional state.

If that description sounds more like a book and alien to cinematic expectation, it would be a mistake to think of Red Desert as a pallid imitation of a novel, for in exploring the anxious consciousness of Giuliana (Monica Vitti) few films employ a more imaginative use of the medium. It is that combination of literary and cinematic sophistication that makes Antonioni’s approach uniquely absorbing and influential.

The story has virtually no forward movement, nor much character development. Giuliana begins and ends as a neurotic and whatever happens in between clarifies little. Instead, vague incidents, like a near orgy in a workman’s shack, or the arrival of a ship carrying plague victims, or Giuliana’s son’s feigned paralysis, suggest something without ever being explicit.

What makes these occasionally tedious moments compelling film making is the way Giuliana’s world looks. The hard geometry of a refinery softened by clouds of steam, the delicate web-like architecture of telecommunications towers, the poisonous puddles and streams of viscous liquids bubbling under a cheerless, gray and white sky—all of them may seem like familiar emblems of ecological abuse, but only because countless others have imitated what is revealed here for the first time with unequaled resonance.

The images are more than simply repellent because Antonioni cannot point his camera at even the most disturbing spectacle without finding beauty in it. Sometimes his aestheticizing is explicit, as in a scene in an empty room, streaked with different colors of paint. More often, the beauty just seems inescapable, as if the director cannot fail to make the devastation riveting.

But what does this hell have to do with Giuliana’s consciousness? She lives in this environment because her husband works at an industrial plant seen early in the film, but physical proximity does not imply emotional affinity. The suggestion that the wasteland is somehow responsible for Giuliana’s neurosis, on the other hand, is simplistic (why is no one else affected?) and unworthy of the entranced fascination with which the environment is presented.

Thus, without denying the importance and audacity of Antonioni’s intentions, Red Desert raises questions larger than itself. Is it possible to create a metaphor using the physical world as the vehicle to clarify the tenor of a state of mind? Are such ambitions even worth the effort, particularly if they lose the audience? Is it even right to use the image for such literary purposes?

By calmly answering “yes,” Antonioni’s work continues to move, fascinate and influence.