JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Sandro does not understand the Sicilians.

Southern Italy, the Mezzogiorno, is poorer but more scenic than the North.

A poster in the background endorses the Italian Communist Party, and another message urges voters to vote the Communist line on the ballot. These political signs go unnoticed by the self-satisfied protagonists.

Claudia experiences what it is like to be viewed as an aristocrat in Noto, a poor southern town.

In the train compartment, Sandro and Claudia eavesdrop on a young man and woman from the servant class flirtatiously talking about love.

The gal prefers music to love because "you can buy a radio." The guy replies, “Love first, and then music." These values are class-based. The young woman expresses a preference for a commodity over natural desire; the young man says his is the more natural ethos.

Sandro's surrender to middle-class security leads him to degenerate into a decadent dandy.

On the church rooftop in Noto, Sandro notices the exuberant and beautiful Baroque buildings in the town's medieval square.

Sandro pontificates about architecture: "All this was built to last centuries. Today, ten, twenty years at the most."

Right after his bleak declaration about architectural longevity, Sandro weakly proposes marriage to Claudia.

 

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Sandro becomes sexually stimulated watching an auto race on television.

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Sandro’s betrayal of Claudia with Gloria Perkins marks a "repetition compulsion" of substituting lovers.

At the end, Sandro weeps as Claudia hesitantly and provisionally places her hand on his head in a gesture of apparent forgiveness. 

The final image equates Sandro with the crumbling façade of a wall and Claudia with a (breast-shaped) volcano. Thus, screen right is associated with bourgeois decay, while the deep-focus screen left represents the openness and potential explosiveness of the emerging masses (and women).

 

The island's geographic location is also of some interest in regard to a class analysis. The Southern question (La Questione Meridionale) — the quasi-separate existence of Italy's southern regions, including Sicily and Sardinia — is a major source of socioeconomic difference in the film. Southern Italy has its own Geist — a different tempo, style of life, and even language.[7][open notes in new window] (When the police question some petty smugglers about Anna's disappearance, for instance, Sandro cannot understand the suspects' Sicilian dialects and accosts them.) The South is called the Mezzogiorno because of the brilliance of the noonday sun. It is primarily an agricultural region, economically inferior to the North, although more scenic. Indeed, in L'Avventura, the railroad station at Milazzo is filled with tourist posters advertising "Estate in Sicilia" (Summer in Sicily), yet the overall dinginess and somber mood in the station (particularly for Claudia) contradict this hype. The vista Claudia observes from the train is scenic, but industrial sites and power lines frequently obstruct it. Thus, Antonioni uses the background of his images to foreground the economic dislocations of Southern Italy and the class contradictions between his bourgeois protagonists and the poverty-ridden South.

The railroad station at Milazzo advertises “Summer in Sicily,” yet the dinginess and somber mood contradict this tourist hype.

A farmer leads cows across the screen just as Claudia arrives by chauffeured limousine, showing the gap between the agricultural South and industrial North.

L'Avventura is the only Antonioni film that takes place in Southern Italy. Indeed, he once said,

"I would feel ill at ease if I had to do any shooting in the South, for the people who live there are too different from me. I can never understand them."[8]

The economic and cultural differences between that region and the filmmaker's more usual urban milieu accentuate the class barriers and differences between the wealthy Roman characters and their unaccustomed environment. In one image, a farmer is seen pulling cows across the screen just as Claudia arrives at the pharmacy in Troina by chauffeured limousine. This single frame thus enunciates the basic gap between the poor agricultural South and the rich industrial North. When Claudia and Sandro question the druggist in Troina about Anna's whereabouts, one political poster in the background of the shot (right above the pharmacist's head) endorses the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), the Italian Communist Party, complete with a hammer-and-sickle emblem. Another scribbled message on the wall urges voters to "Votate Lista 3," the Communist line on the ballot. Both of these political signs go unnoticed and unheeded by the self-satisfied protagonists.

Later, Claudia experiences what it is like to be viewed as an aristocrat in Noto, a poor southern town. A crowd of predatory pappagalli (literally, parrots; idiomatically, unemployed men) gathers around and ogles her, imagining her to be a society lady. The hotel owner in Noto puts it most bluntly. "Almost all the foreign girls" end up at the youth hostel, she says, assuming that Anna is a foreigner because she is from the North. The woman touches Claudia lightly on the arm; the latter winces noticeably and edges away. Whether this gesture of avoidance represents a class-based response to the plainly dressed owner or an embarrassed reaction because the woman knows her personal business so well remains uncertain.

A crowd of pappagalli (unemployed men) gathers around and ogles Claudia, imagining her to be a society lady.

The hotel owner in Noto assumes that the missing Anna is a foreigner because she is from the North.

Although Antonioni is generally perceived to be a chronicler of the decadence and dissolution of the upper classes, he frequently shows the acquisitiveness and materialism of the bourgeoisie trickling down to the lower classes, following Marx and Engels's dictum that "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas." In the train compartment scene in L'Avventura, for instance, Sandro and Claudia eavesdrop on a servant boy and girl flirtatiously talking about love. The girl says she prefers music to love because "you can buy a radio," whereas being in love requires an emotional commitment. The boy replies "No…I'm a man and I know how these things are: love first, and then music." These "aesthetic" and sexual values are class-based — the former expressing the bourgeoisie's materialistic preference for commodity fetishization and consumerism over natural desire and personal attachments, the latter testifying to a more natural (albeit chauvinistic) ethos. Yet both are stated by young proletarian workers in the context of a comic scene.

The smarmy journalist Zuria is another example of a working-class individual who is obsessed with the money morality of the upper classes. After observing a riot caused by a slit in the dress of Gloria Perkins, Zuria characterizes Ms. Perkins as "a 50,000 lira proposition," thinks of the riot as a publicity stunt, and asks for payment in return for information that might help Sandro and Claudia locate Anna. His cynical veneer about other people's motives does not excuse his own suspect journalistic "ethics."

The journalist Zuria is another working-class individual obsessed with upper-class money.

Zuria cynically asks for payment to help Sandro locate Anna, an example of his own suspect "ethics."

It is interesting to notice the similarities in wording between an important principle from Marx's writings and a statement by Antonioni, who studied political economy at Bologna University:

"It is not the consciousness of human beings that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."
— Karl Marx, Critique of Political Economy[10]

"Our acts, our gestures, our words, are nothing more than the consequences of our personal situation to the world around us." — Michelangelo Antonioni[11]

Thus, Antonioni (like Karl Marx before him) sees the inner life of real-life individuals and fictional characters in dialectical relation to their social environments. His films depict this conjuncture as the basis for his social epistemology. In addition, as a corollary to class, the theme of alienation is frequently cited in the Antonioni literature, usually in the context of privatized personal relationships. For example, Italian novelist Alberto Moravia has said that Antonioni is

"a European intellectual of bourgeois origins…a humanistic moralist, psychologist, and sociologist. He refuses to accept the situation of alienation, which to him is profoundly abnormal and hence a source of suffering."[12]

However, there is another dimension to this concept in the director's work: alienation has a class and economic basis. Alienation is therefore nothing more or less than the psychological counterpart of the economic and social domination of capital. The alienation of the worker or artist from the fruits of his/her labor (the product) and from him/herself as the creator of that product derives from the fact that a product is designed primarily for profit and only secondarily for use. Thus, the form of one's work is set by the entrepreneur, not by the worker's imagination and skill. In short, modern individuals — even bourgeois workers or artists — are estranged from themselves because, having no personal interest in the product of their labor, they have no personal relation to their own acts of production.

In L'Avventura, Sandro's occupation as an architect is revealed only after three-quarters of the film. Through this structural device, Sandro is shown to be alienated from his work and the products of his labor. His work is not on his mind or in his heart. For Sandro, a classic case of the Marcusean "one-dimensional man," pleasure and work are antithetical; pleasure is obtained vicariously, on the run. What Freud spoke of as the two criteria for psychological health — "Lieben und Arbeiten" (Love and Work) — are interrelated but equally unproductive for Sandro.[13] Like Freud, Antonioni recognized that the energies and social identity required for alienated modern work conflict with those required for love.

Sandro's surrender to middle-class security leads him to an emotional wasteland from which he tries to escape through self-indulgence. From a romantic figure, he degenerates into a decadent dandy. Once Sandro "sells out" and becomes an estimator for others' buildings, he essentially turns in the use value of his creative talent for its exchange value. Out of that alienation from his creativity and work comes his alienation from himself and from other forms of human community and solidarity, including love. On the church rooftop in Noto, for example, Sandro notes that the exuberant and beautiful Baroque buildings in the town's medieval square are no longer valued. He pontificates about the state of classical and modern architecture:

"All this was built to last centuries. Today, ten, twenty years at the most."

Right after this bleak declaration about architectural longevity, Sandro weakly proposes marriage to Claudia. Thus, Antonioni crystallizes the connections between modern alienated work and (im)personal relationships for his bourgeois characters. If buildings are impermanent and constructed only for short-term use, how can the vagaries of contemporary personal intimacy stand the test of time?

Shortly after this scene, Sandro, envious of a young architectural student's talent and enthusiasm for his work, spills ink on the young man's sketchpad. Back in the hotel room, Sandro first looks out at the magnificent cathedral the student had been drawing. Then, he quickly closes the shutters. Through this act, he eclipses his view of an architectural achievement — the church—that he was incapable of reproducing. Metaphorically, Sandro has closed the door on his artistic ambitions in order to become an "organization man," one whose mode of existence is to abandon his individuality and conform to a business ethic.[14] His fate, then, becomes less a matter of his own initiative than of the indifferent forces, the "iron laws," of the division of labor under capitalism. As the Marxist film critic, Armando Borrelli, put it, Sandro "is a typical character of the Italy of the economic boom."[15] And the center of gravity in that world lies in the relations between things, not people.

Observing an architectural student's sketchpad, Sandro is envious of the student’s youth, talent, and enthusiasm. In a jealous action, Sandro spills ink on the young man's sketchpad.
Back in the hotel room, Sandro looks out at the magnificent cathedral the student had been drawing. Sandro closes the shutters, eclipsing his view of an architectural feat he was incapable of reproducing. Thus, Sandro closes the door on his artistic ambitions to become an "organization man."

Again, L'Avventura provides several examples of this human-machine dialectic. As Sandro and Claudia enter their hotel room in Taormina, the hotel clerk manifests automaton-like mechanical behavior, gesturing ceremoniously and precisely as he escorts the couple into their suite. First, Claudia mimics the worker's movements; then Sandro and Claudia laugh as he leaves. Finally, Sandro comments, "A robot would do just as well." The irony is that Sandro is no better than the "robot-man" he scorns. He too is a functionary — albeit a wealthy one — a modern technocrat, more concerned with things than with people. He "goes through the motions" just as much as the hotel employee — or any machine.

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In Taormina, the hotel clerk manifests automaton-like behavior, gesturing ceremoniously and precisely as he escorts Sandro and Claudia into their suite.

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Sandro and Claudia mimic the hotel clerk and laugh at him. Ironically, Sandro is no better than the "robot-man"; he too is a functionary — albeit a wealthy one.

Machines are also correlated to bourgeois sexuality. Sandro becomes sexually stimulated watching an auto race on television. His first sexual union with Claudia is associated with a passing railroad train. And, in that same scene, his prominent alligator wristwatch band duplicates the theme of mechanization since it represents the conversion of a natural object into a mechanism.[16] Instead of living authentically, Sandro gives himself over to decadent pleasure, since he has at his disposal the "dominion of apparatus" — as C. P. Snow put it — the gadgets and conveniences of the middle class. He lives life on the surface, amid the bourgeois accessories that have become his necessities. By choosing things over people, Sandro indulges himself instead of transcending himself.

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Sandro’s first sexual union with Claudia is associated with a passing railroad train, another mechanism. Sandro’s alligator wristwatch band also connotes nature turned into mechanism, showing his pleasure in the gadgets of the middle class.

As a bourgeois organization man, Sandro has internalized the impersonal and institutional nature of his work and brings it to bear in his personal relations as well. Thus, his affection for Anna is almost immediately transferred to Claudia, since people are just as disposable as the modern buildings he erects. His later betrayal of Claudia with Gloria Perkins marks a similar "repetition compulsion" of substituting lovers.[17] After Claudia catches Sandro in flagrante delicto on a hotel couch with Perkins, the "50,000-lira proposition," he tosses some money at the latter. In Marx and Engel's famous formulation, it is the "cash payment" that "drown[s] the most heavenly ecstasies…in the icy water of egotistical calculation." Even Claudia seems to have a repetition compulsion. Just before surprising Sandro in his unfaithful act, she had searched for him in the corridors of the San Domenico Palace at Taormina. The deep-focus mise-en-scène of repeated doors, chandeliers, and hallways constricts her space and suggests the futility of the repetition complex that drives both her and Sandro to repeat unpleasant situations.

After Claudia catches Sandro in flagrante delicto with Gloria Perkins, he tosses some money at the latter—the "cash payment" that "drowns the most heavenly ecstasies...in the icy water of egotistical calculation." The deep-focus mise-en-scène in the elegant San Domenico Palace constricts Claudia’s space. The visual composition suggests the repetition complex that drives her to repeat unpleasant situations.

At the very end, Sandro appears to feel some guilt over his shabby treatment of Claudia. He weeps as she hesitantly and provisionally places her hand on his head in an empathetic gesture of apparent forgiveness. But even this moment is subject to multiple readings. Peter Brunette refers to Sandro's sobbing as "crocodile tears of repentance," and attributes them to his basic class-determined vulgarity:

"a weakling, a blatant manipulator, a man enslaved by the egotistical expression of his desire."[18]

Giorgio Tinazzi has suggested that the ending is "a sanction for ambiguity."[19] And, the director has offered slightly contradictory explanations for Claudia's seeming capitulation: "She will stay with him and forgive him."

"What they finally arrive at is a sense of mutual pity."[20]

The mise-en-scène and spatial economy of the film's final image is striking in its abstract, semiotically charged perspective. It seems to equate the bourgeois Sandro with the crumbling façade of the wall on screen right and Claudia with the potentially active volcano, Mt. Etna, on screen left. Thus, screen right is associated with the fixed, closed, and decaying tenets of the bourgeoisie (and the patriarchy). The deep-focus screen left side of the frame can be likened to the openness and possibly explosive fervor of the emerging masses (and women as a social class) during il boom years.

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