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Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Thurs 23 Nov

A friend of mine once pointed out that an ugly city makes a far better cinematic location than a postcard-perfect one. We’ve all seen a thousand lame representations of a tourist’s Paris, London, or New York, but the best versions of these hulking metropolises onscreen have always been those at home in their grimy, filthy undercurrents. It’s the seedy New York of Taxi Driver that’s endlessly more fascinating than the one-note birds-eye shots of the Manhattan skyline we’ve seen in scores of lesser films, just as it’s the Parisian banlieues of La Haine that still retains a power much greater than the Paris-as-shorthand-for-romance seen in countless romances.

This is precisely what Michelangelo Antonioni understood over 50 years ago when filming Red Desert. Set in the industrial wastelands outside Ravenna – itself a traditionally beautiful Italian city, ready-made for your Instagram – he instead found himself staring at the huge factories plonked on the outskirts, with huge ships lulling past, the river running colours more suited to sci-fi than nature. Even today, in this pristine print from the BFI, the film feels utterly discombobulating to look at, as if a UFO from the future.

The plot, as with most Antonioni films, is irrelevant: Guiliana (Monica Vitti) is the psychologically-damaged wife of a factory executive, who introduces her to a handsome colleague, Corrado (Richard Harris, dubbed into Italian), with the two then embarking on a not-quite affair, but ultimately this is more of a series of semi-related scenes drawing out and elaborating on Guiliana’s nervous, erratic state of mind than it is a traditional drama.

Red Desert still remains one of the most startling examples of how to use colour and composition in film. Monochromatic images of factory greys and muddy river banks are broken up by blocks of primary colour; poisonous yellow smoke billowing upwards; Guiliana’s vibrant green coat; the strange red cabin in which the film’s middle section  takes place, as the characters party and threaten to start an orgy, with no one quite ready to kick things off.

At the centre of it all is Vitti, one of Italian cinema’s greatest stars in her prime, holding the camera’s gaze like few others do. She is one of those rare talents capable of burning up a screen with so much as a glance. It’s the kind of innate charisma that cinema was invented for. The kind of artist/muse relationship she had with Antonioni verges on the cliché, but the remarkable results it produced – four brilliant films from 1960 until 1964, with the release of Red Desert – remains an exceptional run of films.

Red Desert formed one of two revival screenings at the exciting Italian Film Festival, alongside the little-seen 1956 film Together by Lorenza Mazzetti, and was probably the most instantly recognisable film at a festival otherwise devoted to uncovering the gems of contemporary Italian cinema. The country’s cinema has a long and powerful tradition (as evidenced by this film), but in recent years it has found it more difficult to get consistent distribution on British screens. Only Paolo Sorrentino and Luca Guadagnino have managed to score commercial successes on these shores of late, and both work with international crews and casts, often in the English language. Certainly, in reminding us of the brilliance of Italian cinema throughout the years via screenings such as this, we can perhaps begin to look forward to Italian cinema’s newest bright lights with excitement.


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