The American Society of Cinematographers

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Boardwalk Empire
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Black Narcissus
Cop Out
Red Desert
ASC Close-Up
Red Desert (1964)
Blu-Ray Edition
1.85:1 (High Definition 1080p)
Digital Monaural
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

Surrounded by a grim wasteland of stunted vegetation and dense, stagnant quagmire, a looming, busy industrial factory clamors loudly in operation while striking workers band together outside its gates. Emerging from the seemingly opaque, abysmal atmosphere is a woman, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) and her young son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi).  Smartly dressed and carefully treading the muddy terrain, the pair seem instantly out of place in the oppressive, gray landscape.  As they approach the workers, Giuliana spies a man eating a sandwich and without hesitation offers him cash for the half eaten meal.  When the man awkwardly gives Giuliana the sandwich and young Valerio declines a bite from his mother, she leaves the boy momentarily and hides in the brush by a waste pool while she hungrily devours it.

Inside the factory, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) shows a visiting colleague Corrado (Richard Harris) around the intricate, noisy bowels of the complex.  As they tour the depths of churning vats and erupting steam pipes, Giuliana appears. Ugo introduces his wife Giuliana to Corrado and the two shake hands igniting a noticeable spark between them. After Giuliana departs, declaring she’ll later meet Ugo upstairs in his office, he continues the tour with Corrado talking more about his wife than his work. He explains that she’s still in recovery from a car accident that left her physically unharmed but with sometimes severe emotional instability.  He notes that part of her therapy is trying a new business endeavor of opening a shop in the village where she’ll sell pottery.   

Later, when Corrado drives into the village, he notices Giuliana’s shop and stops in.  In spite of her erratic behavior he’s intrigued by her and the two quickly strike up a friendship. They begin a series of journeys through murky, decaying townships that seem to be little more than industrial wastelands of factories that expel noxious smoke and poisonous liquid runoff.   The couple’s travels, some together and some including her husband Ugo and his friends, drive the two of them closer. Unstable and nervous, Giuliana begins to look for solace with Corrado who finds himself only more attracted to this unhappy and confused woman.

After a series of internationally acclaimed and trendsetting films that were memorably photographed in black and white including L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961), Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni set out to produce a film using color in a unique way.   Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) would be his first effort using color and for that he wisely called upon cinematographer Carlo di Palma AIC (Blow-Up, Hannah and Her Sisters) to bring his complicated vision to life on screen. Along with the project’s art director Piero Poletto, di Palma worked closely with Antonioni who wanted pronounced, often pale colors even if it meant having to spray paint exteriors to evoke the intended hues that reflected either the emotional roots of a scene or Giuliana’s state of mind.  Making use of color filters, diffusion and a long out of fashion Technicolor one strip process, di Palma created a remarkable palette of colors that at once can appear muted but are also rich in detail and nuance.  Di Palma won the Silver Ribbon from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists for his work on Red Desert.

The Criterion Collection has recently released Antonioni’s groundbreaking film in the blu-ray format with excellent results. Nicely preserving the film’s delicate color balance while at the same time allowing for a sharpness in detail and shadow, the 1080p image transfer here has visible grain and a satisfying, very film like quality.   In spite of some minor disturbances that occasionally surface in the image and seem to be directly from the 46 year old negative, the overall image quality here is excellent.   It feels as though very little digital noise reduction has been employed and the generally sharp image always feels organic, evoking di Palma’s efforts accurately. The monaural audio is good with strong presence and full bodied dialogue and effects, lacking any noticeable age related issues.

The disc’s supplements include an articulate and nicely detailed audio commentary from scholar David Forgacs, a 12 minute interview with Antonioni from 1964, a 9 minute  interview with Vitti from 1990, a selection of uncut “dailies” footage, the theatrical trailer and two vintage shorts by Antonioni  - Gente del Po (1947) and N.U. (1948).  The disc is packaged with a booklet featuring an strong essay by writer Mark Le Fanu, brief writing by Antonioni on both short films and a reprinted interview with the director conducted by Jean-Luc Godard.    

This long revered and contemplated work that ruminates on the relation of societal progress and industrialization and their ultimate effects on the human psyche, seems just as effective today as it was in 1964 particularly in our increasingly ecologically concerned, global culture.  Red Desert’s timeless, haunting qualities continue to radiate in this handsome new blu-ray.  Long standing fans and first time viewers will be impressed.  

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