“The Red Desert” (“Il deserto rosso”) is a film about pollution: industrial pollution, noise pollution, psychological pollution. Visually, its color palate ranges from pastels to pure gray, which is both alluring and drab given that this was director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color film. Monica Vitti’s impulsive Giuliana — a wife and mother now home from hospital after a suicide attempt — doesn’t brighten things up much.
Instead she infuses Ravenna’s industrial landscape with sad poetry. Her struggle with the ubiquitous factories of 1960s Emilia-Romagna marks a wistful beauty, and there’s no escaping given her alienation from husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), head of a local chemical plant. Discomfort follows Giuliana everywhere. Sleep leads only to nightmares and convulsions. She finds flimsy relief wandering the machine-lined streets during the day.
In the film’s opening scene, Giuliana buys a stranger’s half-eaten sandwich for lunch with the immodesty of beggar. Her desperation for the sandwich is not explained, but it matters little. Her neurotic behavior is seductive because Antonioni’s effortless framing makes them believable. The shots are stark, meager, even sexy. When Ugo’s business partner Zeller (an approachable, handsome Richard Harris) arrives in town, Giuliana absorbs him into her life’s painterly decay.
Whatever it is that Giuliana’s suffering from — depression, exhaustion, the despair of modernization — it ripens the tension, saving the film from wading in Ravenna’s muck. The plot is spare but not without magic. Vitti’s wintry gaze is a spell that only Antonioni knew how to cast. “What should I use my eyes for? To look at what?” Giuliana grieves, admitting the sea distracts her from land’s ugliness. In the sole uplifting scene, she tells her young son a story of a girl living on a pink beach (the red desert of the film’s title is based on the so-called “Spiaggia Rosa” on the Sardinian island of Budelli). Soon after that, Giuliana’s sanity falls away completely.
The film’s eerie electronic score (mingled with ambient field recordings) is strange romance. Life after failed suicide may be just as strange. There are countless films about women suffering depression, but this overlooked gem is among the best.