Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s panoramas of contemporary alienation were decade-defining artistic events, and Red Desert, his first color film, is perhaps his most epochal. This provocative look at the spiritual desolation of the technological age—about a disaffected woman, brilliantly portrayed by Antonioni muse Monica Vitti, wandering through a bleak industrial landscape beset by power plants and environmental toxins, and tentatively flirting with her husband’s coworker, played by Richard Harris—continues to keep viewers spellbound. With one startling, painterly composition after another—of abandoned fishing cottages, electrical towers, looming docked ships—Red Desert creates a nearly apocalyptic image of its time, and confirms Antonioni as cinema’s preeminent poet of the modern age.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s first colour film, 1964’s Red Desert, receives a North American Blu-ray release from Criterion, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
I was little worried when I first popped the disc in and played the movie as the opening suggests an erratic image similar to the DVD edition from Criterion. The DVD’s transfer, overall, isn’t bad, but its digital transfer is inconsistent presenting some visible digital flaws ranging from edge halos to noise here and there throughout; it’ll look fine one minute but then a mess in another. The Blu-ray has some noticeable edge-enhancement in the beginning, including one hard-to-ignore moment where a very smooth halo appears around the head and upper body of one of the administrators on the phone. It’s also noticeable around some of the smoke stacks and buildings in the opening shots, and it’s not subtle or faint, but rather glaring; the film grain actually disappears in these halos, looking to have been smoothed out. But then as the film progressed past this it actually wasn’t as big an issue as I feared and nothing stands out after this, the image looking quite good and staying fairly consistent through the remainder of the film, or at the very least issues are nowhere near as evident.
Past that the transfer is incredibly sharp (forgetting the many moments where sequences go out of focus of course) and detail and definition is excellent, displaying nice textures. There have been comments on the colour presentations between this Blu-ray and the BFI edition, each offering a significantly different look. I don’t know which is right so won’t comment on this issue but will say I thought Criterion’s colours do look beautifully rendered, and the reds present in the film have a certain pop. Grain is present, getting heavy at times, but it looks natural, with no visible compression artifacts or blocking present. And I should remind people grain does not bother me unless it really impacts the image, so those that have a thing against film grain should take heed: The film is grainy, but the transfer at least handles it superbly.
The print is in exceptional condition, but does contain a couple of large blemishes. Halfway through, after the group leaves the shack, there’s a large orange vertical mark that falls through the middle of the screen, which then appears again later on. There’s also a large black blotch during the one final sequence that finds Vitti’s character wandering around the ship. Yet other than these instances it’s virtually spot free.
It has some problems but overall I was pleased with it; it’s very sharp and as a whole does retain a film look.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM mono track. Like most Italian movies it appears to have been looped post-production and it shows (specifically over Richard Harris, who spoke English while filming, later to be dubbed over by an Italian actor) causing vocals to sound hollow. On the other hand music and sound effects offer more range, coming off quite a bit more vigorous than the voices. In fact, some of the sound effects are incredibly loud, but never sound distorted or harsh. In all it’s average, but it offers a few surprises.
Criterion’s Blu-ray contains a number of intriguing supplements, adding some real value to this edition. Unless otherwise noted below, all features are presented in 1080i/60hz.
First Criterion has ported over the audio commentary that appeared on the BFI release, which features film scholar David Forgacs. It’s very scholarly and it can be dry, but it does manage to still offer a fascinating analysis of the film’s themes of alienation and adaptation, mixed in with anecdotes about the making of the film, and talk of the compositions and the film’s editing. He of course talks about Antonioni’s use of colour and how he would paint the setting to get the look he was going for, which included not only painting man made items but painting vegetation and objects in nature, including one shot where he painted trees a white, only to film the scene and have the trees turn out black, which led to the sequence being abandoned. He offers some historical context about the industrialization of Italy, including the health and environmental concerns that come with it, along with the unsafe working conditions. He also covers Antonioni’s work with Vitti and talks about some of her other work, but surprisingly doesn’t say much about Richard Harris, only briefly mentioning Harris’ annoyance with Antonioni, which led him to leaving the film. He does make some comments about the transfer as well, but since this was originally made for the BFI disc it should be kept in mind he is referring to that one. In all it’s a worthy track, certainly worth listening to, offering an excellent look into at the film.
Moving to the supplements section we first get a 12-minute interview with Michelangelo Antonioni, recorded for the French television program Les écrans de la ville in 1964. In it he mentions how he came up with the idea for Red Desert and the themes he was trying to present in the film, specifically adapting to the modern world. He makes sure to mention he has nothing against the modern world, praising progress, and then he moves on to the use of colour, and states no painter has influenced him for this film. He also talks about Vitti, her roles in previous films (L’Avventura and L’Eclisse,) how he sees actors and even mentions the critical reception of his work. Short but good, though it covers a lot of material that’s already mentioned in the commentary track.
The following interview is one from 1990 with Monica Vitti. Running only 9-minutes and filmed for the French television program Cinéma cinémas, she briefly chats about first meeting Antonioni and their work together, and then goes into great detail about L’Avventura and the grueling process that went into getting it made. It’s unfortunately brief and rushed (and I suspect edited down) but it’s at least wonderful getting an interview of any sort with the Vitti, who still looks radiant here at almost 60.
The next feature is an interesting one, a collection of Dailies presented in both black-and-white as well as colour, included to “show the precision of Antonioni’s framing and the direction of actors.” It runs 28-minutes, and 75% of it is material taken from the “Shack” sequence. It’s basically made of multiple takes and tests (I assume) all unedited with no cutting. Colour and B&W material is put together seamlessly in Criterion’s presentation. Seeing some of the sequences in black and white and then comparing them to the similar colour ones from the film makes for an intriguing activity, making one see just how important Antonioni’s use of colour in the film is, the lack of the reds being the most striking element. I’m also positive there’s a deleted bit in here, involving Vitti on the phone. I’ve seen the film a few times (having just revisited it on both the DVD and this Blu-ray) and I do not recall this scene in the film at all, though I could be drawing a blank and I’m sure someone will correct me. At any rate I don’t think it’s necessary viewing but it’s intriguing none the less. The dailies play with no audio and have been divided into 6 chapters.
Next on the list are a couple of short films made by Antonioni in the 40’s. First is the 11-minute Gente del po, which is a non-fiction short that follows a barge going down the Po river, Antonioni’s camera meeting the people that live along it as it passes. It’s a beautiful piece, and Antonioni’s compositions are rather striking. The presentation is fine, actually presented in 1080p here, but there are slight subtitle problems where they display before any dialogue is spoken (the DVD also does this.) A bit annoying but not horrific.
The next short film is N.U., another short documentary by Antonioni, this one about the sanitation department in Rome. This one has very little voice over narration and really just films the workers as they go through their daily routine. Again it’s a beautifully composed piece and a great inclusion. The presentation is fine enough but annoyingly the distribution company for the film, Cinecittà Luce, has their logo pasted in the top right corner. This one is also presented in 1080p.
The disc then closes with a rather bizarre 4-minute theatrical trailer. It begins with the film’s Golden Lion win, and then goes down an odd route. I can’t say I got any sort of “neurotic woman alienated by a progressing, industrialized society” feel from the trailer, instead getting a “sex romp” sort of feel from it. Odd.
Like all of their Blu-rays this one contains a Timeline feature, which allows you to navigate through the chapters on the disc and bookmarks spots. But Criterion has now added a “Resume Playback” feature, which allows the viewer to return to where they left off if they had to leave the film and turn off their player. If you stop at any point during the movie and then load up the disc later a pop-up appears asking if you want to resume the film with “Yes” or “No” as the options. Clicking “Yes” returns you to the film while “No” takes you to the main menu. This appears on discs from other studios (Warner Bros. jumps to mind) and I’m glad Criterion is including it; sometimes I would forget to bookmark if I had to turn off a Blu-ray (and as much as I love Blu-ray I do miss how most DVD players would pick up on where you left off—it’s the little things.) This is also available on their Blu-rays of Everlasting Moments and The Leopard, and I assume this will be common on all future Blu-rays. As far as I could tell it wasn’t on Close-Up or Mystery Train, their other June releases.
The release then includes a rather thick booklet, first opening with an excellent analytical essay on the film by Mark Le Fanu, followed by one of the best inclusions in this edition, a reprint of an interview between Jean-Luc Godard and Antonioni, which focuses primarily on the use of colour in the film, that originally appeared in the November 1964 edition of Cahiers du cinema. The booklet then concludes with a couple of short notes about the short films included on the disc. Another fantastic booklet from Criterion.
In the end an excellent number of supplements, the short films being an incredibly nice addition.
The transfer can be improved upon, but it’s at least more stable than the DVD transfer, and still comes off looking more like a film. I also had no issue with the colour presentation. Throw in some rather intriguing supplements and you get an overall strong release from Criterion.