Stranger Than Fiction

L’Avventura, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (still taken at 1:34:24)

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”
Blaise Pascal, Pensées

An empty space can feel foreboding, unsettling. When a plaza, a space typically of the people, is found empty, it can produce a sense of anxiety. This anxiety has been identified as a form of agoraphobia, a condition exclusive to modern urban dwellers.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura (1960), public space is the backdrop to scenes where characters undergo moments of great psychological anxiety. In the shot above, the two characters in the car, Claudia and Sandro, are on a mission to find Anna, Sandro’s lover, who earlier in the film goes missing during a yacht trip off the coast of Sicily. Their investigation leads them to Noto, a small town that is apparently deserted. Claudia walks to the edge of the sun-drenched plaza and looks down on another cluster of buildings. “There’s another [town] there,” Sandro says. “That’s not a town. That’s a cemetery. My God, how dreary. Let’s go,” Claudia replies. The air is thick, stagnant, the sun blazing. An ominous weight hangs over the scene, foreshadowing the hopelessness of their search and their doomed relationship. Sandro mistakes a city of the dead for a city of the living, recalling Aldo Rossi’s Cemetery of San Cataldo, the ossuary of which is described by Eugene J. Johnson as “an abandoned or incomplete house, with empty windows, unroofed.”

The final scene of the film is shot in the hidden recesses of a dark alleyway, the camera slowly creeping around the side of the building that at first appears uninhabited. We, as audience, have become voyeurs, protected by the darkness, observing the lovers who are blind to our presence. Noto, meaning “known” in Italian, is a town that represents only the unknown. Their trip there does not enlighten Claudia and Sandro, it only generates more confusion and uncertainty. But, as Anthony Vidler argues in the article “Transparency and Utopia,” it is in the slippage between transparency and obscurity that “the sublime as an instrument of fear retains its hold, in that ambiguity that stages the presence of death in life, dark space in bright space.” Antonioni purposefully sets the bright plaza as the perspectival focal point of the composition, in contrast with the dark foreground of decrepit buildings. The scene culminates in a view of the church across the plaza, standing solidly as a symbolic monument to religious domination.

Fictions are fabricated in the shadows, in the interstice between light and dark. We can look to Antonioni not only for how he captures space, but how he films the relationship between bodies in space. The intrigue of the narrative occurs in the undefined space between public and private, and in what is left unspoken. What appears as reality on the surface is actually a facade masking a terror beyond.

Leticia Wouk Almino