5:30 PM EDT, October 31, 2013
We've reached it. We've now reached the amnesiac point in film culture when Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" (1960) can return to a big screen, in a restored 35 mm print courtesy of Janus Films, and confound audiences anew. The majority of those seeing it this week at the Music Box Theatre, at least those under a certain age, are likely confronting the film's riddles and ellipses and hypnotic landscapes for the first time. Some will be entranced; others, like many before them, will leave restless and hungry for a different sort of mystery, the type Antonioni had no interest in solving.
While cruising near Sicily, a yacht whose guests include a famous architect, his opaque lover and the lover's alluring best friend drops anchor for a while. The lover disappears on an island. The search, such as it is, begins. And continues, all over Italy. The architect and the best friend fall into bed. Guiltily? Randomly? Will the missing woman ever be missed?
As in "La Notte" and "Eclipse," Antonioni's ravishingly melancholy follow-ups, "L'Avventura" cares less about conventional and explainable motivations, and more about the ambiguous feelings beneath the surface lives of the rich and dissatisfied. Monica Vitti became a paragon of a new brand of neurotic glamour as the best friend. Aldo Scavarda's limpid black-and-white cinematography turns Antonioni's locations, on water or land, into postcards from the edge of despair.
Is the movie all mood and no "there"? Plenty think so, including Time Out London's Geoff Andrew, who wrote: "If it once seemed the ultimate in arty, intellectually chic movie-making, the film now looks all too studied and remote a portrait of emotional sterility." It's easy to bash Antonioni as passe. It's harder, I think, to explain the cinematic power of the way his camera watches, and waits, while the people on screen stave off a dreadful loneliness.
Three years before "L'Avventura," Antonioni made the gritty "Il Grido" in a very different style. It's the mark of any first-rate film artist: two films, three years apart, so distinct yet sharing so many preoccupations of character and landscape and human mystery.
Documentary filmmakers can make any number of rookie mistakes with their first features. Casting too wide a net is one of the most common. "La Camioneta" avoids that pothole, beautifully.
Filmmaker Mark Kendall keeps the focus narrow, indicated by the film's subtitle: "The Story of One American School Bus." His elegant and fluid account, just more than an hour in length minus end credits, begins with Guatemalan resident Domingo Lastor at a rural Pennsylvania bus auction, where decommissioned school buses go for two, three, perhaps four thousand dollars. Many of the buyers come from Central America. "La Camioneta," translating loosely to "chicken bus" and referring to a brightly colored, blinged-out mode of public transportation, tells the story of one such bus, and the mechanics and drivers dependent on its safe migration from the U.S. to Guatemala City, and then to Quetzal City.
The latter route is full of risks. According to "La Camioneta," roughly 1,000 drivers and fare-collectors have been murdered by Guatemalan gang extortionists since 2006. The socioeconomic dimensions are tapped into place, lightly but firmly. One mechanic/artist interviewed by Kendall speaks of the buses as migrants, ironically making their way south from America at the same time many Guatemalan nationals venture north in search of a living.
"Have mercy on my drivers," one man says, near the end of the film, as the newly refurbished bus — as much a rolling art object as cheap transportation — is christened. Director Kendall will introduce "La Camioneta" at several of this week's Chicago premiere screenings at the Siskel Film Center. It's well worth seeing.
"L'Avventura" -- 4 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2:23; in Italian with English subtitles.
Plays: Friday-Thursday at the Music Box Theatre
"La Camioneta" -- 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:11
Plays: Friday-Wednesday at the Gene Siskel Film Center
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