Amor vacui, love for emptiness: absence that makes presence, silence that deafens, darkness that illuminates. It’s difficult to manage it, it takes very little to let it take over and make everything collapsing in an instant. Many have avoided and feared it, while others have used it to better express their poetry. In the latter category we can find one of the cinematographic geniuses who have most influenced the Seventh Art from the second post-war period onwards, Michelangelo Antonioni. Existentialist, personification (at least until the 1960s) of the motto “Less is more”, the Ferrara director has never denied being fascinated by the power of subtraction, to him much more fascinating than addition, both in terms of visual and audio.
The moment Antonioni fixes amor vacui definitively as a stylistic code is the so-called Tetralogy of incommunicability. A series of four films, including L’avventura (The adventure), La note (The night), L’eclisse (The eclipse) and Deserto rosso (Red desert) – released between 1959 and 1964 – connected by the onset of the disease of feelings and its evolution (as well as by the regular presence of Monica Vitti). The characters move in environments that manifest nothing, but the unsustainability of an existence forced into the moral crisis of the new society, the reification of man now a slave to what he himself has created and which he cannot free himself from. Individuals do not even express this malaise among themselves because they are prevented by the isolation that cages them. They exist, but they don’t live. Not really, at least, although some of them believe otherwise – or rather, they don’t particularly care. To underline this, Michelangelo Antonioni surrounds them with objects, buildings or natural landscapes that remind them of what they lost. Without moralizing intentions, of course: a mere awareness of reality (never entirely true nor complete) that presents itself before the eyes. Furthermore, in the Tetralogy we witness some fundamental changes: the director takes the great leap towards color (Deserto rosso, in fact, is his first film not in black and white) and progressively decreases the density of the dialogues and musical accompaniment – already little exploited previously and still inserted only if strictly necessary and not as a comment. In their place, contemplative silences and sounds and noises of the surrounding environment.
Although the first of the Tetralogy, therefore “only” the beginning of an articulated and precise artistic journey, L’avventura embodies all these aesthetic and stylistic ideas in an already well-developed form. Out of the total two hours and twenty-five minutes of duration, there are essentially four moments in which the music can be heard; of these, three are by the composer who has collaborated most with Antonioni since the debut film (Cronaca di un amore), Giovanni Fusco, while one is a pop music piece. Although the former appears to be about three minutes in total (they are divided into opening credits, closing credits and two key moments in the story), they are essential to support the director’s thesis that cinema is an audio-visual art, but where the image and the fascination he has always had for absence prevails – which in his works is, precisely, presence. They do not serve as a commentary, the shot stands on its own: they remind us of the importance and fullness of emptiness – musical, visual, and existential. The only song used by Antonioni in the strict sense, however, is Mai, interpreted by Mina (appreciated by the director and for which he writes the lyrics for Eclisse twist, later inserted in the film L’eclisse) still amid her “urlatrice” period. We hear it in the second part of the film, when, upon waking up, Claudia expresses her state of confusion to Sandro by moving around the room following his rhythm and improvising a playback. The alienating effect is intentional, and Monica Vitti gives further proof of great acting ability, albeit in her first real important role in cinema. She dances on the piece played by the record player, she also tries to involve the man who, however, does not seem (or does not want) to understand what she is trying (without being able) to communicate by not using words.
Little presence of the musical track, but no ambient noise: the waves of the Mediterranean breaking on the rocks, the seagulls, the wind… Everything that characterizes the soundscape of Sicily is recorded by Antonioni with extreme precision, even in overabundance to then be edited later. The steps of the walking characters underline the absence of musical commentary, recalling, almost accompanied by an echo effect, the emptiness of the spaces and their existence.
This interest in the void and the absence of the audio aspect of the cinematographic medium is also partly given by a biographical fact of the director: as a boy, in fact, not feeling suited to studying the violin, he decided to abandon it. A “precedent” was therefore created between music and Antonioni, who, although fascinated and intrigued, never managed to overcome that youthful difficulty. The world of images, therefore, has evidently shown itself to be the best for expressing one’s vision of reality.