Dir.: Michelangelo Antonioni
TC4P Rating: 9/9
Appearance: dialogue only; unseen species of Mediterranean frequency.
In the traditional and monstrous fashion of most fictional sharks, the appearance of this "pescecane" (as it is referred to in the Italian of what is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films of all time, L'avventura) comes out of nowhere to rupture the plot violently and infuse images of its "horrid" self into the thoughts of the film's idle rich. An idyllic summer voyage to the islands in the Aeolian Sea off Sicily, in which a boat full of the emotionally empty languish in their own ennui and the lies they tell themselves and others, all under the pretense of having a good time, turns tragic when the most conflicted of the lot, Anna, completely disappears, both from the island they are visiting, and from the movie altogether.
Before she disappears, however (and just before they decide to dock at the island) she tells a small lie. A lie about a shark swimming beneath her feet after her selfish and pouting dive off the craft and into the water. She screams and yells at the beast, but no one (including the audience) ever gets a glimpse of it; later, back on the ship, she reveals her attention-getting ruse to her best friend Claudia. For the rest of the film following her disappearance, this small detail of her lie about the shark forces both the audience and Claudia to always wonder about her. Is Anna only hiding out playfully? We (and Claudia) also have the inside track on her tortured emotional state over her stagnant relationship with her boyfriend Sandro, and Antonio's teasing placement of boats in the near distance without a clearly defined passenger leave us pondering whether she has run off. The film, and its director, are not the least bit worried about where she is, nor about how her loss affects her friends. Rather, the concern is with their eventual lack of concern. Claudia and Sandro will have a fling almost immediately upon Anna's dispatch, and while they play at searching for her off and on, they almost blithely forget she ever existed for large portions of the film's remainder.
I have had this film on my "must see" lists for years now. The Criterion Collection disc of L'avventura does make pains to point out its inclusion as the #2 greatest film of all time just two years after its release on a Sight and Sound poll. To this day, I have only ever read one issue of Sight and Sound (and that, just a few years ago), but I had encountered their polls for years in various bookish sources since I was a teenager. My memory of this film's title stems directly from encountering that list from 1962 (I think it was included in The Book of Lists), and partly from my teenaged incredulity at the inclusion of any film that hadn't already entered my admittedly narrow world view at that time. A handful of years away from allowing Kurosawa's swords and arrows to open my eyes to "world cinema," I was immersed only in American pop culture. Even the Hitchcock films I had seen and fallen in love with were the product of Hollywood. I would actually get visibly angry at the inclusion of films like this one or Bicycle Thieves appearing on such lists, believing falsely that only Americans or the British knew how to make great films. After all, those were the only films that I had seen. If these foreign films were so great, I then mused, how come they were not shown on television, instead of Bob Hope's The Cat and the Canary or all of those Jerry Lewis films I saw every Saturday afternoon?
I would learn eventually how wrong I was on this count, but when I saw that 1962 list, only two films were Hollywood productions -- Citizen Kane at #1, and Greed at #4. While I had seen Kane and already loved it, Greed was unknown to me, and the fact that its director, Erich von Stroheim, was not American held little sway in its favor either way. Since I hadn't seen it, whatever its origin, it was just as foreign as the rest. My xenophobia at the age of 15 would not be deterred; by 17, that xenophobia was already doomed for the grave. That was when I went back to those Sight and Sound lists and took the stance of using them as guidelines towards building my film education. And yet, a quarter of a century later, there were still films on those lists that I hadn't seen. Criterion is making it easier all the time, though, to do so, and it was with a reminder of those polls that I eventually queued up L'avventura on Netflix.
What I was not expecting (as these things often go) was the appearance of a "pescecane". I was merely catching up with a film I had long wished to see, and already a little bored with the film, when the shark scene perked me up. Perhaps this is Antonioni's intent; perhaps not. Whatever the reason for its inclusion, I was suddenly caught up in the storyline for the remaining two hours of the film. Not because I thought it was suddenly going to turn into Jaws -- I'm quite sure that I would have heard more about this film in my usual circles if it was that sort of movie -- but because it was the first moment in the film that truly whipped up my interest. My eye had already been caught by some of the film's amazingly structured shots, but the purposefully bland dialogue had dulled my interest until the shark lie brought me back into caring about the plot.
And this is what confuses me about the film, because I have read numerous short plot summaries of the film over the years, but I have to admit I can scarcely recall one that mentions anything about Anna's false encounter with her "pescecane". Seeing the film twice this week (a second viewing with commentary followed a couple nights later) forces me to consider the importance of the scene, and whether it is being discounted by those who are viewing the film. Just because the shark is a fabrication, doesn't mean it isn't there within the film. At first, because no one knows it is a lie, it becomes a figure, albeit brief, of terror to the other tourists; later, it becomes almost a mocking though still worrisome memory for certain members of the party. Soon, like Anna, the shark will be forgotten by them; Anna will disappear and become myth, whether by her own making or not. Unfortunately, the shark seems to be forgotten by many who see this film too, though I am glad its appearance (or lack of one) caught me aware.
That's why The Shark Film Office exists: to capture even the most elusive of the species.
[Editor's note: Ironically enough, the most recent Sight and Sound poll in 2002 is more American/British than ever, with six Hollywood productions on the poll -- seven, really, since the first two Godfather installments are counted as one. Weird how this turned around me; I now dispute their results because it is too westernized.]
[Editor's note 2/6/16: The latest Sight and Sound poll in 2012 was split evenly between American/British productions and foreign films, five to five. And I have now seen L'avventura five times, and consider it to be brilliant and not boring at all. I have drunk deep of this particular Kool-Aid.]