The 1964 Italian Film That Speaks to the Dread of Climate Change

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert was far ahead of its time in its depiction of the widespread sense of paralysis at our ability to stop capitalism from destroying the planet.

Still of Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964).

The opening shot of the late Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 film, Red Desert, is a still shot of the tip of a petrochemical plant unleashing flames and smoke in rapid succession, like a gun firing into the sky. It’s the kind of abruptness and directness that can be expected in many more sequences in the movie. Antonioni’s film maintains an artistic impressionistic distance in its narrative but has no qualms about saying what it really wants to say about industrialization, capitalism, and the effect that both have on nature and human society in its images. It’s a stark and refreshing mix of artistic and political intent in cinema, working hand in hand together to create something that uses the formalism of the former to achieve the emotive ends of the latter.

This kind of filmmaking seems to be out of vogue in today’s culture. Yet Antonioni’s Red Desert understands the human feelings and day-to-day existential crisis under climate change and capitalism better than any other recent movie.

Antonioni professed that his film’s aim wasn’t to rail against industrialization, but rather consider its growth and prominence in society as a necessary adjustment that some people simply could not handle. This authorial intent is not beyond the pale for 1960s Italy, a nation wracked with catastrophic economic strife following World War II, and one which saw industrialization and modernization as a savior for the population. Mass production and globalization, two necessary elements to spreading capitalism around the world, were in stages of development that hadn’t made their draconian effects evidently clear yet, at least not for the West. Climate change wasn’t in the general vernacular and industrial advancements still gave visions of optimistic potential that now have soured.

But today, Monica Vitti’s s shattering performance as Giuliana in the film and Antonioni’s imagery have become more and more relatable in terms of the direct emotional and passionate evocations of alienation and inescapable doom.

Vitti, one of Italy’s greatest actresses, is at the center of nearly all of Antonioni’s films about alienation in a modernizing world. While in L’Eclisse (1962), we see her jostled around and feeling lost inside the craze of a stock exchange, overwhelmed by hustlers chasing after nonsensical numbers going up and down, in Red Desert she is a miniature figure in a jungle of steel pipes and mounds of burning soot.

This framing is consistent throughout the film, where hulking machines and vehicles dwarf the humans that wander near them. There is also an inherent irony in these images, where these machines, careening over civilization, causing injury and death, and spewing black smoke into the air we breathe, are maintained and held aloft by the humans suffering under their shadows.

When Antonioni’s characters are not around the behemoth structures of the industrial plant, they’re huddled in small, closed spaces. Even in a day-trip excursion to the coast by Giuliana (Vitti), her partner Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), and a few of their friends including the industrialist Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), the creeping sensations of mechanization and environmental degradation cannot be escaped. Their laughter and joy in the scene, one of the few moments of respite in the film, is abruptly cut short by a humongous ship docking. Cinematographer Carlo di Palma shows Vitti looking through a window into the fog and the visage of the ship floating in like a phantom, gradually blocking the entire view like an eclipse blocking out the sun. When the ship is quarantined because of a viral outbreak, Giuliana becomes scared and inconsolable.

Still from Red Desert. (Janus Films)

At one point, she describes a woman who was in the hospital next to her who felt like she was constantly sinking and slipping and had nothing to grab on to, nothing to love. Seeing such a description today hits very deep at the kind of helplessness people feel in a system and project that continues unabated without their participation or influence. Vitti, too, in the film is only able to look on at everything around her, witness the environment and geography changing while she feels small and alone.

Her companionship and brief romance with Corrado doesn’t help much. He is an active participant in creating this new world that is creeping in on the old. He is in Italy looking for low-wage labor workers to recruit for a major industrial project in Argentina, funded by the British. When he goes to meet some potential hirees and explain the project, they have a litany of questions and uncertainty for him: When will they be able to visist their family? What is the pay? What are the accommodations? Will they be protected from injury? Will they ever be able to come back to their home country of Italy? Corrado looks at them dumbfounded with no real answers — or perhaps he knows the answers and knows the workers won’t like what they hear.

What is still refreshing about Red Desert even after nearly sixty years is its ability to relay directly the feelings of living under capitalism through the cinematic form. There is a consistent obfuscation of humanity in the land of man-made creations. When Giuliana visits a factory, she is framed behind a series of red beams. Her conversation with Corrado takes place in an apartment complex of concrete, clean blocks and manicured grass, with one pink flower delicately standing. In the docks, the characters are seen as small figures, faint in the fog, next to the gigantic ship.

Again, toward the end of the movie, a large piping structure in the foreground looks like it wraps and engulfs Giuliana, who looks scared and timid in the back. The formal image-building here is some of Antonioni’s best, and it’s utilized brilliantly to make feelings and emotion explicit. Like in La Notte (1961) where the last ten minutes of the film is a montage of silent images of modernization — electrical grids, streets, cars — Red Desert evokes its feelings in similar images, but also in its characters’ dialogue. Giuliana is not coy about what she sees and thinks about in the movie.

A world worth living in requires technological advancement, industrial progress, and other major benefits of modern society. But in our lifetimes, these developments have been tethered to capitalism — thus our jobs, businesses, homes, streets, and other foundational elements of the society that we have known and needed all our lives are tied to the enrichment of the few, yet built and maintained by the many who suffer the consequences of their creation. Obscuring them in metaphor and analogy doesn’t quite have the same power as direct imagery.

Perhaps Red Desert is not a movie that many people would have the patience for. But there’s no more powerful film I can think of that is so direct in evoking the exact dread we feel around us.

Near the end of the movie, Giuliana stands with her son looking at one of the smoke stacks of the factory. He asks “Why is that smoke yellow?” She says, “It’s poisonous.” He responds, “So, if a bird flies near it, it will die?” She continues “The birds know not to fly here anymore.” Her words hit like a punch in the pit of the soul.