Red Desert – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #522 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

June 11, 2010 by  

Director Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Il deserto rosso” (Red Desert) is ahead of its time.  His efficacy in the life lived around an industrial world and a woman who feels as if she is submerging to nothingness due to the industrial world around her.  The final collaboration between Antonioni and his muse Monica Vitti is magnificent!

© 1964 Mediatrade.  All Rights Reserved.   2010 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.


DURATION: 117 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:85:1 Aspect Ratio), Color, Italian Monaural, Subtitles: English SDH


RELEASE DATE: June 22, 2010

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Written by Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra

Produced by Tonino Cervi

Co-Producer: Angelo Rizzoli

Music by Giovanni Fusco

Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma

Edited by Eraldo Da Roma

Art Direction by Piero Poletto

Costume Design by Gitt Magrini


Monica Vitti as Giuliana

Richard Harris as Corrado Zeller

Carlo Chionetti as Ugo

Xenia Valderi as Linda

Rita Renoir as Emilia

Lili Rheims as Telescope Operator’s Wife

Aldo Grotti as Max

Valerio Bartoleschi as Giulana’s Son

Emanuela Paola Carboni as Girl in Fable

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s panoramas of contemporary alienation were decade-defining artistic events, and Red Desert, his first color film, is perhaps his most epochal. This provocative look at the spiritual desolation of the technological age—about a disaffected woman, brilliantly portrayed by Antonioni muse Monica Vitti, wandering through a bleak industrial landscape beset by power plants and environmental toxins, and tentatively flirting with her husband’s coworker, played by Richard Harris—continues to keep viewers spellbound. With one startling, painterly composition after another—of abandoned fishing cottages, electrical towers, looming docked ships—Red Desert creates a nearly apocalyptic image of its time, and confirms Antonioni as cinema’s preeminent poet of the modern age.

In 1964, Michelangelo Antonioni (who has earned the nickname “the Master of Alienation”) screened his film “Il deserto rosso” (Red Desert) at the 1964 Venice Film Festival and the director took home the highly coveted Golden Lion award as well as the FIPRESCI Prize.

The Italian modernist director was known for his radical new style, not following any convention of filmmaking and most of all, characters and events are disconnected.  Known for his trilogy, beginning with “L’avventura” (1960), the film was an international success and would introduce the world to the actress Monica Vitti, a woman who would appear as the main character in several of his films.  Antonioni returned with “La Notte” (1961) starring Jeanne Moreau,  Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti which focused on the slow death of a marriage and final of the trilogy “L’Eclisse” would focus on the alienation of man in the modern world.

“Red Desert” is the fourth and final film that Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti would be featured in a film of his (the director would move on to focus his film on a male character).  The film would also feature the director filming in color for the first time.

The film takes place in an industrial town filled with power plants, chemical plants and wherever you look, the skies are gray and the ground is polluted with industrial waste.  The ocean’s foggy breeze flows through the air and steam is rising from the ground.

We see a woman named Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti) and her young son (played by Valerio Bartoleschi) walking through the land in which we see mostly trees, ground, gray sky and many industrial settings.  We see her going up to a stranger asking for his eaten pastry which she would pay for.  We see her try to feed her son who is not interested while the she hides near the trees and starts eating the pastry. We are given a sense that Giuliana is hiding or running away from something.

The film then changes to the industrial setting in which we are introduced to Ugo (played by Carlo Chionetti) who is the husband of Giuliana.   He is the director of  a plant that is going through a strike and his friend Corrado Zeller (played by Richard Harris) has arrived.  The two talk about business but then Ugo tells Zeller about his wife and how she stayed in a hospital for a month because of an accident.

The film then shows us the home of Ugo and Giuliana.  Modern by design, while windows show ships moving through the ocean.  While laying down asleep, Giulianna wakes up and once again, she has a nightmare that the bed is sinking.  Ugo tries to comfort his wife, the best he can.

The following day, we see Giuliana in an area where shops are located (note: most of the shops seem closed and the place is not bustling with customers, it looks quite dead).  This is where Zeller meets his friend’s wife and learns that she is wanting to start a store.

Zeller seems quite enchanted by Giuliana and the two begin talking and from this point on, Zeller begins to understand her even more.  But it appears that Giuliana is suffering and is possibly going mad.

We get a sense that this beautiful young woman is slowly losing herself, losing her sanity and there is no way out.


“Red Desert” is presented in 1080p (1:85:1 Aspect Ratio). According to Criterion, the new HD transfer for “Red Desert” was created on a Spirit HD 2K Datacine from the original 35mm camera negative.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

It’s important to note that Antonioni wanted to capture a certain look.  From Pastel colors, we see the grays in the sky, in fact trees and grass were painted gray to convey the solitude of the area.  Colors are usually seen in paintings on walls or on cylinders and they standout amongst the grays but yet, it’s a look that dreary and gives us a sense of what the industrialized scenery looks like or how we see things through Giuliana’s eyes.

For the most part, the film looks very good in producing this industrial area that is lacking any vitality.  I was told that the BFI Blu-ray release has a lighter greenish blue tint but I have not seen the BFI release to compare.  I did notice a brown line (possibly a few seconds of film damage) around an hr. and five minutes into the film but it’s not long at all.  That was probably the only blemish I have seen while watching the film.

The film contains a good amount of grain and for the most part, this 1964 film definitely looks very good on Blu-ray.


“Red Desert” is presented in LPCM Italian monaural. According to Criterion, the monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, crackle was attenuated using Audiocube’s integrated audio workstation.

Dialogue is clear through the center channel but I chose to have my audio set to stereo on all channels for a more immersive sound.  There are no scenes that utilize any sound effects, it’s pretty much a dialogue driven film that utilizes Giovanni Fusco’s music score to initiate the mood.  Overall, I didn’t notice any audio problems whatsoever.

Subtitles are presented in English.


“Red Desert – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #522” comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary by Italian film scholar David Forgacs – An informative commentary in which film scholar David Forgacs talks about Antonioni’s film technique but also evaluating various parts of the film and more.
  • Archival interviews with director Michelangelo Antonioni – (12:03) An interview from 1965 with Antonioni for the TV series “Les ecrans de la ville” and comparisons of Vitti’s performance in “Red Desert” and “L’Eclisse”.
  • Archival interviews with Monica Vitti – (9:18) An interview from 1990 with actress Monica Vitti for the TV series “Cinema Cinemas”.
  • Dailies from the original production – (27:58) Uncut and unfinished dailies presented in black and white and color without audio.
  • Gente del Po – (11:00) A non-fiction documentary made between 1943 and 1947 looking at the relationship between individuals and their environment.
  • N.U. – (11:40) A 1948  non-fiction documentary about the lives of street cleaners in Rome.  N.U. stands for Nettezza Urbana, an Italian municipal cleaning service.
  • Theatrical trailer – (3:52) The original theatrical trailer.


  • 28- Page Booklet– Featuring an essay by film writer Mark Le Fanu, a reprinted interview with Antonioni conducted by Jean-Luc Godard, and writings by Antonioni on Gente del Po and N.U., also included is an essay “Landcapes of Memory” by Paul Ryan.

“Red Desert” is possibly one of those films in which many people will have different things that come into mind after watching it.

My feeling is that we are seeing a woman who is depressed, suicidal and there is something that is explored in this film that probably had no name for it back in 1964 and probably was not diagnosed.  But the term given within recent times in the US to what Giuliana is going through is “Seasonal Affective Disorder”.  A state of depression that people go through during the winter and it can lead to major depression.

Giuliana is unstable, her surrounding is all gray.  She wants to get out but this is her husband’s job, his livelihood, his life.  And her son, wants to be like dad.

The industrial area with its cold area, not a place for a young woman who wants to enjoy life.  All that is around is grayness.  The trees, the grass, the polluted ground and lakes, and it’s important to note that this film was in 1964.  Viewing this then, people were not mindful of the implications of pollution and its effects on people and the environment.

For us watching this film today, the first thing that comes to our minds are, look at the poisonous gas in the air from the industry.  The fact that Ugo is joking around of how someone caught a fish in the lake that tasted like petroleum.  It may seem like a joke then but we look at this today and we see it with a different mindset of how humanity literally took nature for granted.

So, we have to remove ourselves from the visual of industry and pollution and put ourselves in the mindset of the viewer back in 1964 and focus on the surroundings but mostly on Giuliana and her world crashing down on her.

When she tells the story of a woman in the sea to her son, we get a different visual than the life that Giuliana is living.  In this dream story that she tells, the water is blue, the sand is white and the skies are of a vibrant blue.  Almost like paradise, untouched by pollution or industrial or chemical plants.  We get a sense that this is where Giuliana wants to be and wants to escape.

But she can’t.

In many ways, “Red Desert” is like tragedy but with no fatality.  It’s a tragedy in the sense that we see a person slowly dying inside in which no one can help her. One can watch this film today and say, “why doesn’t she just move out of the area?” but people must realize that in 1964, the women stuck close to their husbands and any suffering, many hid their painful emotions.  She is tethered and feels confined in dreary place where there is no sunlight, the sounds of the area even drive her mad.  She can tell her husband but his pragmatic way of dealing with her is nearly uncaring.

But Giuliana, she tries her best but we know its difficult.  Everyone has a sense that something is wrong but no one has an answer for it.  Nor does she, nor does her doctors.

The Blu-ray of “Red Desert” was a long time coming, many have wanted this release in the US and the fact that we get it on Blu-ray is fantastic.  The special features gives us a really solid featurette on Antonioni’s vision of the film but also through Vitti’s featurette, their relationship.  Also, we get two non-fiction short films from the director and also dailies showing us how things were behind-the-scenes of the filming of “Il Deserto Rosso”.

Although, many people will always hold his trilogy films or “Blow Up” as his most memorable, I felt that with “Red Desert”, director Michelangelo Antonioni has created a unique film.

In his words that he was trying to paint the industrial area as beautiful and that Giuliana must show how one must adapt to their new surroundings.  There are some who can and some who can’t.

Nearly 50 years later, we now see how Antonioni’s “Red Desert”, is a film that was possibly ahead of its time.  It has given viewers a different meaning and a different perspective that goes beyond adapting to a new surrounding.  We see a woman with a mental disease that is eating her up inside and no one knows how to deal with it but hope that time makes her better.   That her time in the area makes her better.

For today’s viewer, “Red Desert” may have a different meaning  than what was intended in 1964 but for many of us, we can easily sympathize with Giuliana because many people if put in her position can easily go into depression and madness.

Overall, director Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Il deserto rosso” (Red Desert) is a film that may not define his career but his efficacy in the life lived around an industrial world and a woman who feels as if she is submerging to nothingness due to the industrial world around her.  The final collaboration between Antonioni and his muse Monica Vitti is magnificent!

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