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from the March 2011 issue


Ravenna, October 15, 1963

Finally, after a year’s delay, we are in Ravenna. Just a week left before the first take. The Red Desert will be born after a long and difficult gestation.

Those of us here with Antonioni: Di Palma, the lighting director, Poletti, the architect, Gianni Arduini, and myself. These are the last days of our feverish preparation.

Setting: difficulties with Giuliana’s house. The place on the Candiano has the right kind of view of the ships, but the interior won’t do. Doubts about the workman’s house in Comacchio. The street of Giuliana’s store has already been chosen: Via Pietro Alighieri in the heart of Ravenna.

Antonioni returns frequently to these places. We inspect the cities and their surroundings; we visit one factory after another. We even stopped by to see the radio telescope in Medicina.

Actors: of the lead roles, we still need Ugo, the husband of Giuliana (Vitti). Richard Harris will play Corrado.

Weather: sunny. And we need to shoot under clouds, fog, gray. Everyone is assuring us that Ravenna’s always foggy in winter. The locals have us drowning in a sea of fog by next month.

Another big problem: the strike scene. Everyone here works; it’s hard to find extras.

October 17, 1963

Visit to the area of Ugo’s shack. Hot and sunny. The mosquitoes are honing in on Poletto’s Opel, they come in the windows. We close the windows, but even like this we can’t manage to defend ourselves. In the end, we get out of the car and go on foot along the path.

We are a few days away from the beginning of shooting and throughout the region persists the sweet air of late summer. On the water, on the other side of the canal’s embankment, small immobile white forms dot the water. I throw a stone, give a shout, and a flock of gulls lifts up in flight.

Squalor, the sense of rotting: the black water runs slowly under the rickety dock of the shack. Nobody’s fished here for years.

The shack will work. One of the walls will need to be painted black. Inside we’ll hang up the zebra poster we brought from Rome.

Later, behind the cemetery, we find an old ship. The man that lives on board explains that the boat’s carcass will be turned into a raft for the transport of grain from the ships to the bank, to the silos of Candiano. The production is coming together: this will be the ship that appears through the fog to the group of friends in Max’s shack.

October 19, 1963

The nth inspection at the home of Giuliana. We’re at the Sade village. Houses in a row, oblique with respect to the street, all of them at an angle up to the canal. The apartment doesn’t seem to offer much working space for the filming equipment. The locations are very tight. The connection to the exterior (the ships that pass by on the smooth water of the canal, the iron towers, the silos of Soja) doesn’t seem to be easily transferable to the screen as things are. Basically, in order to give the idea that Antonioni had matured in contact with this reality, we would need to redo the apartment. An unlikely task, seeing as the house is occupied.

In this room, the ships passing outside create the illusion of entering through the window. It’s a singular suggestion: the lines of the cement foundation of the pier under construction behind the house, the countryside beyond the canal, the ruddy structure of Sade’s new heating plant, the soft tension of the dome of the sky seem to cancel out the window, dilating it with dimensions based on our incredulity. The landscape invades the house through our emotional reaction, it stamps out any sense of intimacy. A penetration of planes and spaces in which Antonioni reveals the dramatic idea of Giuliana’s house.

But the richness of the planes, of the angles, of the perspectives that compose internal and external presences in a single frame, is for the moment only a psychological operation that the camera will only be able to evoke with difficulty without adequate conditions on set. “The ships that enter the house,” “oily water that almost seems to touch the windows,” “to be inside and outside at the same time”; that is, the dramatic value of this inside-outside relationship, to which Giuliana ascribes the meaning of the outside world’s imprudent indiscretion in regards to her illness, is also a problem of set design and production.

The timid Venetian woman who follows Antonioni from room to room looks at us in wonder. “Ma’am, we’re going to knock your wall here, and open up a big window in this other wall…” She smiles, disarmed, and consents, amused and incredulous. It’s just fine with her if we make her house nicer. “Ask at Sade. If it’s all right with them…” Sade doesn’t seem to agree.

Opening up windows, changing the internal structures of the house, rearticulating the relationship between windows in a such a way as to literally transform the dependence between inside and outside (entirely subjective, a mental calculation) into a dependence that’s real, concrete, with the external dominating the internal, invading an objective optic, so that it could be recorded by a camera and brought into a dialectical function with the character.

November 11, 1963

Headquarters of Enel (what was Sade). We’ve come to discuss the shooting schedule in the establishment with the management. For the nth time we ask abut the house on the canal (Giuliana’s apartment). They tell us that the house is supposed to be demolished to make room for the structures of a new central electrical plant. We easily get authorization for our set design department to do as it pleases. The interior walls will be knocked down, and new windows will be put in. But we must respect their calendar. We’ll need to be out by the start date for their new construction. And the scenes in Giuliana’s house will need a lot of work. Will we make it?

We’re still missing the actor who will play Ugo.

Negotiations with G., the engineer from Trieste who we auditioned, aren’t going as they should. A trip by Antonioni to Milan, trips by producers, letters, telegrams and telephone calls. It’s almost a month now that the engineer’s been trying to decide. The fear of being fired from the factory where he works, a conference in Berlin, questions of money, perhaps a fascinating terror of cinema. The situation is quite serious. We’ve been to Bologna, Rimini, Cesena, Forlì, but there isn’t another engineer like G. We auditioned an architect in Bologna. It didn’t go well. They suggested a notary, Mr. C.C. Perhaps an ad in the paper would resolve the problem.

The majority of the difficulties of this Red Desert are sun-related. The sun takes away the possibility of shooting outdoor shots that include Ugo; but we can’t go inside yet. Giuliana’s apartment only exists on paper. There we could have saved ourselves by shooting the scenes of the boy and Giuliana, with Corrado, Linda, and Giuliana. In Max’s shack we need Ugo, not to mention that the shack isn’t ready yet. The scene with the electrical plant (indoors) is a long conversation between Corrado and Ugo. We’ve focused again on via Alighieri, but it’s a continual gamble with the sun.

November 19, 1963

Sade. Inside the machine room. The noise is infernal. After two hours among the generators, this giant buzzing invades your body like a fever.

The floor of the machine room is a steel grate that lets you see from below what’s happening on the other floors, and vice versa. Under us run bundles of pipes of various sizes and colors. Overhead, grated staircases and transparent landings. Talking is useless, because it takes too much effort to make yourself heard.

Today we witnessed a test of some new pipes in the central boiler under construction. It was a terrifying jet of steam. Antonioni wants to use it in the outdoor scene.

November 20, 1963

We’re outdoors. Still at Sade. The sun is killing us, of course. We’re preparing Corrado’s and Ugo’s exit from the ground floor machine room. It’s the scene in which Ugo tells his friend about Giuliana’s accident.

The machinists are putting down tracks for a long cart between the wall and a rusty tank. While we wait, they tell us that they’re going to repeat the experiment with the jet of steam. We stop work on the cart, we put down the Mitchell and look for a place for the Arriflex.

It isn’t easy to describe the sound that you can feel when the steam escapes the pipes. At first there’s a little puffing; then, all of a sudden, a violent pink stream, gray, from which a high raspy whistle breaks out, it’s intolerable, and ends up festering in your stomach (making the noises of the central plant seem like a walk in the park) and rattling you with the energy of a hundred bombs exploding in the air. We keep our hands tight over our ears. Someone says how many decibels it is. The air whips around the violent globes of steam. The action between De Prà and Harris shot from the back, against the steam. Ugo calmly explains to Corrado what’s going on.

November 26, 1963

We’ve come back to the shack. Today the six characters will take off their shoes, one by one, and will take their spots on the bed, in the closed red cave of the little room, a uterine environment of quick and inconclusive excitements, of infantile hysterics with erotic veins (spoken only), a place of fragile distractions against an incumbent terror of internal rupture and the regurgitations of a bitter awareness of a senseless world.

The first to enter the room is Emilia (Rita Renoir). Renoir wears a green dress. Of the stripper there remains only a certain savage aggression in her face (theatrical, a formula, certainly); and her movement. The combination of the petit-bourgeois and provincial costume with these residual elements of an exotic dancer reproduces the exemplum of the “estrogen-charged” character. The fashion-model walk that seemed a bit odd in the beginning, an extraneous element of Emilia’s character, is slowly revealing itself to be a grotesque complement of the erotic factor, fundamental for her characterization and aura. Antonioni doesn’t need to do anything but recommend a little moderation, and to attenuate (but not eliminate) her cattishness, and she’s perfect.

Renoir is nervous. Evidently, she’s picked up on the contamination effect (reducing herself to the psychology of a hysterical petite-bourgeoise woman, one of her professional arsenal of characters) and she rebels against it out of fear of appearing unpleasant, or exhausting her cliché.

December 1, 1963

Still sunny outside. Antonioni has to skip the shots with the window. Countless discussions about an artificial fog behind the windows of the shack. As long as this goes on, the little red room saves us.

December 18, 1963

The organization of the strike scene that opens the film culminates today with “operation white forest.” The spot of pines next to Anic’s athletic field is undergoing a chalk treatment by our painters, near whom are a few pieces of equipment from Rome and a group of whitewashers from Ravenna. They work feverishly in four degrees below zero. We foresee the necessity of working into the night in order to cover the trees with chalk. The athletic field, on the other hand, will be colored dark brown. If the sky stays this gray, we’ll have our strike tomorrow evening.

December 19, 1963

The extras are all in their places. The forest sparkles in the sun. It should be a prospect of grays and whites and instead it’s a vision of Christmas.

Antonioni takes the microphone in hand and explains why we’re not going to shoot. Everything must be redone.

January 6, 1964, in Ugo's Shack

Awkwardly trying to catch her husband’s attention, Giuliana leans toward his ear to whisper the sentence: “You know, before when I said I felt like making love, it was true.” On the third take, by surprise Antonioni decided to lengthen the shot after line. It’s his typical suspension of the cut. Indiscretion used deliberately as a style, a method of shaping. Even though Monica is not inexperienced with the suspended cut, we notice that her face undergoes a series of intimate, imperceptible tensions, which provoke a break in the fabric of the fictional performance and agitate her into uneasy movements that authenticate her expressive result. The prolonged contact with the character, who is suddenly clinging to her without the filtration of interpretive calculation, makes all too clear her sympathy for Giuliana’s behavior. I think it would be accurate to say that at the cut, Monica suffers a sense of loss of autonomy in regard to Giuliana, to whom she could be secretly connected through unconscious moods and similarity of character, but without accepting explicit identification and analogies that are not preventively filtered through her occupation as an actor. Being forced to withstand the distress longer than the shot required creates a sense of shock in her that the camera records exactly.

January 10, 1964

The street of Giuliana’s store. Outdoor, day. We’ve come back to this place more than once in order to finish the scene of Giuliana’s and Corrado’s exit from the store. A triangle of sun on the convent’s gutter, where the curve in the wall meets the bulging siding of the opposite houses, has already prevented us from filming the scene in its entirety several times. Actually, we did film it, then scrapped it. Today we’re shooting the part facing the street that opens to the north. Tanino’s here, the old man we borrowed from the rest home in via di Roma. We have to keep our eye on Tanino, he tends to run off. He already left the set on one occasion, taking advantage of the rain that had forced us to suspend operations: he went back to the home only after spending all his money. This time the production had to guarantee his safety and assume formal responsibility before of the institute’s administration. Now Tanino is sitting behind a cart of seeds, sweets and chestnuts. Everything on the cart is painted gray.

Tanino stirs the roasting chestnuts and watches Monica with rapid movements of his pupils through the reddish slits of his eyes. He watches her as if he’s robbing her, impassible. His face is covered with a layer of gray, a layer of makeup that makes the lower edge of his eyelid look like a red thread sewn into his flesh, and puts the wrinkles from the sides of his nose to his mouth in clean contrast, with the depth of an incision.

Between takes Tanino maintains his grip on the handle of the iron spatula with the tips of each of his fingers concentrated around the handle. He has a silent smile that pushes the thick and aged skin under his chin against the kerchief around his neck. He seems to be patient and reasonable, but also crafty. When we start action, I get the impression that he is perfectly aware of the opportunity to put his best face forward to the world: the man who looks you in the eye, and good-naturedly confides a certain amount of disdain or sympathetic suffering, not unconnected to a vague sense of caution and prudence. “Concentrate on the chestnuts… slow… OK, now look at the lady… look at her closely… and now look at him, instead… quickly . . .” From behind the camera Antonioni guides this first round with Tanino, and Tanino obeys calmly, trusting, with his triangular hand wrapped around the iron handle of the spatula, his knuckles pointed under his taut skin, transparent as dirty tissue paper. His gray face—with its parallel grooves of wrinkles through the middle of his forehead and the deep cuts down his cheeks—remains impassive in the smoke of the roasting chestnuts. The white of his eye sparkles first to the right, then to the left, then falls again on the chestnuts, accompanied by a light nodding of his head, which could be a gesture of distraction or timidity. He has no lines to say. His presence wasn’t noted in the screenplay. At the cut, Monica turns around, says to us: “he’s frightening.” Maybe this is what Tanino wants: to frighten, for the last time, before disappearing into the absolute zero, in the physical and spiritual starvation of the old folks’ home in via Roma. Antonioni turns to me smiling, satisfied and sly: I’m sure that between him and Tanino there’s a secret and reciprocal creative satisfaction, a shared sense of the tragic revelation of truth.

February 10, 1964

The hotel room and Giuliana’s store have been built right at the Peer hangar. We go over to the adjacent woods around the athletic field at Anic, where the strike scene was originally going to be shot in white. The soupy nighttime air has literally covered the trees with a bright film of ice. It’s an impressive sight. It’s stunning to think that this forest was to be painted white and that we actually did paint it once. “There, you see? Reality is conforming exactly to my color transformations. Ravenna has everything, even a white forest.”

Of course, we’re not doing the strike in white anymore, but Antonioni loves to punctiliously underscore his realistic technique of the subjectification of the real anyway.

The external reasons that kept us from realizing the scene have already been mentioned. Listing all of our successive attempts would make for a long, monotonous chapter of this diary. It’s not really my intention to recount the dates of difficult meetings with factory directors, disagreements, meetings with local syndicates, appointments made on set with people from the place who were willing to give us a hand, and last-minute cancellations. The strike scene will be done. This is certain. But I have the creeping sensation, despite what I stated above, that the forest will no longer be white, and even wonder if the forest will still be there.

March 7, 1964

Our last official day in Ravenna. Either we shoot today, or this last part of the film will be dragged out. We woke up nervous: it’s gray. Almost too clichéd, the happy ending. But before getting to the island we’ll have trouble with the fire equipment, which isn’t ready. With a significant delay we board and, always keeping an eye on the light and dark parts of the sky, we set foot on the Sarom Island.

This is Antonioni’s fourth time on the platform. The third time we had to escape because of a choppy sea (level four). Today we have to stick it out even at the risk of being surprised by a storm.

It’s also cold, and the wind is blowing. We put up panels of particle board, we send Dario, the camera operator, dangling over the sea tied to the little chair used to transport people from ships to the platform, and we shoot: we shoot everything that we have left to do with Monica and Molli, Harris’s stand-in.

We leave tomorrow.

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