The story of L'Avventura centers on a group of spiritually bankrupt but fiscally wealthy young people who stop on a small island during a yachting trip. After expressing irritation with her boyfriend Sandro and her friend Claudia, the beautiful Anna wanders away on her own -- and vanishes. Did she leave on a boat that we hear in the soundtrack and think that we might see in one shot? Or is her disappearance nothing more than the logical outcome of the hollow existence that Anna and her friends seem to lead?
Searching the starkly beautiful volcanic island, the characters can discover nothing. And into that emptiness, they begin to project a love affair between themselves, which continues as they ostensibly take their search for Anna back onto the mainland.
Michelangelo Antonioni's film captures the characters' sense of ennui with almost painful accuracy, and his shots linger for breathtakingly long periods of time over seemingly nothing. The dialogue is sparse, and one is not even sure that the characters have much to think about during the silences. But as their allegiances to themselves and each other shift and transform, the film moves from a meditation on nothingness to a portrait of the things that have created these human voids.
And that may be the only part of L'Avventura that doesn't hold up as well today as it might have in 1960s Italy. Rather than give us a deeper psychological portrait of his rapidly fading characters, Antonioni seems to rely on the idea that it has been simply wealth and idleness that have ripped out their souls. It's a trite and somewhat arbitrary thesis.
But what the film lacks in long-term philosophical soundness, it makes up for in sheer beauty. Antonioni's shots are restored by Criterion to crystalline perfection, lending an overwhelming surface to a film about the hollowness beneath. And in the commentary track featuring Gene Youngblood, cinema fans will find a density of ideas that will fuel countless viewings of the film. It's almost overkill that the second disc features Jack Nicholson reading several of Antonioni's essays and a French documentary featuring some of Europe's greatest cinema artists of the mid-20th century. The result is a package that is as full as the characters in the film are empty.