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Routes of Return

Routes of Return

Joseph Sciorra (May 8, 2009)
Scene from Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960 ).

Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 film "L’avventura" provides a cinematic voyage back to Italy.


In preparing the recent conference “Land of Our Return: Diasporic Encounters with Italy” at the Calandra Institute, I came across a number of documents pertaining to the theme. One of the more intriguing ones was a brief scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960 L’avventura, in which an old man su

ddenly enters a rustic cabin where vacationing Romans have found shelter during their search for a friend who has mysteriously disappeared from a small Sicilian island they are visiting. 

The man is a shepherd living in the shack whose owner has emigrated to Australia. In a mix of Italian, Sicilian, and English, the old man informs the city folks that he has spent thirty years in the land down under, pointing to photographs of his family. “Bei tempi,” he proclaims. The scene ends after two minutes and the character of the returned emigrant is not seen or heard from again. 
Film scholar Seymour Chatman notes that the old man is an example of Antonioni’s frequent undermining of the linear logic of his films.  This introduction of “unnecessary events” – the returned emigrant provides gratuitous information and his presence does not advance the plot – is part of a modernist agenda of “denarrativization.”  The man “is simply there, as one more of Antonioni’s stubborn found objects’.” 
David Saul Rosenfeld suggests that we see the “syntagmatic connotation” of these disconnected elements that accrue meaning not only within the film in question but also in relationship to other Antonioni films. This seemingly superfluous scene is similar to others found in Italian films of the period, such as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), in which modern Italy is populated by American actors, French intellectuals, exotic entertainers, and the like, all speaking in a “Babel of languages.”  
Yet for those who have any relationship to the immigrant experience, the unexpected arrival of this pre-industrial, manual laborer (shades of a fading neo-realistic subject?) in the midst of these angst-plagued, citified visitors gives pause. As Frank Tomasulo observes, “Antonioni uses the background of his images to foreground the economic dislocations of Southern Italy and the class contradictions between his bourgeois protagonists and the poverty-ridden South.” The old man’s dramatic return/arrival – the rattling door, the pouring rain, his demanding question “Che fate?!” – forces the viewer to confront a condensed yet startling image of Italian proletarian migration that remains little understood by many in Italy and the United States.


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The old emigrant in L'avventura

Since the first time I saw "L’avventura" I was always puzzled myself by that marginal figure of a former emigrant in Antonioni’s movie. The contrast between the rich and bored tourists, their existential quest and that little old fisherman was almost disturbing, even offensive, initially. It almost bothered me. The way the director treats the old man gave me an uneasy feeling: the man intrudes into these high-class-city-dwellers’ drama without being able to understand it. At the same time, in their indifference and haughtiness, they are totally unable to perceive his. What do they care about him, his miserable life, the tragedy of having to split from your homeland and live for 30 years abroad, then leaving behind your loved ones again in the new land, to repatriate but to keep experiencing nostalgia (now for the foreign land which moreover gets confused with his youth). As you say, this fisherman seems a Neorealist theme that Antonioni ignores, or at the most suggests, or leaves as a background to quickly bypass. Surely Antonioni’s characters do not notice, do not care (nobody thanks him or apologizes for using his cabin, and Sandro will, at one point, even mistreat the old man and suspect him): trapped in their abstract and mental anxiety, Antonioni’s bourgeois are not interested in the old man’s destiny and concrete misfortunes, his exodus, his life-long struggle for material, practical survival. In a book I published one year after this post (Italoamericani tra Hollywood e Cinecittà – in Italian), I ironically justify this little unnecessary event: with the fisherman’s apparition Antonioni (whose cinema is constantly concerned with themes of human alienation) might be implying/acknowledging that the most extreme form of alienation and estrangement is indeed emigration itself. Thanks for your blog, Joseph.

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yoru book

Flaminio, I am only now see your comment. Thank you for kind and insightful words. Your book makes a great contribution to the history of cinema and the depictions of Italian American in film. The discussion of both American and Italian films is wonderful. Best, Joseph