L'Avventura | 1960
Booed on its first showing by an audience expecting a conventional mystery story, L’Avventura is now regarded as a key work of European arthouse cinema and one of the peaks of Michelangelo Antonioni’s coolly distanced style.
While visiting a tiny deserted island, one of a group of upper class Italians disappears. As the ensuing search for her drifts into indolence, it’s clear the mystery isn’t the point of the film – and it’s never solved.
The opening scene, outside Anna’s (Lea Massari) father’s villa, was filmed on the outskirts of Rome – that's the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in the background.
But it’s into the heart of the city for the home of her boyfriend Sandro (Gabrielle Ferzetti), which is Lady Montague’s apartment on Isola Tiberina, a tiny island in the River Tiber between Palatino and the Trastevere district. It’s reached by Ponte Fabricio, the oldest surviving bridge over the river.
Sandro’s apartment is just to the left as you cross the bridge (which you can glimpse though the open window in the film). In front of it is the tiny square where Claudia (Monica Vitti) waits.
From here, it’s south to the Tyrrhenian Sea and the ill-fated yacht cruise around the volcanic Lipari, or Aeolian, islands. There are fourteen islands, seven of them inhabited.
Panarea, smallest of the inhabited islands, is where the cast and crew stayed during filming. The island from which Anna disappears is Lisca Bianca, a deserted, jagged volcanic rock about three miles to the east, where the futile search begins. A couple of miles north is the steeply conical Basiluzzo, the first island encountered by the party en route to Lisca Bianca.
Sandro and Claudia report Anna’s disappearance to the authorities on the Sicilian mainland at Milazzo (the nearest Sicilian port to the Liparis, and from where you’ll depart if you want to visit the islands).
The grand, if faded, Customs House is definitely worth a visit, but you won’t find it in Milazzo. It’s actually the Villa Palagonia in Bagheria, way to the west near Palermo. This unique estate, designed the architect Tommaso Napoli, has a garden which was once populated by 200 bizarre statues – a selection of grotesques that would n’t be out of place in a Tim Burton movie – commissioned by the grandson of the villa’s original owner, the clearly barking Francesco Ferdinando Gravina e Alliata, as caricatures of his wife’s supposed lovers. It became known as Villa dei Mostri, Villa of Monsters. I’m getting carried away. This is Antonioni, not Burton, and the monsters remain disappointingly off-screen.
The interior of the villa was equally crazy – chairs with legs of unequal length, cushions containing hidden spikes and mirrors hung at weird angles. The cushions and chairs have gone, and the number of ‘lovers’ is down to a mere 62, but the building is being restored and you can visit. It’s on Piazza Garibaldi, along Corso Umberto, a short walk from Bagheria railway station. Alternatively, there’s an AST bus from Palermo’s Piazza Lolli to Bagheria every half hour. The villa is open daily between 9am and 1pm, then 4pm and 7pm.
Sandro and Claudia begin travelling around Sicily, following up possible sightings of Anna. First, they take the train from Milazzo along the northern coast. Sandro alights at Castoreale, although once he hits the platform, the location becomes the more atmospheric Cefalu, overshadowed by the great rocky headland, further west along the coast toward Palermo.
He continues the search on the island’s northeast tip, in Messina where, on Viale San Martino, he encounters publicity-hungry ‘writer’ Gloria Perkins.
Claudia, meanwhile, rests up at the ‘Villa Montaldo’ (or Montalto in the published script), where Giulia is seduced by the Princess’ grandson. It’s actually the Villa Niscemi, near Palermo, home to Princess Lampedusa, who plays Princess Montaldo in the movie.
The villa, on Piazza Niscemi, Via di Fante near the entrance to the Parco Della Favorita north of Palermo towards Mondello, was the inspiration for the house of Tancredi in Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, filmed in 1963 by Luchino Visconti.
It’s since been acquired by the Comune. The villa’s terrace looks out to the distant heights of San Ferracavallo and Monte Gallo to the west, and the Gulf of Palermo to the east.
Sandro moves on to ‘Troina’ to question the pharmacist who may have seen Anna, though the scene was filmed on the Catanian Plain.
Here, Claudia catches up with him and together they travel south toward the town of Noto. The eerily deserted modern town they stop at is one of the newly-built Cassa del Mezzogiorno towns near Caltanisetta, in the centre of the island.
The railway tunnel, where Sandro and Claudia finally get it together is Santa Panagia, just north of Siracusa (Syracuse) on the southeast coast.
Even further south and inland a little is their destination, the impressively Baroque town of Noto, where they stay at the fictitious ‘Trinacria Hotel’. Noto was built of honey-coloured limestone at the end of the 17th century, when the existing town was destroyed in an earthquake.
It looks, as Sandro observes, like an elaborate stage set. From the tower of the Chiesa del Collegio, the Collegio church where Claudia rings the bells, there’s a view of the stunning Piazza Municipio overlooked by the Duomo and its wide, stepped approach. Sandro tries to get into the Museo Civico, housed in the Convent of Santissimo Salvatore to the right of the Duomo. He doesn’t have much luck, but you might fare better.
In the Piazza Municipio he accidentally-on-purpose spills ink over the student’s architectural drawing. The building used as the ‘Trinacria’ is behind the Museo Civico, its balcony overlooking the imposing facade of the Church of San Francesco on Piazza Immacolata.
The movie ends in Taormina, amid the lavish surroundings of an impossibly grand hotel, where Sandro, having betrayed the missing Anna with Claudia, now cheats on Claudia with the dreadful Gloria Perkins.
The San Domenico Palace Hotel, Piazza San Domenico 5, Taormina is one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels, housed in a 15th century monastery. The hotel is also where the divers stay during the competition in Luc Besson’s 1988 The Big Blue.
The final scene, a wordless, numb acceptance between Claudia and Sandro, takes place on one of the hotel’s terraces before the ruined tower of the church of San Domenico, with the peak of Mount Etna on the horizon.