Michalangelo Antonioni’s first color film, The Red Desert (1964), could be called a film for persons who found The Passenger too straightforward and cheery. In some ways, this is Art House 101 stuff — the kind of movie you just know is good for you, because it’s so damn dull and depressing. It’s cinema as nasty medicine. That, however, is merely one aspect of it.
It’s also part and parcel of Antonioni’s overall body of work — a deeply felt rumination on the inability to connect, possibly to even exist in an increasingly dehumanized society. The remarkable thing to consider about this is that this was a point Antonioni was making in 1964 — a vision of an utterly polluted world with contaminated rivers and factories that belch poison smoke. (At one point, it’s observed that the smoke will kill the birds, only to have someone note that the birds are too smart to come to the area anymore. Comfort doesn’t come any colder.)
Uncompromising in its grimness, unrelenting in its slowness, The Red Desert is not to everyone’s liking — and I can’t imagine wanting to see it more than once — but it’s not without its power or importance.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke