A disenfranchised factory worker becomes unmoored and is left floating in the torrent of dark waters, realizing he can never go home again. Director Michelangelo Antonioni’s journey of abandonment and vertiginous nihilism contradicts convention by casting against type and utilizing the serpentine Po river as metaphor.
Aldo is a blue-collar laborer, a sugar factory worker; a man who earns a hard living by his strength and fortitude, the salt of the earth. He learns that Irma, an older married woman, is ending their seven year affair. Humiliated and defeated in a public display of domestic violence, he takes their young daughter and flees the village. After a series of empty relationships, realizing he cannot care for his child, he returns to his village. But change has come like a flood, washing away the old to make way for the new.
Antonioni begins the film by focusing upon Irma, beautifully portrayed by Alida Valli, as she learns that her husband has died. But the story does not belong to Irma, as this fact becomes the antecedent to their relative clause. She is reduced from Aldo’s perspective atop a tower, tiny and elusive, as she hurries away into the dreary mist. Aldo soon realizes that Irma has found a new love, and the majority of the film becomes his travelogue that parallels the Po river, as he struggles against a mysterious undercurrent. Antonioni films the characters against the open waters and empty vistas which diminish their proportions, and fills his compositions with lateral lines and plains, evoking the chaotic order of a Kandinsky painting. He casts American actor Steve Cochran as the protagonist: like Valli as an indigent housewife, he severs audience expectations to harness the unexpected. Cochran becomes this alter-ego, sinking into a deadly malaise, his emotions dammed behind a stoic wall.
Aldo becomes superficially involved with a few women, unable to make any human connection; women whom fasten onto his physicality and seemingly need him more than he wants them. Time becomes ambiguous flowing one moment into the next, and Aldo returns home to burning fields and bulldozers, a village in its death throws. But in the midst of death there is life, and he spies Irma, separated through cold glass, changing and infant…her baby, not his. The old factory now deserted, he climbs the winding tower and drunk with apathy, weak from hunger, he falls (or jumps) to his death. His broken body now mirrors his broken dreams. Final Grade: (B+)