What, exactly, happened to Anna?

That’s the central question in Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting masterpiece, L’Avventura, a film uneasy with answers and so much more than a missing persons case.  Like Anonioni’s later film, Blow Up, it builds suspense, not with the shock and action of a modern-day thriller, but what we–and the characters–think has happened, or might happen.

The plot is deceptively simple: A group of wealthy socialites on a leisurely yachting expedition decide to spend the afternoon exploring a remote island chain.  They dock near an islet that could be called desolate, if that weren’t such an understatement: the place is a rock, covered in nothing more than sparse scrub; waves crash all around it violently.  Sitting atop it all, ancient and lonely, is a small stone building, long abandoned.  (I’ll digress for a moment to mention that the isolation of the island uncannily mirrors the characters: a cold and bitter duchess and her long-suffering husband; gold-digger Giulia, who suffers the slings of her elderly and cruel husband, Corrado; Anna, the very essence of misery, and her philandering boyfriend, Sandro; and Anna’s best friend, Claudia (the stunning Monica Vitti), who observes all and misses nothing.)

Soon, Anna goes missing.  An investigation ensues.  The local police are called in to search every crack in the island, helped begrudgingly by Anna’s friends–except for Claudia and Sandro, who genuinely fear for Anna’s safety.  Antonioni paces the search with patience and care, as characters move in long shots from one end of the island to the other, their eyes scanning every inch of desolation.  Claudia disappears behind a rock, Antonioni pans around, and Sandro or Giulia appears from behind another.  Did Anna fall into the sea?  Was she perhaps swept into a rock cave?  Divers are brought in, and find nothing.  Where did she go?  Some of the characters think they hear a boat.  Indeed, we hear it too–maybe.  The police discover that poachers were spotted near the island and make an arrest of the crew.  Maybe this is the boat we heard.  Did they kidnap Anna?  The police seem to think so, despite the crews’ claims that they weren’t anywhere near the island.  Claudia and Sandro aren’t so sure the police are right.  Antonioni isn’t saying.

With Anna still missing, everyone returns to the mainland–and to their miserable lives.  But Claudia isn’t finished with her search.  Sandro, too, intends to join Claudia, though his motives are far more salacious than genuine concern, a deceit Claudia sees through immediately.  She rebuffs him.  But Sandro is persistent and charming.  It’s here that the the film takes a brilliant turn, as Claudia and Sandro scour the Italian coast for Anna, moving from one gorgeous locale to another.  They have coincidental run-ins with their friends from the yacht–including the duchess and Giulia–who, so consumed by the misery and selfishness of their own existence, have all but forgotten about Anna.

Villagers claim to have seen the missing woman.  Claudia and Sandro follow each lead unsuccessfully.  Antonio is clever with his camerawork here: a woman, cloaked in a hat and sunglasses, follows Sandro out of a building and hurries out of frame.  Another is seen closing a window.  Every woman could be Anna, but are any of them actually her?  Again, Antonioni isn’t saying.  (If you watch carefully, two superfluous characters look directly at the camera as they pass.  They know something we don’t, right?  Maybe it was unintentional.  Or maybe it wasn’t: Antonioni was too good a filmmaker to allow such happy accidents.)  As Claudia and Sandro share an intimate moment outside an abandoned church, we expect Anna to pop up out of nowhere, alive and well, and wrap the mystery up in a nice, tidy package. But things aren’t as they appear.  Later, the lovers come across a media-hungry starlet who even looks a little bit like Anna, if only around the eyes.  Sandro becomes obsessed with her.  And all the while, Claudia continues her unyielding spiral into guilt, for both her love for Sandro, and her failure to find Anna; perhaps the two are inextricably linked, making Claudia’s motives as impure as Sandro’s: If Anna returns, she returns to Sandro, and Claudia is free.

The ending will boggle some, and fascinate others; I assure you it gives more questions than answers.  What happened to Anna, I’m not saying, except that it becomes a secondary plot in a film rich with characters mired in the muck of agony and despair.  To be sure, L’Avventura is a complex film–one of the most complex I’ve ever seen.  Antonioni constantly switches up the details, carefully guiding us; often tricking, but never cheating.  If it all seems a mite ambiguous, then a second viewing is in order to try to string together the small details.  In a few months, I’ll give the film a third shot, because I’m suddenly obsessed with its mysteries; maybe they can be solved.

Then again, maybe not.

1960; starring Monica Vitti, Gabriele Ferzetti; directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; 143 min; not rated; in Italian w/ English subtitles; available on Criterion.