Giuliana (Monica Vitti) lives in Ravenna with her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) and their son. While Ugo spends most of his time in the factory where he works, Giuliana is lost in her life, in and with her emotions. When Ugo is visited in the wasteland in and around his factory by engineer Zeller (Richard Harris), Zeller takes an interest in Giuliana, putting further pressure on her increasingly unstable psyche.
Il deserto rosso is a highly symbolic and expressionistic film. Rather than stick with character and movie conventions, it tries to express Giuliana’s volatile inner life. That doesn’t lend itself to easy watching or easy comprehension, but it does makes for a fascinating film.
Il deserto rosso is a difficult film that can be interpreted in many different ways. Is Zeller in love with Giuliana? Or is he simply fascinated by her fragility and takes advantage of that without much regard for her as a person? The fact that he serves a bit as the audience stand-in pushes him into a more sympathetic role, but for me, he definitely fell into the latter category, culminating in a scene where he rapes Giuliana. But that is only one of the possible readings – and the film doesn’t bother itself with clarifying much of anything.
The only thing that seems absolutely true here is that Giuliana is falling apart more and more, and the people around her who should care doesn’t even seem to notice. Only Zeller notices, and like a bloodhound on a trail, he is unwilling to let the quarry escape. Pushing Giuliana ever further away from any support network she might have.
It also pushes Giuliana from any way to verbally express her anguish. Both she and the film don’t seem to have the spoken vocabulary to show what she is going through, or maybe they are refusing it. Instead we get treated to imagery that often revel in monochrome tones, Monica Vitti’s face and body contorting in ways we are not used to. I’m not entirely sold on the wordlessness from the perspective of making mental illness better understood – we do have vocabulary for mental illness and it would be nice if it got used more – but it does work on a very primal level, transforming Giuliana’s pain into images that hit the watcher on an equally visceral note as Giuliana.
It’s certainly a film that calls for some time to think about it, at least if you get into it in the first place. I could understand if it didn’t happen for you, but for me it worked like a charm.