In Ravenna, Italy, Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is walking with her young son, Valerio, towards the petrochemical plant managed by her husband, Ugo. Passing workers who are on strike, Giuliana nervously and impulsively purchases a half-eaten sandwich from one of the workers. They are surrounded by strange industrial structures and debris that create inhuman images and sounds. Inside the plant, Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is talking with a visiting business associate, Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), who is looking to recruit workers for an industrial operation in Patagonia, Argentina. Ugo and Corrado converse comfortably in the noisy factory. Ugo tells Corrado that his wife, Giuliana, had a recent auto accident, and though she was physically unhurt, she has not been right mentally. That night in their apartment, Giuliana becomes highly agitated and fearful over a dream she had about sinking in quicksand. Ugo is unable to calm her or understand what she's experiencing.
Attracted to Giuliana, Corrado visits her at an empty shop she's planning to open and talks about his life and the restless nature of his existence. She accompanies him to Ferrara on one of his worker recruitment drives, and she indirectly reveals details about her mental state. She tells him that when she was in the hospital, she met a young woman patient who was advised by her doctors to find someone or something to love—a husband, a son, a job, even a dog. She speaks of the young woman feeling like there was "no ground beneath her, like she was sliding down a slope, sinking, always on the verge of drowning." They travel to a radio observatory in Medicina, where Corrado hopes to recruit a top worker. Surrounded by cold industrial architecture, Giuliana seems lost in her loneliness and isolation.
The following weekend, Giuliana, Ugo, and Corrado are walking beside a polluted estuary where they meet up with another couple, Max and Linda, and together they drive to a small riverside shack at Porto Corsini where they meet Emilia. They spend time in the shack engaged in trivial small talk filled with jokes, role-playing, and sexual innuendo. Giuliana seems to find temporary solace in these mindless distractions. A mysterious ship docks directly outside their shack, and as she looks out to the open sea, Giuliana confides to Corrado, "I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land." During their conversations, Corrado and Giuliana have grown closer, and he shows interest and sympathy for her. Like Giuliana, Corrado is also alienated, but he is better adapted to and accepting of his environment, telling her, "You wonder what to look at; I wonder how to live." When a doctor arrives to board the ship, Giuliana, seeing that the ship is now quarantined due to an infectious disease, rushes off in a state of panic. Her unwillingness to stay, or to return to the shack to retrieve the purse she left behind, underscores her state of alienation from the others.
Sometime later, Ugo leaves on a business trip, and Giuliana spends more time with Corrado, revealing more about her anxieties. One day she discovers that her son has apparently become suddenly paralyzed from the waist down. Fearing he has contracted polio, Giuliana tries to comfort her son with a story about a young girl who lives on an island and swims off a beach at an isolated cove. The girl is at home with her surroundings, but after a mysterious sailing ship approaches offshore, all the rocks of the cove seem to come alive and sing to her in one voice. Soon after, Giuliana discovers to her shock that Valerio was only pretending to be paralyzed. Unable to imagine why her son would do such a cruel thing, Guiliana's sense of loneliness and isolation returns.
Desperate to end her inner turmoil, Giuliana goes to Corrado's apartment where he tries to force his affections on her. Initially resisting Corrado's advances, Giuliana eventually accepts his affections, and the two make love in his bed. The intimacy, however, does little to relieve Giuliana's sense of isolation. The next day, a distraught Giuliana leaves Corrado and wanders to a dockside ship where she meets a foreign sailor and tries to communicate her feelings to him, but he cannot understand her words. Acknowledging the reality of her isolation, she says, "We are all separate." At that point, Giuliana seems to be completely alone and at her lowest state.
Sometime later, Giuliana is again walking with her son near her husband's plant. Valerio notices a nearby smokestack emitting poisonous yellow smoke and wonders if birds are being killed by the toxic emissions. Giuliana tells him that the birds have learned not to fly near the poisonous yellow smoke.Monica Vitti as Giuliana
Richard Harris as Corrado Zeller
Carlo Chionetti as Ugo
Xenia Valderi as Linda
Rita Renoir as Emilia
Lili Rheims as Telescope operator's wife
Aldo Grotti as Max
Valerio Bartoleschi as Giuliana's son
Emanuela Paola Carboni as Girl in fable
Giuliano Missirini as Radio telescope operator
The film is set in the industrial area of 1960s Ravenna with sprawling new post World War Two factories, industrial machinery and a much polluted river valley. The cinematography is highlighted by pastel colors with flowing white smoke and fog. The sound design blends a foley of industrial and urban sounds with ghostly ship horns and an electronic music score. This was Antonioni's first colour film, which the director said he wanted to shoot like a painting on a canvas:
I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the colour relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colours.
As he would do in later film productions, Antonioni went to great lengths in reaching this goal, such as having trees and grass painted white or grey to fit his take on an urban landscape. Andrew Sarris called the red hued pipes and railings "the architecture of anxiety: the reds and blues exclaim as much as they explain".
Another of Il deserto rosso's innovating technical effect is extentive use of the telephoto and zoom lenses, even in shots where the actor stands relatively close to the camera. Antonioni wrote "I worked a lot in il deserto rosso with the zoom lens to try and get two dimensional effect, to diminish the distance between people and objects, make them seem flattened against each other. Such flattening contributes to the sense of psychological oppression : Guiliana in several shots seems pinned against the wall and the bars between couples seem part of their body".Incir De Paolis Studios, Rome, Lazio, Italy (studio)
Ravenna, Emilia-Romagna, Italy
In 1965, a reviewer for TIME lauded Red Desert as "at once the most beautiful, the most simple and the most daring film yet made by" Antonioni, and stated that the director "shows a painterly approach to each frame". It continues to be viewed favorably. In The Daily Telegraph, Robbie Collin wrote that Antonioni’s "bold, modernist angles and thrillingly innovative use of colour (he painted trees and grass to tone with the industrial landscape) make every frame a work of art". Jonathan Rosenbaum praised the director's "eerie, memorable work with the industrial shapes and colors that surround [Giuliana]; she walks through a science fiction landscape dotted with structures that are both disorienting and full of possibilities." Richard Brody of The New Yorker viewed the approach to color as "greatly responsible for the film’s emotional and intellectual power" and argued, "The characters in his movies seem thin because their environment is developed so thickly; yet that environment, he suggests, is, though exterior to them, an inextricable part of them."
Although on one level Red Desert might be taken as a story about a harsh modern industrial culture to which only the neurotic Giuliana has awakened, Antonioni later said he wanted to show that industrial technology has a beauty of its own and that he had filmed a story about human adaptability, in that Giuliana must "confront her social environment".
It's too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. My intention ... was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable ... The neurosis I sought to describe in Red Desert is above all a matter of adjusting. There are people who do adapt, and others who can't manage, perhaps because they are too tied to ways of life that are by now out-of-date.