Red Desert – review

Antonioni's 1964 film depicts a familiar landscape.

Some people have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation. (J G Ballard, BBC Radio, 1998)

Aesthetic analyst of the bourgeoisie, which he geometrically framed with neither absolving nor condemning tones, Michelangelo Antonioni captured the moral degradation and emotional apathy of the "affluent society" like no other. Red Desert (1964), his first film in colour, retrieves a thematic intuition dating back to La Signora Senza Camelie (1953) and Le Amiche (1955) and examines it under the artificial light of industrialisation. Women appear as the first "victims" of the anthropological mutations brought on by progress; dissatisfaction and neurosis as its most recurring symptoms. Red Desert orbits around Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a woman trapped in an altering environment searching aimlessly for a place, function and role. Oppressed by the manufactured ambience, Giuliana gasps for air as her lungs are filled with the poisonous gases from the chimneys that varnish the sky.

The film pans over a lunar landscape where sentimental immobility clashes against the soulless dynamism of technological advancement. Antonioni, though, does not denounce the injustices of industrialisation; he merely registers the inability to adapt to it, which in Giuliana’s case results in mental disturbances.

The connective texture of the film decelerates and dilates, the camera dwelling more on objects than on the people who are unable to communicate with their surroundings. Long shots depict the monumental austerity of manufacturing plants, while the traditional landscape (the old city centre) is glimpsed via fleeting details, as if the camera were chasing its vanishing remnants.

Before the "swinging" blackmail of appearances (un)seen in Blow-Up (1966), the Red Desert of affective economy made colour the primary source of communication, way more eloquent than dialogue. Words are impotent; their ability to articulate an affirmative critique is deafened by the roar of progress. The narrative is entirely entrusted to the techno-expressive apparatus of the film – form does not contain substance; on the contrary, it incarnates it. Giuliana’s world – better still, her detachment from it – is mediated in chromatic terms and subjective deformations are rendered through the set design (even the vegetation was painted before filming). Her claustrophobic wandering through the vast and barren lands of a changing society seems condemned to eternal circularity.

Today, this Red Desert feels like a very familiar place.

A newly restored print of "Red Desert" opens at BFI Southbank on 27 July.

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in Red Desert. Photograph: Getty Images
BBC/YouTube screengrab
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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.