Antonioni’s color: post #1

“There are scenes and dialogue in my films which would not have been possible without the presence of walls or backgrounds of particular colors” — Michelangelo Antonioni *

Blow-Up (1966)

I’ve been reading various books and interviews on Antonioni’s work and on color in film since the beginning of the summer. I started the intensive, full-time stage of my research a lot later than I planned but I’m in full swing now. After reading through a book of Antonioni’s interviews and various essays on the films themselves I began looking into color filmmaking — the history, technology, and theory of it. I figured it’s a good place to start: Antonioni’s known for obsessing over color, which is one of the reasons I chose to focus on it in my analysis. Three of the films I’m studying are in black and white, so this is also about monochromatic visual choices. Mostly what I’m interested in is how changing to color filmmaking affected Antonioni’s distinctive, recognizable style.

The seven films I’m studying:

• The Adventure (Italian: L’avventura / 1960 / 145m BW)
• The Night (Italian: La notte / 1961 / 122m BW)
• Eclipse (Italian: L’eclisse / 1962 / 118m BW)
• Red Desert (Italian: Il deserto rosso / 120m Technicolor)
• Blowup (1966 / 111m Metrocolor)
• Zabriskie Point (1970 / 110m Metrocolor)
• The Passenger (1975 / 126m Metrocolor)

The trouble with analyzing color in a film is that there are myriad ways to use color. A director might use certain hues for the common cultural associations they already carry for the audience, for example, white to symbolize innocence and purity. Or such outside cultural associations might be irrelevant to the color meanings a director uses within a film; a color’s inclusion might simply stand for a certain piece of the film (perhaps a character, place, theme, etc.), or as a method of linking or contrasting them. After all, colors hold many different meanings — does white symbolize purity, coldness, death, life, or something else entirely? There is no rule for their use: some decisions are purely aesthetic, using colors only to make characters stand out from the background or to create an impressive, memorable scene. But other color decisions are made with symbolism in mind, whether depending on existing cultural associations, creating new color associations internal to the film, or some combination thereof. And rather than the hue, it might be the saturation, solidity, or the amount of a color that matters to a scene — unnaturally bright, flat colors say something different than nuanced earth tones. A scene flooded with one color has a different impact than one symbolically-colored set item. The objects carrying the color matter as well: a red billboard can be different from a red dress; a blue room different from a blue sky. Color depends therefore on context as well as its mere impact on the eye.

In each of the four color films on my list, Antonioni’s colors are immediately striking and without a doubt intentional. For these films he painted grass, trees, fields, roads, and buildings, dyed pigeons black, and attempted to turn a mountain skyline from lavender to red….


The black and white films also have dramatic visuals:

Final shot from L'avventura

The films have a lot in common, visually. Some of the more obvious ones are what Antonioni is famous for. For example, extreme long shots:

The Passenger

Red Desert



Less-discussed similarities, such as flooding the background with one color:


Red Desert


La notte


There are a lot of other different types of shots I’ve been keeping track of, but I’ll post images for those in a later post. I’m looking for patterns, trying to figure out how Antonioni used color (and other visual attributes) — whether for symbolism internal or external to the film, whether it is the hue or something else about the color that matters, etc. Although I expect these methods to vary from film to film of course, it’s already clear to me they have a lot in common.


* from “Let’s Talk about Zabriskie Point,” Esquire 74:2, August 1970


  1. HI, Sara! It’s Taylor Lain. When I read through this, I had to tell you that this project sounds fantastic, and now I really want to ask you a question. You actually began to address it in your final statement at the end of this blog post, and I’m sure you’ll get into it in more detail later, but, from your analyses thus far, have you observed any patterns in color symbolism between Antonioni’s films? I would think that if a single man masterminded all seven films, he would subconsciously tend to use the same colors to represent similar symbols, emotions, and the like, despite the differences between the movies’ plot lines. Do you think this is the case, or have you seen a deliberate effort on Antonioni’s part to switch up the colors and their significance from film to film?

    Also, which of his films is your favorite? I might just have to watch a one or two of them. Thanks! I hope you’re having great summer!

  2. svsuarez says:

    Nice question, Taylor, thanks for asking. I haven’t picked up on any efforts to deliberately defy existing color symbolism trends. But yes, there are definitely similarities in the color films, for example, that he makes symbolic uses of color (rather than just to, say, create a certain mood in a scene). Sometimes colors might mean the same thing in the different films, but not always. For example, some sources I’ve consulted argue that in “Zabriskie Point,” “Red Desert,” and “The Passenger” Antonioni uses black to evoke death. But in “Blowup,” many scenes are dominated by black, white, and grey — an appropriate world for the photographer protagonist, not necessarily just because black can mean death.

    Red, for example, is an important color in all four of the color films, but in different ways. Here I’ve juxtaposed some example shots for your easy comparison: In these, the red is linked to passion (“Red Desert”), radicalism and student violence (“Zabriskie Point”), the character’s identity (“The Passenger”); all reds are not the same. And you’re right, I’m actually planning to address this in more detail in a full post; hopefully that will help clarify what I summed up more briefly here.

    As for my favorite, I really don’t have one….I thought I’d be sick of them all at this point but it’s just the opposite. Right now I’m leaning towards “Blowup,” but that’s probably just because I’ve been looking at that one most recently.

  3. Thanks for the response, Sara! It’s really interesting that there is a sort of color dependence to the consistency of symbolic meaning in the movies, and I’m very curious to see what you find out about his movies’ use of the rest of the color spectrum. I look forward to reading your later posts! And thanks for the recommendation!