THE PASSENGER directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by Antonioni, Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen, with Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre and Ian Hendry. An MGM production, a Mongrel Media release. 123 minutes. Opens Friday (January 13) at Cinematheque Ontario. For showtimes, see Indie & Rep Film Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The first rule of movie ownership: take a work out of the marketplace for long enough and it becomes a lost masterpiece. When star Jack Nicholson bought The Passenger in the 80s and removed it from circulation, the movie, like its protagonist, disappeared. That move gave it a chance to develop a mystique.
Three things about The Passenger still stand out.
First, the basic premise. David Locke, a journalist travelling in North Africa, swaps identities with Robertson, a man who has died in the next room. The two are about the same size and age, and Locke, apparently suffering a momentary existential crisis, wants to disappear from his old life.
Second, a great scene where Locke's jeep gets stuck in the sand and explodes in anger and frustration. Third, a masterful moving-camera shot that runs for several minutes at the end.
Antonioni's pacing ranges from slow to ungodly slow. Younger film fans may think of him as one of those guys beloved to old film fans from the 60s like Fellini and Bergman but that's not really the case. Aside from Blow-Up (1966), a hit because the shiny wrapping paper distracted audiences from its thematic bitterness, Antonioni's work was always a difficult sell. He has nothing like Fellini's emotional directness or Bergman's dramatic focus. Bergman dismissed him as an "amateur," distrusting, I suspect, his oblique modernism.
When L'Avventura won the Prix de Jury at Cannes in 1960 (La Dolce Vita won the Palme d'Or), it was booed at the public screenings. It's a great film, but Antonioni demands more patience than Fellini or Bergman.
Antonioni followed Blow-Up with Zabriskie Point, a legendary disaster, and then a documentary on China. In 1975, Italian producer Carlo Ponti and MGM gave Antonioni a million dollars and the biggest star in Hollywood (Nicholson) to wander around Spain. You have to love this about the 70s: Hollywood studio executives thought The Passenger was a good idea.
It's a fascinating film if you can get past the first half-hour. Nicholson occasionally surprises us these days, but in the 70s he surprised us all the time The Passenger is the film he made between Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. His performance carries us right over the singular improbability of the identity switch without ever resorting to exposition. (Try to imagine any contemporary American film trying to pull that off without voice-over narration.)
Assuming the dead man's identity, Locke - now "Robertson" - takes up the dead man's life by following his agenda. Like the audience, he's pursuing an unclear narrative line and trying to understand what he's become. His dogged pursuit of Robertson's identity makes you realize that Locke's never stopped being a journalist; he's still after the story. The European title, Profession: Reporter, makes much more sense than The Passenger.
The film looks stunning. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli, mostly associated with Dario Argento (Suspiria, Tenebrae) and Barbet Schroeder (six films, including Reversal Of Fortune and Single White Female), does a fantastic job with the bleached deserts of North Africa and the Spanish streets.
The Passenger was Antonioni's last shot at a mainstream audience. When it opened 30 years ago, my date and I were the only ones in the theatre. So much for mainstream success.
The central difficulty in Antonioni isn't his modernist approach to narrative or his pacing. It's that he's one of the very few film artists who are essentially enigmatic. Borges's description of Citizen Kane as a labyrinth without a centre applies to every one of Antonioni's great films. These, from L'Avventura to The Passenger, look like mysteries, which suggests that there is a solution to the puzzle, but there may not be.
His apparently modish modernism - the spiritually empty characters pinned in unforgiving landscapes both contemporary and ancient, the rejection of narrative solutions - hides a central blankness. It's not that there isn't anything there, but that what's there is fundamentally unknowable.
The climax of The Passenger - in which the action happens offscreen while the camera prowls around an elaborately choreographed series of arrivals and meetings outside - is reminiscent of the end of L'Eclisse, where the characters vanish and what's left is the cityscape where they were supposed to meet. We know something happened, and we have ideas about what it was, but the thing itself lies beyond our reach. That unknowability may be Antonioni's point.
Antonioni on DVD
IL GRIDO (Kino, 1957) Antonioni did make films before L'Avventura, and Il Grido (The Outcry) may be the best of them. Hollywood film noir veteran Steve Cochran (White Heat, The Damned Don't Cry) stars as an Italian mechanic who, on being dumped by his long-time lover ( Alida Valli ), takes to the road with their daughter. One of the coldest Italian films, Il Grido is beautifully photographed by Gianni Di Venanzo , who shot La Notte and L'Eclisse, as well as 81/2 and Juliette Of The Spirits for Fellini. Bare-bones DVD - put it on and the film starts.
L'AVVENTURA (Criterion, 1960) and L'ECLISSE (1962) These are Antonioni's greatest films, and Criterion gives them both the two-disc special-edition treatment, with commentaries, ancillary documentaries, booklet essays and stunning new transfers that do full justice to the black-and-white cinematography. Pricey, but if you want to explore Antonioni, these are the places to start.
LA NOTTE (Fox-Lorber, 1961) Considered the middle film in the unofficial trilogy starring Monica Vitti , it lies between L'Avventura and L'Eclisse like a piece of rotten meat between two fresh madeleines. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau are rich and so, so bored. It's La Notte that inspired Pauline Kael's great essay The Come-Dressed-As-The-Sick-Soul-Of-Europe Parties. A mediocre transfer by Fox-Lorber, where foreign films go to be abused.
BLOW-UP (Warner, 1967) The fun Antonioni, with David Hemmings as a fashion photographer in swinging London. Blow-Up has inspired a thousand imitations, including Austin Powers's cover story, but, oddly, it's about exactly the same thing as most of Antonioni's other films. It just dresses up the alienation and spiritual emptiness in an electrifying package. Warner's transfer is fine, but the soundtrack has been butchered and sounds lifeless - and Antonioni cared deeply about the sound of his films.