Passenger, The (1975)

Review #1,637

Director:  Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast:  Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider
Plot:  A frustrated war correspondent, unable to find the war he's been asked to cover, takes the risky path of co-opting the identity of a dead arms dealer acquaintance.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  126 mins
Rating:  PG13 (passed clean) for some violence, nudity and language
Distributor:  Park Circus - Sony Pictures

“People disappear every day.”

Together with Blow-Up (1966), The Passenger represents a high watermark of Antonioni’s foray into English-language filmmaking.  It also stars one of the biggest names in American cinema, Jack Nicholson, who in the same year made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which won him his very first acting Oscar.  Here he is Antonioni’s chess piece, in which he is deliberately moved around as if there’s empty space to be occupied.  And like a good game of chess, the film's deliberate pace and meandering approach warrant a more committed viewing, perhaps more so than its Hollywood MGM label would dare to suggest. 

Such is the auteur’s distinctive style of filmmaking that one could see The Passenger as an expansion of his obsession with depicting isolation, alienation and stasis in cinema that begun most explicitly in his breakthrough work, L’Avventura (1960), and arguably reaching its peak with Red Desert (1964).  In The Passenger, Antonioni, who was a huge admirer of architecture, shot many scenes in Barcelona (including its famous Gaudi designs of Catalan modernism).  He also shot in London and Munich, and in the film’s opening act, in the arid deserts of Algeria.  In this regard, The Passenger could be one of his most picturesque works, with emphasis on the aesthetics of decades-old buildings, transient spaces and the impermanence of inhabitation.  

No character stays in a particular building or space for too long, and in this sense, every person is a passenger.  The original title was meant to be translated as ‘The Reporter', focusing on Nicholson’s character who after being frustrated by his own inability to find a civil war story he was seeking for in Africa, as well as experiencing a failing marriage, decides to trade in his identity with a dead man in his motel... to unexpected consequences.  

The ‘passenger’ in this case refers to Maria Schneider (most remembered for her saucy role in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, 1972), whose character’s seemingly aimless existence (not to mention her random midway introduction) not only fits into Antonioni’s world of (dis)appearing people and ambiguous identities, but becomes the perfect foil for Nicholson.  It is impossible to watch The Passenger and not mention its famous penultimate tracking shot, which is not just a long take that lasts nearly eight minutes, but one that encapsulates Antonioni’s genius—that nothing much seems to be happening, but a lot is actually happening… and that it is a relatively quiet shot.  

Verdict:  Antonioni brings his enigmatic style to striking locales around Europe and Africa in this tour de force work about identities and personas.  




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