Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay: Mark Peploe, Enrico Sannia, Michelangelo Antonioni, Miguel de Echarri (uncredited)
Based on an Original Story by: Mark Peploe
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff, Ambroise Bia, Charles Mulvehill
Country: Italy, Spain, France
Running Time: 126 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
I popped my Michelangelo Antonioni cherry only two years ago with possibly his most highly regarded film (among many), L’Avventura. I appreciated the craft behind it, but found it a little patience testing in the long run, so I’ve not rushed to delve deeper into his filmography. It’s hard to ignore the praise aimed at the director’s work though and there was a lot I did like about L’Avventura, so when I was offered a chance to review his 1975 classic, The Passenger, I figured now was the time to continue my journey through the Italian maestro’s oeuvre.
The Passenger stars Jack Nicholson as David Locke, a documentary filmmaker covering a war between rebels and a tyrannical government somewhere in Africa. He’s struggling to find what he wants though and has just about given up, when he finds himself in an unusual situation. He heads to the room of Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), a businessman he’d befriended in his hotel, only to find him dead. As he stares at the corpse, he realises the man bares a striking resemblance to himself and sees this is a once in a lifetime chance to shed his dissatisfying existence and seek a new life as the seemingly happy and successful Robertson. He quickly swaps pictures between their passports, drags the body into his room and convinces the hotel staff and local police that the man found dead is David Locke, not Robertson.
At first Locke finds this new identity liberating, but his past and Robertson’s come back to haunt him. The latter is particularly problematic, as it turns out Robertson wasn’t the sort of clean cut businessman he seemed on the surface. He was actually an arms dealer, who was selling weaponry to African rebels. Feeling strangely duty bound by Robertson’s diary, Locke travels to various European destinations listed there, bumping into some of the dead man’s associates, which gets him roped into a dangerous world. In the meantime, Locke’s estranged wife (Jenny Runacre) and his colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) try to track down Robertson to find out more about Locke’s last days. This of course is a major problem for Locke and he desperately tries to hide out, enlisting the help of a woman he meets along the way (Maria Schneider, whose character is never named).
This plot might sound like the setup for an exciting thriller in the mould of other great paranoid 70’s potboilers, but in Antonioni’s hands it becomes something much more unusual, languidly paced and cerebral. That said, the thriller aspects are still there in the plot, if not in the form of car chases and such, so I found the film more consistently engaging than L’Avventura. The first half an hour is rather slow and Antonioni resists providing the audience with any details as to who our protagonist is and what he’s doing, but as the film moves on we’re gradually drip fed more information. By the end in fact, although the film is full of cryptic ambiguities, the basic thrust of the narrative is fairly clear.
Like with L’Avventura though, the meaning or intentions behind the film are less obvious. This isn’t meant as a criticism though, far from it. Part of the beauty of Antonioni’s films is being able to make your own readings of them and discuss and debate these with others, should you wish. The travelling symbolism that recurs throughout the film and its title could be taken as a metaphor for the journey of life itself perhaps. Locke is dissatisfied with his life and wishes to change it, only to be doomed to follow the fate with which he traded it.
Looking at the film from a technical perspective, it’s stunningly well directed. Antonioni has a keen eye for locations and makes superb use of the wide variety of settings within the film, particularly a couple of Gaudi buildings in Barcelona. He also beautifully blends the many flashbacks in the film with the ‘present day’ scenes, including those from different characters’ memories. These aren’t always clearly signposted so can be a little confusing at first, but once you get used to the style and learn to spot the clues, you will always know what timeline or whose perspective we’re following. In one early scene the camera drifts around a room and time shifts through the single shot, which makes for a wonderfully poetic experience.
Speaking of impressive single shots though, you can’t review The Passenger without mention of its final scene (or penultimate, if you include the one leading into the end credits). In a quietly bravura sequence that runs close to 7 minutes, the camera slowly drifts from Locke’s bedside to out of a barred window, before turning back on itself to reveal what’s happened back in the room. It’s an incredible sequence that will etch itself in your memory for long after the film.
One thing interesting in this scene on top of the camera trickery is the use of sound. Little is heard other than the world going on outside and this is true of much of the film. There is next to no non-diegetic music and not a lot of dialogue either, so the film is very quiet and lets the hum and buzz of the world act as the soundtrack. It’s a little disconcerting to begin with, but has a strange beauty in its ambience. I always find this minimal sound design much more involving and impressive than the barrage of noise we get in most mainstream films these days.
Overall, it’s a curiously enigmatic ‘anti-thriller’. Although Antonioni is not tremendously concerned with plot, the interesting set-up and loose chase keeps an otherwise rambling and philosophical film from getting dull. Masterfully directed and featuring a surprisingly understated performance from Nicholson, it’s a finely crafted film, even if it’s hard to nail down and probably too ponderous and slow for most.
The Passenger is being re-released on 19th March by Powerhouse Films on Blu-Ray as part of their Indicator label in the UK. The picture and audio are solid. The film has a heavy grain and the disc handles this well.
There are plenty of special features included:
- Original mono audio
- Alternative presentation with original Italian Professione: reporter titles and credits
- Audio commentary with actor Jack Nicholson (2006)
- Audio commentary with screenwriter Mark Peploe and journalist Aurora Irvine (2006)
- New audio commentary with film historian Adrian Martin (2018)
- Jenny Runacre on ‘The Passenger' (2018, 15 mins): new interview in which the South African-born English actor recalls the film’s production
- Steven Berkoff on ‘The Passenger’ (2018, 11 mins): new interview in which the actor-writer-director remembers working with Antonioni
- Profession Reporter (1975, 5 mins): Michelangelo Antonioni discusses The
Passenger in an archival interview conducted at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival
- Antonioni on Cinema (1975, 5 mins): the acclaimed filmmaker discusses The Passenger and his philosophy of cinema
- The Final Sequence (1985, 13 mins): Antonioni analyses The Passenger’s much-celebrated climactic sequence
- Original theatrical trailer
- Image gallery: on-set and promotional photography
- Limited edition exclusive 40-page booklet with a new essay by Amy Simmons, Antonioni’s production notes, archival interviews with Antonioni and Nicholson, and film credits
Indicator have pulled out all the stops as usual to produce the definitive package for the film. The three vintage featurettes with Antonioni are excellent. The two new interviews are worth a watch too. Berkoff’s runs for longer than his character is in the film I think! The three commentaries are the true selling point though I’d imagine. These are a little hit and miss, it must be said. Adrian Martin is great as always, he’s fast becoming one of my favourite film historian commentators as he always provides an extensive insight into the films and filmmakers he’s covering with little down time. The Peploe commentary is interesting too. The Nicholson track is most disappointing though. He doesn’t seem comfortable doing it and doesn’t know what to say for half the time so there’s a lot of dead air. I actually couldn’t get through the whole thing and gave up just over half way through. It’s the only sour note in an otherwise impressive selection of features though.
* Please excuse the stills used in this review - they were all I could find online and are not indicative of the picture quality of the Blu-ray.