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Noir of Contrasting Cultures Told Brilliantly Visually in Blinding Light
"The Passenger (Professione: reporter)" is a tour de force of visual story telling. While there is more dialog and the plot makes more sense than many other Michelangelo Antonioni films, it first and foremost uses film-making as a medium to tell its story.
The camera is always our eye, taking in sweeping panoramas of the North African desert to an architectural tour of European churches and an appreciation of the variegated urban and rural landscapes of Moorish Spain, still showing relics of older invasions, where it all comes together as we literally go from dust to dust. We are the passengers on this existential trip to try and change identities through someone else's travels logging almost as many locations as an outlandish Bond film .
Because so much of the film is dispassionately observational about natural landscape and cityscape, and windswept plazas that provide imitations of nature within a city, it stands up through time, even as the 1975 clothes, hair, TV journalist technology, and, somewhat, male/female relationships, look a bit dated and we can no longer assume that African guerrilla fighters and gun dealers helping them are more noble than the corrupt inheritors of colonialism.
The camera is constantly picking out culture contrasts - camels vs. jeeps, horse-drawn carriages blocking Munich traffic, Gaudi's serpentine architecture vs. Barcelona's modern skyline, a cable car gliding over a shimmering body of water.
And, of course, the very American Jack Nicholson in a very European film, with the many layers of meaning as he plays an adventurous broadcast reporter who ironically tries to escape the truth about himself. His young, sexy, challenging self is surprisingly effective here as we believe both his ethical lapses and his obsession.
Avoiding the narration that a film today would utilize, Antonioni well takes advantage of what now looks fairly primitive tapings of the reporter's past and current interviews to convey background and flashbacks on characters through minimal explication with overlapping sound and gliding visuals. The intertwined story lines constantly re-emphasize the point of not really knowing a person or a culture from the outside, with a repeated refrain of "What do you see?".
Maria Schneider's character skirts just this side of a male fantasy cliché, though Antonioni helped to create the type, and a few subtle plot points save her from total disingenuous sex kitten femme fatale (even as her character shrugs that one plot point is "unlikely"). Nicholson's repeated refrain to her of "What the f* are you doing with me?" takes on different meanings as we know more.
I'm not sure if this 2005 re-release of the director's cut, with supposedly nine minutes that were not in the original U.S. release, is notably pristine, as it wasn't particularly sharp, but the director's trademark crystalline blue sky is still breathtaking and is a must-see in a full screen rather than on DVD. The views practically feel like the old Cinemascope.
A climactic landscape shot brings all the violent, sensual, philosophical and narrative plot and thematic points together in a marvelous way that has been much imitated but is still powerful, as the camera looks out a window at a cool distance in the heat, key events culminate back and forth frantically in front of the camera, in and out of frame, and the camera moves through the bars and is free to roam in ever more close-ups.
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