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A journalist researching a documentary in the Sahara Desert meets a gunrunner who dies suddenly. When the journalist notices that they have a similar appearance, he assumes the recently deceased's identity and accepts the consequences that it brings. Written by
This is from a feature I wrote 30 years ago, when 30 myself, on The Passenger for a now defunct London film magazine (Films Illustrated) where readers could discuss/analyse/deconstruct favourite movies (before the age of video and DVD!). I am revisiting it now that The Passenger is available again after a 20 year disappearance. However as I am limited to 1,000 words I have had to edit
"The Passenger will remain a film of the mid '70s, as one of Antonioni's previous films, Blow-Up, remains a film for and symbolises the '60s. It also contains one of Jack Nicholson's definitive performances (along with Chinatown, The Last Detail and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) and has, perhaps, been a trifle overshadowed by these films all emerging within a short period of time of each other and the enormous publicity and word-of-mouth they have generated. But The Passenger has proved itself a strangely durable film and, like Chinatown, one that will remain around for a long time, both in the consciousness of its admirers and, one hopes, constant revivals.
Antonioni's third English-speaking film, The Passenger, like Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point, centres around the oblique, unresolved aspects of life. In Antonioni's films - as in life - there are no easy answers, things are not tidied up, explained, sorted out.
So it is with The Passenger. Jack Nicholson is Locke, an outwardly successful television journalist, but he also is being eaten away by his own disillusionment with the job and the value of his interviews, and that general malaise that affects Antonioni's people. When the film begins, we find him on location in Chad where his jeep breaks down and gets bogged in the sand. Locke breaks down and collapses on the sand as the camera pans away over the strange but beautiful desert panorama.
We next see Locke, in an advanced state of exhaustion, struggling back to his hotel and a cool shower, and discovering that the man in the next room, who looks rather like him, has died. We are very conscious of the stillness in the hotel - the blue walls, a fly buzzing, the noise of the fan, Locke staring intently at the dead man on the bed. We hear their dialogue of the previous evening and the aural flashback changes to a visual one by some very neat editing. Locke changes rooms, passport photos and luggage, and finds it quite easy to take on a new identity. How desperate his need is can be judged by his conversations back in Europe with the free, liberated girl (Maria Schneider) he meets up with. ("I used to be somebody else, but I traded him in"). She, incidentally, is freer than Locke could ever be.
It transpires Locke has taken over the identity of a gun-runner, Robertson. Perhaps it is best not to go into the plot in too much detail. Best all round just to pick out some of the marvellous moments along the way to the final breathtaking conceit. There's Locke, back in London, daringly visiting his old haunts - delighting in being someone else, but of course he isn't. Later on he is suspended in a cable car high about the ocean his arms outstretched like a bird in flight. Later still, the girl asks him what he is running from, and he tells her to turn around and we see what she sees - the road behind them.
By now, we the audience are caught up in this mesmerising film and its deliberations of he mysteries of identity. We are now totally involved in Locke's plight. He has given up one identity for another and becomes more and more helpless as the situation gets out of his control. Finally, in a remote Spanish hotel he can go no further, either as himself or as his new identity, as his wife and the gun-runners close in on him. One shouldn't spoil the last sequence for those still to see it, but it shows the only real freedom from identity and self is in death. The final scene shows us the aftermath: as the sun goes down, the hotel-keeper comes out for a walk, a woman sits in the doorway resting. For some people, who do not question their existence, the continuity of life goes on.
Antonioni, now in his sixties, is one of the great Italian directors who, like Fellini and Visconti, burst upon the international film scene in the late '50s. His trilogy of Italian films, L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse, and his first colour film The Red Desert (all with Monica Vitti) contributed to the renaissance of the European cinema. Then he switched to his English-speaking films, of which Blow-Up was the first. He is as much a master of landscape as John Ford was in his genre. He thinks nothing of painting whole streets or trees to get the effect he wants. Blow-Up is the only film from the whole, crazy period of Swinging London films that has not dated and which encapsulates what it was really all about. It remains one of the great films. Like Bergman, Bunuel or Fellini you either respond to his vision or reject it totally. His images linger on in the mind, his work never dates."
That is what part of what I wrote in 1976 and The Passenger indeed remains endlessly fascinating and particularly so now that it is available again. Even at the Antonioni retrospective in 2005 it was not available to include in the season, but we did have cast members Jenny Runacre and Steve Berkoff there to speak warmly of it's making and importance.
Let's hope a new generation will discover its timeless appeal, and amazingly Antonioni now in his 90s is still with us, if rather frail. A 2005 short of his was shown last year on the great statue of Moses in Rome and was also in its own way fascinatingly mysterious.
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