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The Passenger

A Flawed "Classic" of European Art Cinema

Currently unavailable on DVD, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film, The Passenger (a/k/a Professione: Reporter), a suspense thriller (minus the suspense or the thrills), gets a theatrical re-release to commemorate its 30th anniversary, as well as to solidify its status as a "classic" of European art cinema. On The Passenger's original release, many film critics saw (and probably still see) Antonioni's film as pretentious, self-indulgent, and shallow.

Cineastes found much to admire, if not necessarily enjoy, in Antonioni's oblique, elliptical filmmaking style. Others see his ennui-soaked, existential dramas centered on bourgeois characters as specific products of their time, place, and culture, and of little relevance to contemporary audiences. The re-release of The Passenger isn't likely to change minds on either side of the divide.

David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a successful reporter for the BBC (Antonioni gets around Nicholson's American accent by having a character later in the film note that Locke was educated in the United States), is on assignment, somewhere in an unnamed Northern African country, run by an authoritarian government. Locke drives through sun-parched, dusty towns in an effort to interview the armed guerillas fighting against the government. He fails, driving his Land Rover into a sand drift, which forces him to walk back to his hotel on foot.

At the hotel, Locke wanders into the room of another guest, Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), a world-weary businessman, whom he discovers dead. As Locke shares a final moment with Robertson's body (a surprisingly intimate moment in a cold, distant film), an idea begins to form in his head. Locke, following certain ideas postulated by his namesake, John Locke, a British philosopher who famously suggested that human beings are blank slates at birth, ready to be molded by their respective environments, decides to erase his former life, and assume Robertson's.

Switching passports and somehow managing to convince everyone he meets that he's actually Robertson, Locke begins to piece together Robertson's business dealings with the help of an appointment book. The book sends Locke first to Munich, where two men approach him for a promised business meeting (apparently neither one of them has met Robertson before nor do they know what he looks like). In Munich, Locke discovers Robertson's illicit profession, but decides to carry on, next driving to Barcelona, but he next appointment results in a dead end. He meets a young woman (Maria Schneider), an architectural student, on a tour of an Antonin Gaudi building. Equally directionless, the young woman decides to join Locke on his peregrinations.

Back in England, Locke's wife, Rachel (Jenny Runacre), meets with Locke's producer, Martin Knight (Ian Hendry). Knight, it seems, wants to create a video segment exploring Locke's work. To that end, Knight discovers that someone named Robertson was the last person to see Locke alive. Meanwhile, Locke's belongings arrive from Africa, and Rachel discovers a clue that Robertson may not be who he says he is. Martin and Rachel, separately and together, attempt to contact Locke in Spain. Locke, for his part, continues the charade, unaware that two other men are also interested in finding Robertson's whereabouts.

Working from a loosely structured screenplay written with Mark Peploe (The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor), and Peter Wollen (a film scholar and filmmaker), Antonioni employs dramatic devices and stylistic elements that, for better or worse, have come to be associated with European art cinema, including nominal contextual or visual cues, elliptical storytelling (The Passenger opens in the present tense, then flashes back to reveal significant information about Locke, his assignment in Africa, and his relationship with Robertson), minimal character motivation, and a shooting style that places a premium on tracking or static shots over editing, and replaces close-ups or shot/reverse shots with medium or long shots for dialogue scenes. In the oft celebrated final scene, Antonioni uses a continuous, seven-minute take to cross a hotel room, slide through an iron grating into a dusty courtyard, and finally swing back toward the hotel room, simultaneously offering key information and suppressing a key turning plot turn.

Contemporary viewers unfamiliar with Antonioni's work, however, will likely find The Passenger difficult, even dull, viewing. With little context for Locke or his decision to switch identities (presumably meant to universalize his predicament), and an anti-dramatic approach to the storyline, viewers will be left as emotionally disconnected from the on screen characters as the characters are, presumably, from themselves. There's a theme or message there, of course, but critics are more than likely to suggest that Antonioni has taken himself and his ideas far too seriously, carrying the idea of suffering for art not just for himself or his characters, but to viewers as well.

Ultimately, The Passenger makes for a compelling film going experience, even if only as a time capsule of a certain type of filmmaking style and approach or as part of Antonioni and Nicholson's respective oeuvres.' Other viewers interested in Antonioni's career should begin more or less chronologically, with 1957's Il Grido and L'Avventura three years later.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars