Antonioni's The Passenger: Dead End Journey

Leonard Quart

I’ve always loved the elusively intricate films of the Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni (e.g., L’Eclisse, Red Desert) and seen them countless times. In Antonioni’s words his films “are born in the same way that poetry is born for poets.” His films evolve, in his words, from “everything that we read, hear, think, and see.” And at a particular moment it all turns into concrete images, and then the images are shaped into stories.        

Antonioni’s stories are usually set in a landscape or site that he wants to explore (e.g., the island in L’Avventura, Milan in La Notte). And his characters’ emotional life is evoked through their reaction to the visual world—the image—rather than conveyed through dialogue or exposition. He has such great faith in the suggestiveness and power of the image that he rarely uses music in his films, though ambient sound of, for example, the wind in the desert or in the trees of a green park, and the cacophony of the stock exchange play a significant role in his work. And the images are constructed in such a way that they never project a simple message, but they usually observe and explore “the thoughts and feelings that motivate a man or woman in their march to happiness or death.”

Antonioni’s words about “the march” his characters are embarked on, aptly describes the subject of his brilliant and mysterious The Passenger.  It’s a film I saw when it opened in 1975, but then disappeared from view for the last 19 years. The reasons for it vanishing make for a complicated story. Antonioni brought the film in just under two-and-a-half hours, but it was still too long for its distributor MGM, which demanded a less than two hours version for the North American market, that excluded two crucial scenes. Consequently, Antonioni felt his film had been mutilated.

Despite Antonioni’s condemnation, the film’s star, Jack Nicholson, negotiated a purchase of The Passenger’s negative in 1983, so he could protect a film he loved from potential corporate malfeasance and exercise some control over its proper exhibition. He obtained global rights to all versions in 1986. Subsequently, Nicholson was unhappy with all suitors for both a theatrical and ensuing DVD release until discussions began with Sony Pictures Classics in early 2003, with a deal finalized in May 2004.

It’s now been finally released in the director’s preferred cut for a limited theatrical run. And should be seen by any filmgoer who wants something more than a high concept escape film or a placid, literate middlebrow work that makes few aesthetic or intellectual demands on the viewer. Antonioni is the type of director who makes films whose complexity can subvert the viewer’s expectations and disrupt their equanimity. And The Passenger is one film whose meaning is never underlined, and that cannot be reduced to a simple formula or bromide.

The Passenger
has a Hollywood star, Jack Nicholson, playing its protagonist. However, it's not the iconic, manic, bigger-than-life "Jack" (the ultimate American movie star), but an actor who is capable of losing himself in his dry, despairing, affectless character. Nicholson seamlessly turns himself into David Locke, a reporter doing research for a documentary film about a guerrilla war against an authoritarian dictator in the Chad desert, who is totally stymied in his work. In pursuit of the story he follows leads that go nowhere, and his jeep gets stuck in the desert-a metaphor for his being mired in a life without direction or pleasure.

By chance he gains the opportunity to change identities with an acquaintance that he resembles, David Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill), a solitary, poetic gunrunner committed to supplying arms to the rebels who has suddenly died. Locke who has an emotionally dead marriage, and whose life is weighed down by self-hate and a sense of profound aloneness—makes a sudden choice to literally bury his own self and adopt Robertson's life and identity without really knowing what the consequences or dangers that radical act may involve. (The film also seems to suggest that our identities are so undefined that we can drop our old one and assume another with little reflection.)

The Passenger
may at first look like a thriller-albeit one with long takes and little suspense. However, it's not the kind of film where we are primarily concerned if the guerrilla group's representatives, Locke's wife, or his producer-all of whom are on his trail— catch up with him. Antonioni has never been a director where plotting, and external action and tension are primary, though there are more of these elements in The Passenger than is his norm. His aim in The Passenger was to "reduce suspense to a minimum," leaving just a bit of a residue to possibly titillate the viewer. Though Antonioni’s films rarely trade on sensation to elicit audience attention.

Central to his films are the emotional states of his characters. And despite the detached Locke's involvement in making a documentary about a guerrilla war and interviewing a murderous dictator who executes the opposition while hiding behind bland, official rhetoric—the political conflict is peripheral to the film's main thrust. In fact, its volatility accentuates how remote and alienated a man Locke is.     

Antonioni is interested in politics "in his own way, and tries to highlight certain problems and contradictions." And his films place his characters in very specific social worlds that have an impact on them. But in none of his films (except Zabriskie Point) is he trying to make a direct social statement: "I am not a moralist, and my films are neither denunciations or sermons." 

The world can be unjust and Antonioni often implies that, but Locke is not a man who can become a politically committed gunrunner. That would be a different film, made by a director like Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers) or Oliver Stone. And the center of The Passenger is Locke’s existential journey, not the nature of the social and political world.

Consequently, what's most significant about The Passenger is its depiction of Locke's feelings of desolation. As is his wont, Antonioni never tries to define what the particular sources of Locke's despair are. We do know that his torment can't be reduced to some childhood trauma or as merely the result of a bad marriage. Locke's anguish is like most of Antonioni's protagonists existential in nature-a man or woman live in a changing world that makes human connection very difficult and whose inner self can't cope with the nature of the world. His characters are trapped in an emptiness that they feel is too powerful to escape. The feeling of insignificance just seems to palpably stick to their skin.

To illuminate what Locke is feeling it's sufficient for Locke to drift from one striking setting to another-from the luminous and forbidding African desert to London's Bloomsbury and a graceful Georgian Square, to Barcelona's Ramblas and Palaccio Guell, and then on to the orange groves of Southern Spain. Antonioni has always been interested in using stunningly composed landscapes, urbanscapes, and domestic interiors to express his characters' emotional and spiritual condition and the personal journeys they undertake. Here, Locke is seen in long shot wandering alone in the vast barrenness of the desert, the impoverished bleakness of the African town, and amidst the architectural, sculpted singularity of Gaudi's Barcelona Cathedral. None of these sites grant any solace or even elicit a genuine reaction from Locke-heightening Locke's sense of isolation and meaninglessness.

On the road Locke picks up a young, itinerant architecture student-a sweet, understated, somewhat difficult to decipher woman without a name (played in an uninflected monotone by Maria Schneider) who he gets pleasure having sex and spending time with. But she only offers a brief respite from a life that no new identity or woman can transform. Locke plaintively asking her to leave, "what are you doing with me?"  For Locke reality is either repellent or he's become blind to it, and death the only possible solution. By the film's conclusion his journey has ended where it began, in an austere hotel room at a dead end.

Antonioni's unique style works beautifully in The Passenger. The dream-like long takes, especially the final seven minute one where the dusty town square is seen through the barred window of Locke's hotel room—evokes a world that he is barred from. There is nothing romantic or sentimental about the space that we see, but it conveys a sense of an ongoing life that Locke has chosen to retreat from. There is also Antonioni's eye for aesthetic detail-for whitewashed walls of buildings, and vividly colored backgrounds like yellow doors and red car seats. He is a director of great formal rigor and beauty, whose style effortlessly suits his vision. The slow rhythm of the film may put off some viewers, but it forces them to be more observant, and understand there is nothing accidental in the images that Antonioni constructs.

I have provided one way of seeing The Passenger, but I know it is a film that repeated screenings would reveal other dimensions and possible ways of seeing. It's far too rich and resonant a film to be understood too quickly.