Thank goodness for anniversaries. These days, weighed down as we are with behemoth multiplexes that only show first-run releases, conspicuous anniversaries seem to be the only time repertory and classic cinema comes back to the big screen. So, 30 years after it first arrived in theaters, Michelangelo Antonioni’s minor neorealist masterpiece The Passenger (1975) is enjoying a limited re-release in preparation for a long overdue pressing onto DVD slated for early next year.
The version you’ll see in the theater is nearly 10 minutes longer than the sad VHS tape I rented at Blockbuster Video nearly 10 years ago. Evidently star Jack Nicholson bought the rights to the movie soon after it came out and, for whatever reason, has only recently decided to let it be shown commercially and in its uncut form. At long last, he’s doing us all quite a favor.
This re-release is particularly welcome considering that Antonioni, once a big name in Italian cinema, considered as seminal as de Sica and Fellini, seems sadly to have reached the end of his meaningful creative output. (His contribution to last year’s uniformly unwatchable big-shot director showcase Eros was, well, unwatchable.) Best known for the mod surrealist spy thriller Blow Up (1966) and hippy travelogue Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni chose for The Passenger to synthesize those films’ political intrigue and road narrative elements with the more formal and inscrutable mood of his earlier Italian-language works, namely l’Eclisse (1962) and L’Avventura (1960). In The Passenger, Antonioni wonks will see hints of Blow Up and L’Avventura particularly.
The resemblance of Passenger‘s vaguely antiheroic protagonist David Locke (Nicholson) to the reprobate fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemming) in Blow Up is hard to miss, as is both films’ reliance on mystery-thriller tropes and tricks. But in The Passenger‘s case, the political potboiler stuff—centering around a guerrilla war in an unnamed African country—is more of an ancillary matter than in Blow Up, a backdrop for Locke’s development as a character.
Antonioni habitually plays with formal cinematic composition rather than letting Locke unspool in the context of conventional narrative. L’Avventura begins with a quest for a missing woman but ends up distracted by the various relationships that bloom among the search party. The Passenger‘s original premise—Locke capriciously adopts the identity of an arms dealer named Robinson (Charles Mulvehill) after the latter dies of a heart attack, and then must flee various parties interested in seeing said arms dealer imprisoned or dead—evaporates as the movie becomes more concerned with Locke and his unnamed companion (Maria Schneider), both of whom undergo a kind of spiritual rebirth as they travel through the Spanish countryside.
The movie begins in the middle of the story, Antonioni nodding to his neorealist roots with a lengthy and virtually wordless sequence as Locke tools around the Sahara desert in his Land Rover. These first few minutes establish Locke outside any perceived name, role, or profession. He is introduced as a decontextualized locus of identification, a human being in the process of existing rather than any particular person engaged in any particular struggle. The desert around him is plainly the desert of existential literature, like the sandy void of The Sheltering Sky, which absorbs all feeble human efforts at comprehending it; or the desert cave of A Passage to India, which echoes all spoken language with only a hollow, meaningless “boum.” After Locke’s Land Rover gets stuck in a sand dune, he screams his indifference skyward in a fit of pique and the camera slowly drifts away from him, forgetting him in favor of the rolling desert, the endless, copper horizon.
We only learn Locke’s identity 10 minutes in, after he wanders back to his run-down hotel and discovers Robinson has died. At last it’s divulged—through tapes Locke made of conversations he had with Robinson—that Locke is a reporter and Robinson a “businessman.” Locke exchanges the picture on his passport with Robinson’s and takes his effects (in particular, his appointment book). Following a stopover at his old house in London, where he wanders ghostlike through the remnants of his previous life, Locke goes to a safe deposit box in Munich where Robinson has stashed paperwork pertaining to an upcoming arms deal with a rebel group, the United Liberation Front. Locke strikes up a Bonnie-and-Clydeish relationship with Schneider’s character in Barcelona.
The rest of the movie is given to the couple’s aimless drive through the Spanish countryside as they initially try to keep Robinson’s appointments and then, merely hope to stay ahead of the Spanish authorities. As Locke and companion motor down the highway through the flat and featureless Spanish countryside, it emerges that the desert is what matters here. Increasingly, Antonioni wanders away from Nicholson and Schneider, abandoning formal narrative at key moments in favor of letting the camera drift. At first, it seems to track their gaze over arid landscapes or, when they stay a night at a beach resort, the hazy horizon of the sea. But because these cinematographic digressions linger overlong, they become moments outside story. Either they’re meant to evoke Locke’s spirit as it becomes dislocated from his body, or they signal a kind of objective reality, a noumenal realm outside fixed human perception.
They’re moments of quite sad beauty, these camera excursions, the movie’s penultimate shot most of all—a famous eight-minute take in which the camera leaves Locke resting on a bed in his hotel room, floats out the hotel window and then, after executing a graceful arch over a courtyard where it seems indifferent to the government agents pulling up in their Peugeot—turns back around from the other side of the window to capture Locke, now lifeless on the hotel bed. This unique sequence has an effect in the theater that the small screen does a rather sorry job of preserving, so it’s worth taking advantage of this rare theatrical re-release.