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Movie Review: The Passenger (Reissue)

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The average moviegoer won’t be seeing the reissue of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 existential flick The Passenger at any AMC theatre, but anyone who’s been paying attention to independent film theatres lately has probably noticed this fairly unknown film cropping up out of the woodwork. It’s certainly passed through most, if not all, of the smaller theatres in the Detroit area since Thanksgiving. But what is The Passenger? And who is this Michelangelo Antonioni person? Well, let me begin by saying that this reissue is a dream come true for anyone who enjoys Antonioni’s films, because if you haven’t seen this director’s stunning visuals on the big screen, you really ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The Passenger stars a young, post-Five Easy Pieces Jack Nicholson as journalist David Locke: a jaded, unsatisfied character looking for a means of escaping his problematic life. Luckily, David comes across a dead British man (with whom he shares a ballpark resemblance) in a desolate North African hotel room while filming a documentary about guerilla freedom fighters. David subsequently decides to swap passport pictures with the dead man and change his identity. He heads off to Europe, and after appearing at one of the dead man’s appointments, David comes to find out that he has switched identities with an armaments dealer. The movie turns into a road-trip around Europe as he continues to show up at these risky appointments. David also becomes romantically acquainted with a pretty “Girl” (Maria Schneider of Last Tango in Paris fame) whose intentions in this film are as vague as her identity. Things also get messy back at home after David’s “death,” and his ex-wife (Jenny Runacre), confused by the sudden loss, spends most of the movie sleuthing and seeking some sort of conclusion to this mysterious death. Essentially, David is on the run from his ex-wife, the authorities, counter-revolutionaries, and himself throughout the entire film.

This reviewer always enjoys a good road-trip movie, but The Passenger‘s mix of desert landscapes and European cityscapes (London, Munich, Barcelona) create a particularly appealing film experience. One of the most interesting visuals in the film occurs during the initial encounter between Nicholson and Schneider at the Palacio Guell in Barcelona. The building is very modern and impressive, which tends to distract one’s attention from the two main characters, but as in many of Antonioni’s films, sometimes the scenery has every right to upstage the actors. In The Passenger‘s case, the setting is as important as the narrative itself.

Which is just as well, because this film’s narrative isn’t always clear. Vagueness is, of course, a key necessity for Antonioni. Anyone who has sat through Blow-Up over and over again, but still doesn’t get what the mimes were really all about, can understand this director’s high degree of ambiguity. The Passenger is equally guilty of vagueness, but a lot of that may be attributed to the cuts Antonioni was coerced into making. This is a film that would probably benefit from multiple viewings, and it isn’t short of underlying meanings and out-there interpretations. But despite the evidently missing pieces, this reviewer finds the story and its conclusion to be very satisfying, probably more satisfying than Blow-Up. At times there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight, but the tension caused by the running and the fear of capture amounts up to an impressionable ending. It’s also nice to see a Jack Nicholson film in which he doesn’t freak out on something or someone for a change (okay, he does beat up a car after it gets stuck in a sand dune, but really, that’s it); in fact, his performance in The Passenger is evidence that in 1975, Nicholson was in his acting prime.

Having owned the rights to this film for many years, it’s a wonder why Nicholson hasn’t busted out a US DVD of this movie sooner – it may be some of his best work, certainly nothing to scoff at. But The Passenger is yet another sad example of a neglected film. The negative looks like it’s been sitting in a dusty film canister for the last twenty years, though it’s plain to see that this movie was once a site to behold. Nor is it so ultra-retro that it would scare off a modern audience. The Passenger deals with fairly timeless, albeit mildly despondent themes, and despite the excess of sideburns and bellbottoms, this is a film that contemporary audiences can identify with.

The DVD will be released in May 2006, but Antonioni’s semi-lost film is probably best viewed in the theatres first. This reviewer also recommends, for those of you who haven’t seen an Antonioni film yet, to start with this one; and if you’ve already experienced Antonioni with little enthusiasm, give The Passenger a go. The general consensus is that this might be one of his best films, and it’s quickly becoming one of his most accessible. So please, take advantage of this unique little flower of a film which the Hollywood machine has so generously bestowed upon us. And while you’re at it, why not write a nice thank-you card to Mr. Nicholson for letting us watch his movie.

Reviewed by Jessica Horvath

This review is also posted on The Modern Pea Pod.

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  • Clubhouse Cancer

    Not sure any film fans will really be unfamiliar with Antonioni or this much-lauded, famous film, but of course you’re right about its quality.
    This is the restored “European” version, including all of MA’s cuts, so any vagueness is Antonioni’s.
    The chance to see this ina movie theater was one of the thrills of last year. Anyone who cares about modern cinema should be familiar with this work.

  • srj5000

    What a well-crafted review! I’m curious to see this film now, though I’d never heard of Michelangelo Antonioni before today.